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'I Wish' by Stevie Wonder: The Underdog Song That Took Over 1977

Music | January 22, 2020

Stevie Wonder circa 1970s. (Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images)

Stevie Wonder's 1977 #1 hit "I Wish" captures the funky synthesizer groove that drove his best mid-'70s music, while its meaning relies on a powerful emotion: nostalgia. "I Wish" is a rollicking collection of moments remembered from Wonder's childhood -- and all of our childhoods -- it's touching, and you can dance to it. "I wish those days could come back once more," he sings plainly; "Why did those days ever have to go?" Just reading the words on the page, you might assume the song was melancholy or slow, but it's anything but. "I Wish" is the kind of song that gets everyone out on the dance floor. 

Stevie Wonder Was A Musical Prodigy

A young Stevie Wonder bringing it (popexpresso)

Stevie Wonder’s impact on music transcends any single song in his Hall of Fame discography. With 25 Grammys to his name, the most ever by a solo artist, Stevie Wonder was and is the definition of a prodigy. He was an amazingly skilled musician at 9 years old and earned a contract with the Motown music label as "Little" Stevie Wonder at the precocious age of 12. Throughout his historic music career, Wonder changed the sound and face of music for an astounding 30 plus years.

During his unbelievable run as one of music’s preeminent singer-songwriters, he created one of his all-time hits, "I Wish," after attending a Motown company picnic in 1976. Here’s the intriguing background on one of Wonder’s masterpieces.

A Picnic Sparks A Creative Flame

One of Stevie's astounding ten number #1 hits (youtube)

Since none of us can remember where we put our phones 30 seconds ago, Stevie Wonder’s memory of the day he created “I Wish” boggles the mind. Wonder may have been born blind but his recall is staggering. "The day I wrote it was a Saturday, the day of a Motown picnic in the summer of ’76," he told Musician magazine. "God, I remember that because I was having this really bad toothache, it was ridiculous."

Apparently, the picnic brought back memories of a simpler time, “I had such a good time at the picnic that I went to Crystal Recording Studio right afterward and the vibe came right to my mind, running at the picnic, the contests, we all participated. It was a lot of fun, even though I couldn’t eat any hot dogs – that was around the time of the creation of those chicken hot dogs. And from that came the ‘I Wish’ vibe.”

Take Me Back

Young and free "Little Stevie Wonder" (fyimusicnews.ca)

Despite the good vibrations of the picnic, Wonder’s first rendition was slightly more serious. “The music was too much fun,” he said. “The [original] words didn’t have the fun of the track.” Eventually, he got the tone right and the jovial tune sprang to life.

Unbelievably, the bass player on the track, Nathan Watts, had only been playing the bass for three years. His memorable 8 note bassline is one of the most-sampled elements of all Wonder’s songs. Will Smith made use of it slightly less memorably in his single "Wild Wild West." 

The voice admonishing “young” Stevie on the track was none other than Wonder’s sister, Renee Haraway.

What It Meant To Wonder

Stevie Wonder and a young Micheal Jackson (reddit)

For Stevie, “I Wish” meant going back in time to when he was a kid when his only worry was “for Christmas what would be my toy." He chronicled his childhood, a time when he was just a “nappy-headed boy." Wonder called Songs In The Key Of Life, the album that featured “I Wish,” the album he is “most happy about. Just the time, being alive then. To be a father and then… letting go and letting God give me the energy and strength I needed.” 

The album took years to make but as Wonder said, “Bach and Chopin took years to write their stuff. I’ve had to experience some life so that there’s more for me to sing about, to express.” However, once the master got going, “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak”. And peak he did. 

The Lyrics To 'I Wish' Take Us Back To Our Childhood

"I Wish"

Looking back on when I
Was a little nappy-headed boy
Then my only worry
Was for Christmas what would be my toy
Even though we sometimes
Would not get a thing
We were happy with the
Joy the day would bring

Sneaking out the back door
To hang out with those hoodlum friends of mine
Greeted at the back door
With 'Boy thought I told you not to go outside'
Tryin' your best to bring the
Water to your eyes
Thinkin' it might stop her
From whippin' your behind

I wish those days could come back once more
Why did those days ever have to go
I wish those days could come back once more
Why did those days ever have to go
'Cause I love them so

Brother says he's tellin'
'Bout you playin' doctor with that girl
Just don't tell I'll give you
Anything you want in this whole wide world
Mama gives you money for Sunday school
You trade yours for candy after church is through

Smokin' cigarettes and writing something nasty on the wall
(you nasty boy)
Teacher sends you to the principal's office down the hall
You grow up and learn that kinda thing ain't right
But while you were doing it, it sure felt outta sight

I wish those days could come back once more
Why did those days ever have to go
I wish those days could come back once more
Why did those days ever have to go

A Perfect Piece Of Wonder’s Larger Masterpiece

One of the all-time greats (lafayetteq1067)

“I Wish” was a hit song, rising to number #1 on the Hot 100, and was a key reason why Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Sir Elton John once said, “Let me put it this way: wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of Songs in the Key of Life. For me, it's the best album ever made, and I'm always left in awe after I listen to it." There’s not much higher praise than that from Rocketman himself. 

Tags: I Wish | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | Stevie Wonder

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!