Basic Album: Stevie Marvel – Hotter Than July15 min read

Stevie Wonder album cover Hotter Than July

The primary Stevie Marvel album of the 80s was a back-to-basics return to kind. A good assortment through which The Motown legend performs it secure together with his trademark funky soulful pop however delivers a punch by means of ardent political activism. Phrases Felix Rowe

“I hear music in colors.” So as soon as sang a sure Basic Pop favorite (that’s Stephen Duffy, by the best way). It’s an evocative notion that conjures up wealthy imagery within the thoughts’s eye; a feast for the senses whereby sounds are expressed in a vibrant palette of hues. But when the thought may very well be stated to embody any musician, then first in line should absolutely be Stevie Marvel.

Uncooked Emotion

For somebody who has been with out sight since infancy, Stevie Marvel not solely hears music in colors, he sees – and paints – colors by means of music. Hotter Than July is the proper embodiment of that. Identical to the album cowl itself that glows in sun-dappled fervour, the music inside is positively bursting with color. The form of heat, inviting, fully-saturated tones that immediately emit the feelgood issue. It radiates vitality in that completely distinctive and refreshing method that solely Stevie is aware of how.

From the opening howl of uncooked emotion to its concluding rallying cry, Hotter Than July is a celebration of vitality, expressed with unbridled pleasure and Marvel’s instinctive musicality. However beneath the file’s exterior, there’s a second layer that throbs with deep-rooted politics and social activism. Once more, this duality is mirrored within the packaging: flipping the duvet picture of Stevie in sweating ecstasy will reveal a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr on the internal sleeve, flanked by images portraying (white) police brutality in opposition to Black civilians and peaceable protesters. This stark imagery is accompanied by a dedication calling for King’s birthday to be formally recognised as a nationwide vacation, whereas looking for an finish to “bitter confrontation and inevitable bloodshed.”

To the uninitiated, the ever present Pleased Birthday – with its sugar-rush nursery-rhyme refrain – may very well be dismissed as a barely anodyne, corny-but-harmless soundbite, custom-made for singing birthday playing cards.

Silky Supply

In reality, it’s a deeply political name to motion to counter social injustice and inequality. Like Born In The USA a number of years later, the buoyant singalong refrain obscures the harder-hitting message of the verse. Marvel’s silky supply may be too sickly candy for some tastes. However, to ensure its impact, he’s canny sufficient to sugar-coat the tablet to verify it’s swallowed.

Elsewhere Money In Your Face tackles the injustices of racial discrimination through a few of Stevie’s most direct lyrics – pitched as a dialog through which a Black man is turned down for a tenancy primarily based on the color of his pores and skin, no matter his ample funds or ‘respectable’ job. In the meantime, Marvel’s Bob Marley tribute Grasp Blaster (Jammin’) touches on race politics, noting that “the world’s filled with issues” whereas referencing the latest conflict in Zimbabwe. In the end, although – and that is attribute all through – the underlying message stays constructive and celebratory.

Feeling Scorching

The warmth metaphor of the album’s title and art work, then, takes on a number of meanings. Whereas it was launched after a very scorching summer season, the rising temperate displays the temper of the nation. It’s a political warmth – the sense of rigidity effervescent up, stress reaching boiling level, able to explode. This immediacy presents a stark distinction to the meandering, bucolic nature of its predecessor, Journey By The Secret Life Of Vegetation.

All through the 70s, Stevie loved an exceptional run of basic cuts working with TONTO’s Increasing Head Band, from Music Of My Thoughts by means of to Songs In The Key Of Life. Every launch pushed him artistically, whereas reaping rewards critically and commercially. However a decade that ought to have culminated in celebration ended on a considerably damp notice.

Again To Enterprise

While 1979’s Journey By The Secret Life Of Vegetation didn’t precisely tank, nor was it acquired with the common adulation Marvel had grow to be accustomed to. On condition that it was a soundtrack to accompany a TV documentary, largely comprising instrumentals, perhaps that shouldn’t have come as a shock.

It appears just a little unfair to label his subsequent album a ‘comeback’, however there’s actually a sense of getting again to enterprise on Hotter Than July. At 10 songs, it’s succinct and centered, with not a meandering instrumental in sight. Stevie sticks to the script and retains to the purpose, condensing every monitor right down to the good things. It’s even sequenced like a mixtape, one monitor usually switching straight into the subsequent with barely a second to catch your breath.

Stevie In Wonderland

Marvel had lately purchased his personal studio – an out of date radio studio, at one time favoured by Nat King Cole. By now, it was an empty shell, stripped of all its gear. All that remained was its unbelievable acoustics and a lingering sense of Cole’s aura. The absence of a management room and gear was solved by renting a cell recording truck (of the kind used to doc stay live shows) and backing it up into the car parking zone. However this was no peculiar truck. Stevie’s steadfast dedication to pushing the envelope gave him entry to Sony’s trailblazing digital expertise. A jumbled mass of cables was uncoiled from the truck into the efficiency room and voilà: a totally functioning recording studio. All it wanted now was a reputation: ‘Wonderland’.

Studio technician, Lon Neumann, got here with the truck. Chatting with Okayplayer in 2020, Neumann remembers these unbelievable classes working “elbow-to-elbow” with Marvel in that cosy area. The everyday workflow concerned the core band laying down the inspiration of a monitor, earlier than Stevie went again to tinker with elements and overdubs, phrase by phrase, to attain the full perfection he demanded. The band’s musicality was significantly evident in bassist and de facto bandleader, Nathan Watts, who was in good sync with Marvel. Company included a cripplingly shy Michael Jackson, dropping in flanked by his private bodyguard, to file backing vocals amongst a number of different Motown and soul alumni. As for Stevie himself, Lon describes being acutely conscious that he was within the presence of a genius.

Genius Thoughts

In keeping with Neumann, one intriguing offshoot of Marvel’s blindness is that his physique clock is just not calibrated to nighttime and day like everybody else. He would work at any hour and count on his group to be prepared when inspiration struck. Invariably, this meant a 3am summons through pager… solely to then be saved ready. When Stevie wasn’t committing his genius to tape, he was always glued to his particular Braille-equipped cellphone, engaged in a number of calls directly to the good and the nice – presumably, simply calling to say he beloved them.

Marvel’s array of kit included a status Bösendorfer grand piano that might set one again the worth of a cushty home, famed for possessing a number of additional keys past the usual 88-note keyboard. As a result of, you already know, Stevie simply wants that little additional.

Neumann remembers L.A.’s go-to piano tuner being known as in, to make the tone brighter for a specific vibe Marvel was after. The piano tuner used his tried-and-tested hack: coating lacquer onto the hammers that strike the piano’s strings so as to add that particular ‘zing’. Nevertheless, when he employed a heat-shrinking gun to assist the lacquer dry just a little faster, the extremely flammable concoction swiftly combusted, setting Stevie’s treasured instrument ablaze. Literal proof that Marvel’s keyboard is certainly smoking sizzling.

Funky R&B-Soul Hybrid

As to the sound they cast, it’s harking again slightly than pushing forwards. Musically, Hotter Than July is essentially rooted within the funky R&B-soul hybrid that Stevie perfected within the 70s: an natural, pure, groovy sound, performed by residing beings and bursting with humanity. That is Marvel completely cruising on acquainted floor and well-travelled roads. Not coasting on auto-pilot, however snug and in whole management.

The one style outlier is the incredible single, I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It, through which Stevie does a bizarre-but-fun, gravelly nation singer impression, supported by famend nation guitarist Hank DeVito on metal guitar. But even this will’t maintain again the funk by the point it will get to the refrain.

Whereas the game-changing TR-808 and Linn LM-1 drum machines had been each launched on this yr, neither of them makes a lot of an look on Hotter Than July except for the latter presumably that includes on Pleased Birthday.

Recent Sound

Although Marvel was actually enjoying with them in his inventive course of (as an impromptu efficiency at Abbey Highway for Newsnight highlighted), they had been extra writing aides versus type selections utilised for his or her inflexible mechanical aesthetic.

To a point, Hotter Than July marks the top of Marvel’s reign as an R&B innovator. A burgeoning breed of glossy, taut, future-funk was starting to discover recent floor – clearly indebted to Stevie’s improvements, but additionally taking cues from different sources: the rising synth-pop, digital dance music and New Wave. Michael Jackson and Prince would quickly launch landmark albums that formed the subsequent decade, and certainly the very way forward for pop.

For the primary time, Marvel was starting to sound just a little out of step with the present cool youngsters. His largest hit was but to come back (1984’s saccharine worldwide No.1, I Simply Referred to as To Say I Love You), however by that time he was the established veteran enjoying it secure, not the younger maverick innovator he as soon as was.

Black Lives Matter

Hotter Than July is probably, then, the final nice Stevie album. Whereas it sits proud beside his most interesting information of his 70s candy spot, it doesn’t fairly match their imaginative and prescient or breadth of scope. But it surely excels in its sheer zest for all times. Chatting with Jazzwise in 2019, bassist Avishai Cohen chosen Hotter Than July as his life-changing album, summing it up as “one massive chunk of happiness”. It’s simply pure pleasure. A funk exercise of the very best calibre, displaying unbelievable dexterity and an immensely satisfying expertise for the ears.

Hotter Than July doesn’t break new floor for Marvel, but it surely celebrates the territory already onerous fought and gained. If it’s not massively radical by his personal nice requirements, it’s (simply) incredible pop music, meticulously crafted. Nevertheless, the true energy of Hotter Than July is the impassioned political message nestled inside its jubilant grooves. The decision for racial equality stays extraordinarily prescient immediately in context of Black Lives Matter and ongoing debates over illustration and police brutality in the USA. Stevie’s type of activism centres on peaceable progress, discovering widespread floor and causes to have fun.

No shock then that the album lends its identify to a Detroit-based pageant celebrating the Black LGBT neighborhood. Hotter Than July’s ultimate monitor, Pleased Birthday proves that – simply typically – a pop tune actually can transcend its kind and work wonders.

Learn Extra: Prime 40 Stevie Marvel songs – yr by yr



Hotter Than July opens with a swooshing crescendo, the build-up of warmth and stress, earlier than Marvel releases the strain straight away with a screaming “Yow!” And so the funky onslaught begins. He’s straight into enterprise with an incessantly groovy exercise from the rhythm part, with syncopated horn stabs. On the peak of its depth and momentum, it ends abruptly like a radio altering channel into the subsequent monitor.


The origins of this monitor go method again to 1966, when a younger Stevie co-wrote it with Motown’s Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax. This explicit incarnation is the kind of fabulously funky sluggish jam with woozy chords and retro-future bass synths that’s discovered favour with Thundercat and Infantile Gambino in recent times. All I Do is severely funky in an understated method, enhanced by refined and shimmering flutes that flutter gently, virtually hidden within the combine. Just like the opener, it steadily builds in depth. Pay attention carefully, you would possibly simply hear Michael Jackson performing backing vocals.


One other sluggish jam; extraordinarily sparse with oodles of area in its minimalist association, as Marvel sings sweetly in ad-libbed “doo doo”s. A barely sinister temper is evoked by the chromatic riff that has grow to be a signature in 007 film scores (and what a incredible different Bond theme this is able to have made). Rocket Love options an intricate and impressed string association from Funk Brother, Paul Riser, that provides to the grandiose environment, alongside fingerpicked acoustic guitars. From understated beginnings, it ramps as much as a rousing, screaming vocal from Stevie, exorcising his soul demons. It’s the form of soulful ballad that John Legend has made his bread and butter.


One thing so completely totally different and initially jarring that many listeners might have completed a double-take simply to make certain a random Johnny Money monitor hasn’t snuck its method onto the playlist. I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It kicks off with strummed acoustic guitar chords and a most un-Marvel-like vocal – low, raspy and growling like a spit-n-sawdust bar-stool bawler. Is that actually Stevie? He’s having enjoyable with a rustic tune pastiche with its slide guitar and curiously straight drive-time drums, earlier than it will get again to extra acquainted floor with the funky Superstition-esque clavinet within the refrain, that includes backing vocals from The Hole Band. There’s some severely funky slap bass from Nathan Watts within the outro coda over duelling guitars and Marvel wailing, earlier than once more ending abruptly like a colossal freight practice coming to an immediate cease. Eric Clapton did a trustworthy cowl on his 2001 album, Reptile.


A jittery piano intro, very busy, virtually calypso or bossa nova-like in its frantic rhythm and the primary and solely monitor on the file to showcase Marvel’s signature harmonica. It’s one of many busiest preparations on the album, very funky and catchy, although leaving little area for the ear to relaxation. As If You Learn My Thoughts has a notable acid jazz really feel – laying a transparent pathway for 90s UK teams like Model New Heavies and Jamiroquai.


After the funk onslaught of the earlier monitor, Grasp Blaster is a breath of recent air. Stevie’s largest hit off the LP is an ode to Bob Marley, with whom he had lately toured, and who’s each namechecked within the tune and referenced within the title. The album itself takes its identify from the opening strains, once more a reference to a Marley live performance on a scorching day. Whereas the affect and dedication is laid naked, it’s nonetheless completely and unmistakably Stevie Marvel. Stateside, it topped the R&B charts for seven weeks and made the Prime 5 of the Billboard Scorching 100. It hit the highest spot in New Zealand and simply missed it within the UK, at No.2.


One of many extra forward-looking tracks, opening with samples of youngsters talking, earlier than jittery synths are available in over a cool beat, enhanced with frenetic cowbell percussion. The funky syncopated brass all through remembers that of Sir Duke, whereas the samples of speech, coupled with the best way the monitor snaps and pops, inject a recent, feelgood vibe.


A relatively slower monitor, very cool and loaded with avenue swagger. It comprises a number of the album’s most direct and upfront lyrics about social injustice, delivered through a uncooked however soulful Stevie vocal. It’s all the higher for hanging again just a little, and its inherent strut offers it the distinct vibe of early hip-hop. All it wants now’s De La Soul to pop in for a visitor verse, and if it hasn’t been sampled by them already, then it jolly properly needs to be.


A Marvel ballad at its best possible, Recently is distinctly totally different to the whole lot that precedes it, so easy and efficient in its stripped-back kind: simply Stevie, piano, a fretless bass and a few easy overdubs. It’s the form of melodic melodrama that’s custom-built for X-Issue auditions and its slow-motion montages. However in Marvel’s fingers it’s pure bliss. A up to date TV efficiency across the launch highlights his present for expressing the tune’s emotion, simply the proper facet of sappy. It’s directly life-affirming and devastating. It loved a second lease of life within the 90s, when R&B group Jodeci carried out a storming model on MTV Unplugged. It went on to grow to be one among their signature tunes, scoring an R&B No.1, and charting notably increased than Stevie’s unique within the US.


The one monitor to noticeably use programmed drums (what seems like a Linn LM-1), and that includes a barely tinnier pop sound in comparison with the remainder of the file. Curiously, contemplating its significance in US historical past and subsequent inception into Stevie’s canon, it wasn’t launched as a single within the States. Nevertheless, within the UK it was one among his biggest-selling hits, like Grasp Blaster (Jammin’) simply lacking out on the highest spot (saved at bay by Michael Jackson together with his first UK solo No.1, One Day In Your Life).

Although musically, it’s the weakest and least fascinating monitor on the album, it’s doubtless probably the most culturally vital. It set out with a particular aim – to get Martin Luther King’s birthday formally recognised as a nationwide vacation – and it achieved it. Pleased Birthday has itself grow to be a nationwide establishment within the US. Notably amongst some Black communities, it has usurped the standard tune to grow to be the definitive birthday celebration, integral because the cake.

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