50 Years Ago: Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sunshine of My Life’ Somehow Finds Joy in Pain
Talking Book became a showcase for Stevie Wonder's burgeoning genius, which often revealed itself during the day's darkest moments. The LP-opening "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" couldn't have emerged from a place less like its title.
"Because he does not have sight, he's not controlled by daylight," Talking Book bassist Scott Edwards told Songfacts in 2013. "So he may begin his night at midnight – which is bad, because if they want you to come do an overdub or something, he may call you at 4 a.m. and say, 'Come on in.'"
In keeping with this juxtaposition of light and shadow, "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" is a song of lovestruck ardor sung after a crushing divorce. You'd never know from the song, which began as an impromptu jam at Electric Lady Studios in New York City.
"He would block out months of recording time, so he had time blocked out," Edwards noted. "I believe he already had his synthesizer set up in the studio, so he could always go in." Even if Wonder had a blueprint in mind, he remained extraordinarily giving to others. For instance, he handed over the first lines of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" to his backup singers.
"He had a basic groove and he might say, 'Scott, do something on the bass' – a basic structure," Edwards added. "But then after that, because he respects you, he wants you to start embellishing and doing other things. So he's not very controlling."
With key assists from producers and synth whizzes Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, they ended up with one of Wonder's most exuberant, light-filled tracks. "'You Are the Sunshine of My Life' was such an up tune," Margouleff told The Atlantic in 2012. "People would call it the 'Stevie Wonder song.'"
Could anyone else have wrung such joy from pain?
Listen to Stevie Wonder's 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life'
Wonder had been married to Syreeta Wright for only 18 months when they split in 1972, but their relationship – and the career-turning work they did together – stretched further back. They met in 1968 after Wright took a job as a receptionist at Motown Records. By 1969, the 20-somethings were dating and working together. The duo co-wrote Wonder's No. 3 smash "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," as well as the Spinners' No. 14 hit "It's a Shame."
They'd already broken up when he produced Syreeta, Wright's deeply underrated 1972 debut, in between Music of My Mind and Talking Book – both of which also arrived in 1972. Yet Wonder's love for Wright, as conveyed again in the utterly enraptured "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," endured even in heartbreak. The single arrived in March 1973 and shot to the top of the charts as a timeless expression of love that could apply to everyone, everywhere.
"'Sunshine' gave me this inclination of how romantic he could be in expressing his feelings," R&B great Dionne Warwick told The New York Times in 2022. "It could be applied to a young lady, it could be applied to a child, it could be applied to his mother – who he happened to have adored – and friendships."
This was just as Wonder wanted it. He turned down an award from the National Association of Record Merchandisers because they wanted to honor "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" as the year's "best soul song." "The song wasn't one that should be played for a special kind of people," Wonder said at a UCLA symposium sponsored by Billboard. "All of us can feel love. When music is categorized, yet all of us can relate to it, I wouldn't be thankful for accepting it."
Wonder's Fender Rhodes served a foundational role during the early jams – and it was largely left alone in the final recording. "He had been working with the structure by himself, but once he had all of us together, he just started playing it," Edwards told Songfacts. "And then we all joined in and we all could feel that the vibe and the way the tune was going – it was a hit. He was so excited, he said, 'Tonight, we're going to the studio and record it.' And that's what we did. As usual, Wonder made it all sound so easy."
Listen to Stevie Wonder's 'Sunshine of My Life' in Concert
The session that followed was notably sparse, with muttering congas instead of drums. "There isn't a lot of echo and reverb on it," Margouleff told The Atlantic. "The reason is because we always felt that echo and reverb commentate distance — something being farther away." The first words were sung by Jim Gilstrap, who'd become better known for his 1975 solo hit "Swing Your Daddy," before Lani Groves finally handed the mic to Wonder.
His ability to remember the words felt all the more impressive, considering how quickly things were coming together. The truth, however, was that Wonder didn't. "Malcolm would sit there at the console, at the microphone, saying, 'You are the sunshine of my life' – and Stevie would sing it," Margouleff told The New York Times. "While he was finishing the line, Malcolm was reading the next line of the song."
Worried that his clipped British accent might be heard on the main vocal tracks, Margouleff said they improvised. "We took white Styrofoam coffee cups, and I stuffed them with the foam liner from the inside of a tape box," he added, "and we put them on the earphones so the audio wouldn't leak from the headphones. It looked ludicrous."
"You Are the Sunshine of My Life" was slotted as the lead single from Talking Book, but that was before another jam session – this time with Jeff Beck – ended up producing "Superstition." Wonder gave it to Beck for use on the next album from Beck, Bogert & Appice – before officials from Motown stepped in. "They said, 'No, no, no, no. The first single should be 'Superstition,'" Wonder later told the Detroit Free Press. "So I went back to Jeff and had that discussion."
Wonder's version of "Superstition" went to No. 1 before "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" did. Born of loss and sparked by a striking generosity of spirit, it eventually became more than a signature song; it became one of Stevie Wonder's catchphrases.
He re-used the title countless times over the years, though perhaps never more memorably than in 2016 when Wonder returned for a ceremony in which his hometown street was renamed Stevie Wonder Avenue. "You are the sunshine of my life," Wonder told hundreds of huddled fans who'd waited hours in 25-degree temps to witness the moment. "You are the apple of my eye, Detroit. Forever you'll stay in my heart."