Aug 09

STEVIE WONDER – “I Just Called To Say I Love You”

FT + Popular84 comments • 5,459 views

#538, 8th September 1984, video

Bad songs earn bad reputations, but the particular disdain this one attracts is tangled up with people’s love for its creator. Everyone’s entitled a clunker sometimes but it’s galling when one becomes a great artist’s most popular song. At the back of our minds we all know that if Stevie Wonder was to go under a bus tomorrow it wouldn’t be “Living For The City” that racked up the RIP downloads.

Not that Wonder’s ever shown a hint of embarrassment, and why should he? “I Just Called To Say I Love You” hasn’t just made him an awful lot of money, it’s a fine idea for a song. The basic notion – don’t need a special occasion to tell you I love you – is sentimental but no more so than most other love songs: it’s the kind of thing you could imagine making a lovely little doo-wop record, and maybe that simplicity is what Wonder was going for. Then the conceit used to get this across – list all the days this one isn’t – has a charm too: it’s the “don’t know much about history…” structure.

But that’s where things start to go wrong. Once you’ve gone down that route you’re path-dependent – the song can’t vary from its conceit. And anyone listening ‘gets’ the conceit after a single verse, so the song starts to implode after a minute or so. So end it – but pop songs need to be more than a minute long. “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is bad because Stevie Wonder is trapped by his own good idea. You might even detect a desperation in the key changes as he looks for a way to get some life into the song. Too late – and by this time even Wonder’s typically lovely singing is starting to feel like mockery. Yes, he could make a hallmark card sound tender – such a shame he had to.



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  1. 51
    TomLane on 22 Aug 2009 #

    It’s the most critically panned Stevie #1, yet it has its fans. So simple in lyrics and music that you wait for something special. Like you do with all of Stevie’s songs. But I never hated it, and listening to it again, I marvel at the man’s ability to make you sing along to what most people who hated it, called his “Hallmark” moment. Still, you wonder. The critics who like this song obviously loved Stevie. May have gave him a pass for his most simplest #1. If Lionel Richie had released this it would have been savaged. A U.S. #1 as well.

  2. 52
    LondonLee on 22 Aug 2009 #

    If I had to pick ONE Stevie album it would be ‘Innervisions’ as it’s flawless. ‘Talking Book’ is probably more creative and dynamic but I don’t care for the track ‘Maybe Your Baby’ too much (a minor quibble really, the album is jaw-dropping genius too) and the ‘Key of Life’ album goes on a bit in places.

  3. 53
    intothefireuk on 22 Aug 2009 #

    A spectacular fall from grace for Stevie. A truly stale Casiotone arrangement for an already appalling song. I remember visiting my Uncle at the time – I didn’t go very often – and informing him that I played in a band. ‘What do you play ?’ says he, ‘I sing & play keyboards’ says I. ‘Oh’ he says, ‘I’ve got a new keyboard here – can you play that fantastic Stevie Wonder song that’s number one ? It’s marvellous’ he says, handing me a Casio mini keyboard. ‘No it’s shit – I hate it’ says I, trying desperately to wrangle a decent sound out of the thing. The smile fell from his face and the Casio was promptly removed from my hands. He’s never invited me over since.

    How can a man with that much talent (Stevie – not my Uncle), be reduced to producing such purile tosh ? Surely he didn’t need the money. I was tempted to blame McCartney for a while – his soporific influence may have tainted poor Stevie during ‘Ebony & Ivory’ to such an extent that his muse was forever lost. But that’s a long shot and McCartney still manages the odd glimpse of his former genius so why not Stevie ?

    Less than zero

  4. 54
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Aug 2009 #

    I’m tempted slightly to defend SW on the “casio preset” front: in the sequence of LPs he made in the 70s he wrote the book on the exploration and expansion of funky keyb language; i doubt anyone else contributed so much — so to opt for a basic factory setting, for him, is a conscious artistic decision

    i think this song is: “let’s write a love song stripped of redemption-by-ambition-of-twist”: in other words, not a love song of which you’d say “well it’s just a cheesy love song, except there’s this lyric/arrangement/moment that redeems it”, but one which is just the thing itself… the thing is, i don’t think he has a deep gift for that kind of artless simplicity, which he confuses with emotion-on-factory-setting (maccartney on his game does have such a gift; as do plenty of lesser popsters do; wonder is a learned and subtle musician who doesn’t, but feels a bit compromised he doesn’t, and has actually forced a few too many of his attempts at it on the world)

  5. 55
    MikeMCSG on 22 Aug 2009 #

    I must confess that Stevie Wonder was a pet hate of mine in the 70s. To my young ears nurtured in the simplicities of glam rock that keening nasal vocal and the complex music and lyrics were just too alien. Same with Curtis Mayfield – “Superfly” was one of the first records I really hated. Then of course all the superlatives being hurled in his direction only made me resent him more for making me feel provincial and inferior.

    So I derived a great deal of pleasure from those same critics looking at their feet and hoping this one was a bad dream. I recall in the mid 90s The Guardian ran a weekly talking point feature where some scribe picked their “Best Ever ….” and the following week you’d read the challenges to it. When it came to Best Ever Number One they picked this one and the justification rambled on about Stevie’s genius without reference to the “merits” of this particular song!

  6. 56
    Erithian on 24 Aug 2009 #

    Billy #44: “The construct of the year running through the length of the song is quite a neat one” – maybe, but it was so much more fun when Neil Sedaka did it in “Calendar Girl”!

  7. 57
    pink champale on 24 Aug 2009 #

    bah! i go on holiday during a right purple patch and return to this. i can’t do anything other than agree that “i just called…” is pretty ropey. lord s makes a good point that it doesn’t work when stevie tries too hard for artless – something like ‘isn’t she lovely’ is in the same sort of territory in terms of a simplicity of melody and emotion but the drummer (stevie?) hammering away all over place like mitch mitchell cuts through the gloop and turns the whole thing into a pure expression of spontaneity and joy. that said though, i wouldn’t really go with the idea that ‘I just called…” is a terrible blot on an otherwise flawless career – there are long noodley stretches on most of his seventies albums that bore me to death. actually, i think the seventies stuff gets overpraised generally at the expense of the sixties – i’d take ‘uptight’ over the whole of ‘talking book’ or ‘innervisions’.

  8. 58
    will on 25 Aug 2009 #

    Not much to add here, except that yes, it’s awful but at the time it was almost as if Stevie was allowed one ropey, if hugely successful single. No one knew then that his well of inspiration would dry up in the way it has. Soundtracks aside, he’s released just four new albums in the quarter century since.

    Re 45: I always thought Boy George missed a trick by not re-releasing The War Song in the run up to Spring 2003. If ever there was a window of opportunity to redeem that poor unloved single it was then.

  9. 59
    Matt DC on 25 Aug 2009 #

    Incidentally this is the very first song I remember seeing in the #1 slot on TOTP. I’m still not exactly fond of it though.

  10. 60
    DV on 25 Aug 2009 #

    when I was younger this was Stevie Wonder for me, as I had never heard his kewl stuff from the 1970s. Consequently, when I met people who talked about how much they liked Stevie Wonder, I assumed they were insane.

  11. 61
    Nick P on 25 Aug 2009 #

    Just wanted to agree that Lately, although not a classic, has always been a favourite of mine because of the lyric quoted by wichita lineman @50. I don’t think it comes anywhere near plumbing the depths of IJCTSILY.

    I’ll also second the recommendation of Innervisions as the must have Stevie album if you only by one.

    And as someone else mentioned, Stevie isn’t alone in having the rest of his output poorly represented by his number one(s).

  12. 62
    peter goodlaws on 26 Aug 2009 #

    Like Rosie, I have shut myself away from Popular recently. I just called to say that this uber-cheesy piece of crap sullied Stevie’s name forever. Whatever was Blindy thinking? Probably thinking about the biggest hit he ever had, is the answer to that!

    # 56 – I hate Neil Sedaka and am appalled that the smarmy git is still alive. “Calendar Girl” is one of my main cases for the Prosucution but nearly his entire portfolio makes me angry. To that end I have decided to have “Laughter in the Rain” played at my funeral. The vicar’s preamble would be “…and here is a record, which was dear to Peter’s heart…” Then on comes Neil. There will be more laughter in the crem than on that fucking record, I promise you.

  13. 63
    Billy Smart on 31 Aug 2009 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: Stevie doesn’t do UK television very often;

    THE BRIAN CONLEY SHOW: with Stevie Wonder, The Bootleg Beatles (1995)

    FRIDAY NIGHT WITH JONATHAN ROSS: with Stevie Wonder, Steve Coogan, Abbey Clancy (2008)

    PARKINSON: with Thierry Henry, Sarah Lancashire, Matthew Kelly, Stevie Wonder (2005)

    THE SOUTH BANK SHOW: Stevie Wonder (1993)

    TOM JONES: THE RIGHT TIME: with Stevie Wonder (1992)

    THE TUBE: with Jools Holland, Leslie Ash, Stevie Wonder, Marianne
    Faithfull, Rod Stewart, Rock Steady Crew (1983)

    THE TUBE: with Jools Holland, Leslie Ash, The Gang Of Four, Judas Priest, Stevie Wonder, The Shillelagh Sisters, Muriel Gray (1984)

    WHISTLE TEST: EXTRA: Stevie Wonder (1986)

    THE WHITE ROOM: with Stevie Wonder, Sleeper, Skunk Ananse, P. P. Arnold, Ultimate Kaos (1995)

    WOGAN: with Michael J. Fox, Ian Botham, Bob Carolgees and Spit the Dog, Bonnie Tyler, Stevie Wonder (1985)

    The list of what doesn’t survive is perhaps more attractive;

    READY STEADY GO!: with Little Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones (1963)

    READY STEADY GO!: with Gerry And The Pacemakers, Françoise Hardy, The Temptations, Little Stevie Wonder, The T-Bones, Donovan (1965)

    THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS: with Brian Matthew, Gerry And The Pacemakers, Kathy Kirby, The Searchers, Little Stevie Wonder (1964)

    THIS IS… TOM JONES: with The Hollies, Pat Paulsen, Shani Wallis, Stevie Wonder (1969)

  14. 64
    swanstep on 1 Sep 2009 #

    A very late addition…I just came across a Stevie Wonder drum solo on youtube:
    that’s simply staggering. This alone should grant him a pass for several ‘I just called”s.

  15. 65
    Pete Baran on 1 Sep 2009 #

    More grist to the mill for my “colour blind” theory.

  16. 66
    taDOW on 3 Sep 2009 #

    obv stateside (specifically sesame street) so not apart of mr. smart’s list but still essential viewing – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ul7X5js1vE

  17. 67
    lonepilgrim on 25 Sep 2009 #

    is this the definitive cover version?:


  18. 68
    ottersteve on 23 Oct 2009 #

    This record actually made small piece of history at the time…
    For only the 2nd time in the history of 7″ vinyl sales did 3 consecutive No. 1′s in the pop charts sell over 1 million copies.

    Hands up those who know the year and 3 tracks that first achieved this feat. I do know the answer, but I’ll check if it was previously mentioned in that section of FT before further comment.

    One for the pub quizzers I think.

  19. 69
    Paulito on 22 Jan 2010 #

    Ottersteve, would the answer happen to be “Rivers of Babylon”, “You’re The One That I Want” and “Three Times A Lady” in 1978?

  20. 70
    ANGEL on 11 Feb 2010 #


  21. 71
    Brooksie on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Tacky, but for me it will always – more than any other song – take me back to the summer of ’84 when a friend of mine had me call for a girl to ask if she wanted to date him. This song = summer childhood. I also like ‘Woman in Red’ despite the criticisms here. Bad song, good memories.

  22. 72
    ottersteve on 25 Mar 2010 #

    Hey Paulito (69)

    3TAL – not a million seller.

    Check out January/February ’79.

    YMCA, – Hit me with your Rythm Stick, – Heart of Glass

    were the only 3 other consecutive million selling No.1s up to this point. I read this in a music mag somewhere around the time of stevie wonders’ hit.

  23. 73
    Paulito on 7 Apr 2010 #

    Otthersteve@72 I never even knew any of those three were million-sellers. Remarkable that they were, considering the time of year they hit the top. Of course, the market was at an all-time high sales-wise around that period – IIRC 1978 was the biggest-selling year for singles in chart history.

  24. 74
    Paulito on 7 Apr 2010 #

    Wichita@31: Make that TWO clunky key changes.

    Btw, what a strange video – what’s with all those floating slices of bread with psychedelic images superimposed on them?

  25. 75
    Ed on 16 Apr 2010 #

    Also, Wichita@31, slightly OT but I was excited to see a reference to Epsom Our Price, because I must have been a customer around then. Probably got my copy of “Ocean Rain” there. Where was it?

  26. 76
    hectorthebat on 12 Dec 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 24
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  27. 77
    glue_factory on 12 Dec 2014 #

    @76, a somewhat more select list than normal. Is this the least critically lauded number one, where at least one critic has lauded?

  28. 78
    Tom on 12 Dec 2014 #

    It’s not even in the 10,001 songs you must download (but not hear) before you die, which is very unusual :)

  29. 79
    Mark G on 12 Dec 2014 #

    I’d save it for later, certainly.

  30. 80
    Brendan F on 13 Dec 2014 #

    #78 – I was just going through that last week – what a joke – there’s dozens more that didn’t even make it on that list which should have made the 1,001 – most notably ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and about half a dozen Smiths songs

  31. 81
    sbahnhof on 5 Oct 2015 #

    Any list that’s over 1,000 items is better if you rename it “X Thousand Songs You Must Buy Or You Die”.

    To be fair, the books Hector refers to usually don’t have death-related titles.

  32. 82
    Tommy Mack on 5 Oct 2015 #

    Conjours up images of a decrepit ancient ghoul, wailing and moaning, skin and flesh withered on his (or her, we can no longer tell) ancient bones. “What troubles you, O ghoul?” quoth I. Says the ghoul “It says here, I must hear these 1001 albums before I can die and I cannot bring myself to listen to Silent Alarm by Bloc Party all the way through.


  33. 83
    Tommy Mack on 5 Oct 2015 #

    #77/#78 – an interesting idea: ‘the least canonical of all the canonical songs’ – Stevie Wonder himself actually seemed to recognise this when he played in Hyde Park a few years ago, seguing this into Isn’t She Lovely and then into Happy Birthday, assuming, I guess, that the one-time popularity of those songs should be acknowledged but that most of his audience wouldn’t want to hear them all the way through (whereas he dug extensively into his 60s and 70s back catalogue, even using a vocoder so he could sing Fingertips in the original register!)

    I actually have the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Hear Before You Die in my bog (Xmas present – the book, not the bog) but I haven’t got round to reading it. Possibly I will do before I die (hopefully not on the bog like Elvis, who is of course in the book!)

    If I listened to the albums at a rate of one a day it would take nearly three years. If I listened ‘properly’ and gave each one a solid week like Tom in his Private Record Club, it would take nearly twenty years. That is a dizzying thought indeed, considering that that’s only a handful of albums that have (rightly or wrongly) achieved some sort of canonical status. Makes you realise that it’s impossible to listen to anything like a representative sample of all music or even all music within any but the nichest of genres. Which is I guess why the canon and criticism generally are so central to many people’s listening.

  34. 84
    Phil on 5 Oct 2015 #

    #83 – odd selection from Stevie. Certainly this song is hellishly dull, thanks to its combination of plodding pace and endless repetition; as Tom says, you only need one verse and chorus to get the point, and even then you only need the first line of the chorus. Happy Birthday doesn’t outstay its welcome, though, and when Isn’t She Lovely? had its weird period as a pre-download radio hit the sheer length of the thing was actually part of its appeal – it’s got no chorus and each (long) verse ends in exactly the same way, making the entire song a series of false endings. Doing the whole thing in concert might be pushing it a bit, admittedly.

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