Saturday, June 21, 2014

Song Lyric of the Day (Stevie Wonder, on a Woman ‘Lovely As A Summer Day’)

“My cherie amour, lovely as a summer day
My cherie amour, distant as the Milky Way.”—“My Cherie Amour,” written by Stevie Wonder, Henry Cosby, and Sylvia Moy, performed by Stevie Wonder on his My Cherie Amour LP (1969)

For the first day of summer, I could have drawn upon a whole range of cultural references from poetry, music, drama, film, painting—you name it. (And don’t think, before this blog is through—maybe even before this season is through!—that I won’t be using a whole bunch of them.) But, as school closed for the warmest months of the year in 1969, this hit by Stevie Wonder was climbing the charts. We didn’t have boom boxes then, disturbing all who came within the vicinity of it, nor iPads, with earplugs and self-selected tunes putting you in a self-absorbed aural cocoon. No, as often as not, in those 90-some days before I turned 10, the music would likely come from a transistor radio—an open invitation to all within earshot—and, if the melody was right, as warm as a caress.

When you’re young, as the imagination grows, the music sinks its roots into you. And so, even though Stevie Wonder did not yet possess the stunningly multi-faceted mastery he would display in the early-to-mid-Seventies, I would fall in love with this simple, artless, innocent, impassioned, achingly beautiful song, just as the Motown artist fell hard for the girl who inspired it.

On a page or computer screen, the lyrics above don’t sound like much—cliché-ridden, even. We don’t have a clue as to this girl’s eyes, hair, or any other aspect of her appearance, other than that she’s “little.” But “lovely as a summer day” is instinctively understood. (Even the likes of Henry James, about as far removed from Wonder as you can get, once wrote that “summer afternoon” were “the two most beautiful words in the English language.”) And, while you can’t exactly wring Dylanesque interpretations from “La la la la la la, La la la la la la,” all the wordless, inarticulate feelings of the heart are expressed here.  

Oh, and that title—who embodies love so much as the French?  Wonder made his object of desire an everywoman with that “Cherie.” It might have been a different story if he had stuck to his original title, “Oh My Marcia,” a reference to a young lady he met in  the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing, Michigan. Luckily, co-writer Sylvia Moy (the Motown producer who had persuaded Berry Gordy not to drop the youngster from "Hitsville USA" when his voice began to change) strongly urged on him a more generic choice. Wonder agreed, and so we don’t, thankfully, have “Oh My Marcia” playing at every “Brady Bunch” reunion special.

Not that the Motown Master hated a little ribbing at his expense. In May 1983, Saturday Night Live ran a skit with Eddie Murphy listening to Stevie Wonder as “Alan, The Stevie Wonder Experience.” Murphy, distinctly unimpressed by this “dork,” suffers through a couple of painful Wonder impersonations before whipping out a pair of sunglasses and showing him how it’s done. (Murphy: “You’ve got to roll your neck around, like you’re choking.” Wonder as the Impersonator: “I will choke you if I don’t get this job!”) Finally, Wonder sounds just like himself as he ends with the beautifully plaintive “How I wish that you were mine.” Murphy: “It still sucks, man!” (See this video link for this classic skit.)

Over the years, “My Cherie Amour” has become one of the most performed songs from the Motown hit factory, covered by, to name a few, the Jackson 5, Tony Bennett, James Galway, Frankie Valli, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and George Benson. My own favorite interpretation is by opera singer Renee Fleming. But to me, it remains a summer song, due in no small part to Wonder himself—who, in a couple of years, with “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” proved all over again that he knew all about the sweet agony of the season.

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