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.
In Stephen Frears’ 2000 adaptation of the Nick Hornby book High Fidelity, a middle-aged guy in a suit walks into a record store. He wants to buy his daughter a copy of the Stevie Wonder song “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Jack Black, making his movie-star breakout, reacts with absolute revulsion. “It’s sentimental, tacky crap,” Black sneers. “Do you even know your daughter? There’s no way she likes that song.”
That Jack Black character is supposed to be an asshole — a living symbol of the kind of sociopathy that can result from a lifetime of snobbish nerdery. But his reaction to the prospect of selling “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is a laugh line. The movie sets things up so that we, the viewers, are at least a little bit on Jack Black’s side. If I’m remembering things right, that visceral disgust at the Stevie Wonder song was a pretty stock gen-X opinion. Very few people will dispute the overall greatness of Stevie Wonder, one of the giants of American pop music. But “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is the sort of song that people loved to complain about for a long, long time.
I started reading music magazines way too young, so I knew of the reputation of “I Just Called To Say I Love You” before I consciously listened to the song. When I finally heard “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” it was a little confusing. The song didn’t seem great, but it was fine — sweet and pretty, even. The problem, I think, is that this perfectly OK song, globally speaking, is the most popular thing that Stevie Wonder has ever done.
“I Just Called To Say I Love You” arrived just two years after Wonder and Paul McCartney got to #1 with the far-shittier duet “Ebony And Ivory.” In the US, though, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” was Wonder’s first solo #1 hit since “Sir Duke” in 1977. On top of that, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” was a global smash. The song hit #1 in Canada and Australia and Finland and France and Zimbabwe and a dozen other countries. In the UK, it was the first solo Stevie Wonder song that ever made it to #1. Maybe millions of dads were walking into hostile-territory record stores and buying the single for their daughters.
After the success of “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” the songwriters Lloyd Chiate and Lee Garrett sued Wonder, accusing him of stealing their idea. Garrett was a childhood friend of Wonder’s, and he and Wonder had co-written Wonder’s 1970 single “Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” together. (“Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) In the lawsuit, Chiate and Garrett claimed that they’d played Wonder a song called “Hello It’s Me/I Just Called to Say” in 1976. But Wonder testified that he’d actually written “I Just Called To Say I Love You” a couple of months earlier after returning home from a visit to his mother. The lawsuit raged on for years, and Wonder eventually won.
“I Just Called To Say I Love You” doesn’t sound like anything Wonder wrote in 1976, when he was right in the midst of his insane creative boom period. Instead, the sound of the song is extremely ’80s, built around glassy synths and hard-smacking drum machines. Wonder produced the track, and he also sang and played everything on the single himself — the lead and backing vocals, the keyboards, the real and programmed drums. On the six-minute album version, Wonder sings a long coda through a vocoder, making himself sound like a particularly sappy alien robot.
Lyrically, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is slight and banal. But then, a lot of Stevie Wonder lyrics are slight and banal, and these ones come from a good place. The conceit of the song is pretty obvious: Stevie Wonder just called to say he loves you. On the verses, he points out that this is “another ordinary day.” There’s no special occasion attached. It’s not Christmas or Valentine’s Day or Halloween. (Do people usually call to say that they love you on Halloween?) None of this is particularly poetic, and it’s also simplistic enough that Wonder didn’t bother to write a bridge. But he delivers those words with grace and ease, giving a showcase to one of the all-time great pop voices.
Wonder had been playing around with synths since the early days of the technology, and he embraced those ’80s production tricks while many of his ’80s contemporaries struggled to keep up. “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is thin and sleek, but it’s thin and sleek with intention. Wonder’s tricks — the digital bassline, the soft blip-ripples, the gooey sustain on the main keyboard melody — are all pretty sharp. (I don’t love the synth noodling on the chorus, but it’s not offensive, either.) Wonder’s instantly memorable hook comes out as a long, contented sigh, and he switches his key up enough to keep this low-drama song interesting. A lot of Stevie Wonder songs are awesome displays of inventiveness. “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is not that. But on its own terms, it works.
Stevie Wonder didn’t really write “I Just Called To Say I Love You” for a movie, but he got the credit and awards for doing it anyway. Dionne Warwick had been helping put together the soundtrack of The Woman In Red, a remake of a French sex farce that Gene Wilder was putting together. The Woman In Red was apparently some kind of passion project for Gene Wilder. He wrote, directed, and starred in the movie. Warwick suggested that Wilder should get Stevie Wonder to do the soundtrack, and Wonder was down, even if he barely made it in by the film’s deadline. Orion Pictures had to hold the prints of the movie until the last minute so that Wonder could finish the music.
I’ve never seen The Woman In Red, but it looks like a genuinely loathsome movie. Wilder plays a happily married advertising exec who sees a woman on the street — model Kelly LeBrock, making her film debut before going on to star in Weird Science and Hard To Kill — and becomes obsessed with her. He pursues her with single-minded devotion even though she turns out to be married, too. Judging by the trailer, we’re supposed to think this is light and charming.
Stevie Wonder wrote almost every song on the soundtrack, including a couple of duets with Dionne Warwick. (It’s a bit weird that Wonder, a man who can’t actually see anything on a movie screen, would write a movie soundtrack, but he’s done it a handful of times — this, the 1979 documentary The Secret Life Of Plants, the 1991 Spike Lee joint Jungle Fever.) But the project worked out nicely for Wonder, who’d been working on an album of his own for four years and who seemed stuck on it. Here, Wonder had a deadline, and so he knocked something out. The Woman In Red soundtrack is, more or less, a complete Stevie Wonder album, though it’s definitely not one of the better ones.
The Woman In Red got rotten reviews and made just-OK box office. (On the list of the highest-grossing films of 1984, The Woman In Red is at #40, just behind The Muppets Take Manhattan and A Nightmare On Elm Street.) “I Just Called To Say I Love You” had more cultural impact than the movie it was attached to. The song dominated at awards shows. At the 1985 Oscars, all five of the nominees for Best Original Song had been #1 singles on the Hot 100; it’s the only time that’s ever happened. That means it might be the most stacked that that category has ever been. Stevie Wonder still won.
Wonder didn’t sing “I Just Called To Say I Love You” at the Oscar telecast. Instead, his former Motown labelmate Diana Ross, looking slightly manic, performed the track. Shortly afterward, Gregory Hines announced that “I Just Called To Say I Love You” had won the award, beating out “Footloose” and “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” and “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” and “Ghostbusters.” (“Ghostbusters” was robbed.) At the podium, Wonder said, “I would like to accept this award in the name of Nelson Mandela.” At the time, Mandela was still in a South African prison.
South Africa was one of the countries where “I Just Called To Say I Love You” had been a #1 hit. The day after the Oscars, the South African Broadcasting Corporation banned all Stevie Wonder music from the radio. In the years that followed, Wonder grew more and more vocal about apartheid, including the song “It’s Wrong (Apartheid)” on his 1985 album In Square Circle and playing the massive Free Nelson Mandela concert in London in 1988. Stevie Wonder did not end apartheid in South Africa or anything, but he was a visible public advocate for a movement that needed all the help it could get. It’s funny to think a song as anodyne as “I Just Called To Say I Love You” could have political implications, but that’s sort of what happened.
“I Just Called To Say I Love You” did not mark the end of Stevie Wonder’s pop reign. We’ll see him in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: In putting this column together, it’s been striking to realize that “I Just Called To Say I Love You” might have had its greatest impact outside of the US and Europe — in places where nobody had any use for our gen-X snark. Here, for example, is the Brazilian tropicália musician Gilberto Gil singing “Só Chamei Porque Te Amo,” his lovely Portuguese-language version of “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” on his 1987 live album Em Concerto:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the dancehall version of “I Just Called To Say I Love You” that the UK-born reggae singer Shinehead included on his 1992 album Sidewalk University:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Massachusetts-born, Puerto Rico-based reggaeton artist Nicky Jam interpolating the melody from “I Just Called To Say I Love You” on his 2003 track “Descontrol”:
(Nicky Jam’s highest-charting US single is the 2018 J Balvin collab “X,” which peaked at #41. “Descontrol” also samples Snap!’s 1992 single “Rhythm Is A Dancer,” which peaked at #5. “Rhythm Is A Dancer” is an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Animal Collective sampling “I Just Called To Say I Love You” on the “Stevie Wonder version” of their 2005 track “The Purple Bottle”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the plainspoken acoustic cover of “I Just Called To Say I Love You” that the late John Prine released as a Spotify Single in 2018: