Happy 45th Anniversary to Stevie Wonder’s seventeenth studio album Fulfillingness’ First Finale, originally released July 22, 1974.
Stevie Wonder’s seventeenth studio album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, was released in the middle of his most prolific and commercially successful period in his career. In 1972, he negotiated a deal with Motown which allowed him to have complete and total autonomy over his records. He was also cranking out albums yearly, playing nearly every instrument on each.
In 1973, Wonder was ever-present, even making an appearance on Sesame Street. At this point in his career, it was a forgone conclusion every year that Wonder would walk away from the GRAMMYs with an armful of trophies, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale snatched four awards. Wonder’s previous three albums (1972’s Music of My Mind, 1972’s Talking Book and 1973’s Innervisions) were filled with brilliant and biting social commentary that covered everything from President Nixon to racial discrimination. Innervisions’ “Higher Ground” is a song about reincarnation and Wonder would later consider it a foreshadowing of what was about to happen in his life.
While on tour in the summer of 1973, Wonder was on his way to do a radio interview when he was involved in a serious car accident which left him with severe head injuries and in a coma for four days. When Wonder regained consciousness, he barely remembered any details of the accident and temporarily lost his sense of smell and taste. Wonder remarked to the New York Times, “I would like to believe in reincarnation. I would like to believe that there is another life. I think that sometimes your consciousness can happen on this earth a second time around. For me, I wrote ‘Higher Ground’ even before the accident. But something must have been telling me that something was going to happen to make me aware of a lot of things and to get myself together. This is like my second chance for life, to do something or to do more, and to value the fact that I am alive.”
Wonder walked away from the accident with a renewed sense of purpose and was more prolific than he ever was. Because of the vast amount of songs he wrote for Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Wonder envisioned it being a double LP, which did not make Motown happy. It would be one of the few occasions after 1972 that the label would push back against one of Wonder’s ideas. He loved the additional songs he wrote for the album and in November of 1974, he said to Melody Maker, “I wish you could hear the other part of the album. It’s so much better.”
Wonder flirted with the idea of a Fulfillingness’ First Finale Vol. 2 to be released as his next album in 1975. He further explained the need to rush the album’s release to Melody Maker, stating, ”Otherwise, it’s gonna have to wait almost another year – and I’m gonna want to be doing some other stuff by then.” Wonder finally got the chance to release a double LP with his next album Songs in the Key of Life in 1976.
As a result of the accident, Wonder’s approach to Fulfillingness’ First Finale was vastly different. The songs he wrote were for the most part gentler and placed an emphasis on relationships, whether it be with another person or a higher being. The album’s opening track “Smile Please” sets the tone for what could be considered the closing of a chapter of Wonder’s career and the beginning of a new one. The themes explored on Fulfillingness’ First Finale would be explored in much greater detail on subsequent releases. While the message of “Smile Please” is fairly easy to figure out, it is delivered with an ease and beauty that is a hallmark of Wonder’s songwriting, as evidenced in lines like, “A smiling face is an Earth-like star / A frown can’t bring out the beauty that you are / Love within, and you’ll begin smiling / There are brighter days ahead / Don’t mess your face up with bitter tears / ‘Cause life is gonna be what it is / It’s okay, please don’t delay from smiling / There are brighter days ahead.” Helping him guide us on this journey on background vocals is the then fairly unknown Deniece Williams.
“Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” is a gorgeous and spiritual meditation on the existence of God and what role it plays in our lives. He doesn’t choose a religion, but makes us think about the existence or the concept of a higher power without the preachiness and the bombast with which this kind of message is usually delivered (“They say that heaven is 10 zillion light years away / And just the pure at heart will walk her righteous / streets someday / They say that heaven is 10 zillion light years away / But if there is a God, we need Him now / ‘where is your God?’ / That’s what my friends ask me / And I say it’s taken Him so long / ‘Cause we’ve got so far to come”). Being an atheist myself, I go to this song very often when I feel I need some spiritual grounding. "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” also features the powerful background vocals of Syreeta Wright, Shirley Brewer, Larry “Nastyee” Latimer and Paul Anka. Yes, that Paul Anka.
Another highlight from the album is “Creepin’”, a tale of missing a lost love. The late Minnie Riperton provides the background vocal that makes this song a classic that has been covered by many, most famously Luther Vandross.
The very dark and somber “They Won’t Go When I Go” is in a category all its own. Having survived the horrific car accident, it should not be a surprise that a song such as this one would appear on this album. “They Won’t Go When I Go” is reminiscent of a funeral march. In James E. Perrone’s book The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words and Music, the author suggests that the song is similar to the works of Beethoven and Chopin. Another element that makes “They Won’t Go When I Go” work is the multitracked background vocals of Wonder himself.
There are departures from the solemn tone of the album like “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and the anti-Nixon song “You Haven’t Done Nothing,” which features the Jackson 5 acting as somewhat of an amen chorus for Wonder. With defiant declarations like “We are sick and tired of hearing your song / Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong / ‘Cause if you really want to hear our views / you haven’t done nothing," it was his strongest rebuke of Nixon, who coincidentally resigned from office two days after the song was released as a single.
Even though Fulfillingness’ First Finale is a slight departure from Wonder’s previous work, it serves as an excellent bridge to what many consider to be his finest work, Songs in the Key of Life. The most amazing fact about Stevie Wonder is that these phases of his career all happened before he reached the age of 30.