In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Duke Ellington started performing sometime in 1916 or 1917, as a teenage pianist playing ragtime in Washington, DC nightclubs. Ellington played his last show with his Orchestra in 1974 — a month before he turned 75, two months before he died. In the almost 60-year period in between, Ellington left a seismic impact on the history of American music. But big-band jazz, the genre most closely associated with Ellington, had essentially vanished from the charts long before his death. And yet it had a nice little return three years after his death, when Stevie Wonder paid tribute.
“Sir Duke” was the second single and the second #1 from Songs In The Key Of Life, the landmark double album that Wonder released in 1976. It’s a song about music, about the joy that it can bring when it’s done right. Wonder, a blind genius, would know more about this than anyone. And on the song, Wonder shouted out a series of jazz legends: Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald. Wonder named the song after Ellington, calling him the “king of all.”
When Wonder recorded “Sir Duke,” Basie and Fitzgerald were still alive. Miller, Armstrong, and Ellington were not. Miller had died in 1944, when his plane went missing over the English Channel. Wonder wasn’t even born when that happened. But Armstrong and Ellington had both died in the early ’70s. So when Wonder wrote “Sir Duke,” the icons of the jazz era were dying off, sort of like the icons of Wonder’s generation are now. Wonder wanted to salute those icons before they faded from the cultural memory. A few weeks after “Sir Duke” hit #1, Wonder told a UCLA symposium, “I knew the title from the beginning but wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us. So soon they are forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation.”
“Sir Duke” isn’t exactly a jazz song, and it isn’t exactly a Motown-style R&B song, either. It flips back and forth between the two modes, playing around with melodic modes and structural changes. The song moves in and out of a swing high-hat pattern, and it’s got these huge, juicy horns that burst in to play these complicated harmony parts. I’m too dumb to understand all the little music-theory tricks that Wonder pulls on the song, but there’s a whole Vox explainer video about them.
Even without knowing all the underpinnings of what Wonder does on “Sir Duke,” it’s clear that it’s a complicated song, one that does more musically than it does lyrically. The sudden explosions of horns, for instance, are fast and joyous, and they clearly call back to Ellington and his era. Wonder pulls off these ideas without derailing the hooky ebullience of the song itself. Pop songs are supposed to be simple, and if you add to much to that simplicity, you can utterly neuter them and turn them into homework. Wonder avoids that. And he avoids distracting from the pure, simple conceit of the song, which is this: Music is great, isn’t it?
Wonder’s opening lines from “Sir Duke” are a hell of a thesis statement: “Music is a world within itself / With a language we all understand.” Wonder goes on to point out that the glory of music has “an equal opportunity” — something he highlights, in a way, by including the white man Glenn Miller in his list of jazz heroes. At the beginning of the song, Wonder considers the amazing things that those jazz greats did. They changed music, but they also moved crowds: “They can feel it all over.” But as the song reaches its conclusion, Wonder changes up the pronoun, and he makes it more immediate and commanding: “You can feel it all over.” The people in the song aren’t distant historical figures. They’re you, listening at home. You’re feeling the same things that the people in those Harlem dancehalls felt at the peak of the swing era.
That’s something else Wonder pulls off. Wonder salutes the icons of past generations, but he also places himself within their lineage. In adapting their music, he brings it into the present (or the 1977 version of the present, anyway), and he also shows that he can make this music, just like they could. Wonder adds zany little touches to “Sir Duke” — a delighted cackle here, a toy whistle sound there. But he’s clearly serious about the history of music and about where he belongs within that history.
This isn’t presumptuous on Wonder’s part. After the run he’d been having the ’70s, he’d already earned his place on any list of all-time great musicians, and he knew it. “Sir Duke,” frisky and playful and irreverently reverent, isn’t just a tribute. It’s also a statement. It’s a flex.
“Sir Duke,” like previous Wonder #1 “I Wish” before it, isn’t my favorite version of Stevie Wonder. Both of those songs, which show up back-to-back on Songs In The Key Of Life, are fundamentally nostalgic — “I Wish” for childhood, “Sir Duke” for past generations of music. My favorite Stevie Wonder songs tend to be the ones where his focus is on the present, or on some version of the future. (He was, after all, an early adapter to synths, to drum machines, and to the entire idea of using the studio as an instrument.) And yet “Sir Duke,” like “I Wish” before it, is a song absolutely charged with energy, with life. “Sir Duke” is a fitting tribute, and it’s too bad Duke Ellington never got to hear it.
Stevie Wonder, it’s worth noting, has been performing since he was 11. He’s 69 now, and he’s still doing it. In terms of sheer longevity, that means he’s just catching up with Ellington now.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince interpolating the “Sir Duke” horn riff on their 1988 track “Let’s Get Busy Baby”:
(DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s highest-charting track is 1991’s “Summertime,” which peaked at #4. It’s an 8. Will Smith will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a Tribe Called Quest sampling “Sir Duke” on the 1990 track “Footprints”:
(A Tribe Called Quest never had a top-10 hit; their highest-charting single, 1993’s “Award Tour,” peaked at #47. Q-Tip has never been lead artist on a top-10 hit, either; his chart peak is 1999’s “Vivrant Thing,” which peaked at #26. But Q-Tip did guest on Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart,” which peaked at #4 in 1990. It’s a 10.)