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.
Stevie Wonder is one of the great towering figures in the history of American pop music, a titan whose accomplishments go way beyond his Billboard pop-chart stats. With that said, Wonder’s pop-chart stats are still plenty impressive: Nine #1 singles, spread out over more than 22 years. The first of Wonder’s chart-toppers, 1963’s “Fingertips (Part II),” was the #1 song in America on the day that Whitney Houston was born. The last, “Part-Time Lover,” made it to #1 a week after Houston had scored her own first #1 hit. That’s a hell of a run.
Wonder could’ve easily scored more #1 hits. In 1985, when Wonder released his album In Square Circle, Wonder’s Motown boss Berry Gordy publicly groused about how slowly Wonder worked. Wonder had released Hotter Than July, his previous proper album, in 1980. In the five years between albums, though, Wonder had still hit #1 twice, with the Paul McCartney duet “Ebony And Ivory” and the soundtrack cut “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Talking to Rolling Stone, Gordy complained, “He could have had two or three albums out in that time.” But then again, if Stevie Wonder was the type to stress too much about what Berry Gordy thought, then he probably wouldn’t have stayed on top for so long in the first place.
Most of us can probably agree that “Part-Time Lover,” Wonder’s final #1 hit, is minor Wonder. (Small Wonder?) By 1985, it had been nearly a decade since Wonder had wrapped up his ridiculous ’70s streak of creative and commercial dominance. After the insane six-album stretch that started with 1971’s Where I’m Coming From and ended with the 1976 opus Songs In The Key Of Life, Wonder’s output became slower and slighter, and he began to ease into elder-statesman mode. Even then, though, Wonder didn’t owe his continued success to accumulated goodwill. “Part-Time Lover” isn’t a classic record or anything, but it accomplished big things, topping four major Billboard singles charts: The Hot 100, R&B, dance, and adult contemporary.
Wonder had been one of the first major artists to really experiment with the idea of using the studio of an instrument, playing around with synths and with multi-tracking. That exploratory spirit probably helped Wonder adapt gracefully to the ’80s, a time when everyone in pop had taken up those techniques. “Part-Time Lover” features a whole lot of different singers — we’ll get to them — but all the instruments are Wonder. The song is almost entirely synth, with Wonder playing the burbly bassline and the warm, bleary hums and the stuttery handclaps and the whistling flute sounds. He used a LinnDrum machine — one of the first ever sold, according to creator Roger Linn — to put the beat together. “Part-Time Lover” doesn’t sound like a boomer veteran playing catchup. Its sound is firmly within the mid-’80s zeitgeist.
Lyrically, “Part-Time Lover” is all about cheating on someone. Early on, Wonder’s narrator is in full shady creep mode, communicating with his fling through code — strategic phone hang-ups, lights blinking, using friends as go-betweens. Wonder never really sings about feeling guilty. Instead, all the cloak-and-dagger stuff seems to be part of the appeal of all this “passion on the run”: “We are strangers by day, lovers by night/ Knowing it’s so wrong but feeling so right.”
Wonder doesn’t really sound like he knows it’s so wrong. Instead, he sounds downright giddy about it. There’s tension in Wonder’s voice, but there’s euphoria, too. The music is a mechanized uptempo bop that doesn’t exactly hint at internal conflicts. Toward the end of the song, we get the twist ending: The narrator’s wife is cheating on him, too. Wonder puts it all together: “A man called our exchange/ But didn’t want to leave his name/ I guess that two can play the game of part-time lovers.” He’s got a part-time lover, but so does she. Wonder never gives the impression that he’s the least bit upset about that.
There’s a weird innocence to a song like this, one that reminds me of ’70s sex comedies. The idea seems to be that everyone is running around cheating on each other — that this is the stuff of broad physical comedy, not personal tragedy. Wonder says that he based the song on personal experiences and that he “thought about how many people might get in trouble behind that song!” So it’s almost cute that one of the backup singers on “Part-Time Lover” is Wonder’s ex-wife.
In 1970, a 20-year-old Wonder married Syreeta Wright, a singer and former Motown secretary who he’d been dating for a year. They were only married for 18 months, and they split amicably. Wright and Wonder wrote some classic songs together, including Wonder’s own 1970 banger “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) After their marriage ended in 1972, Wonder wrote “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” about Wright, and he also produced her 1972 debut album Syreeta — a straight-up unsung classic that holds its own with any Wonder’s own ’70s records. Wright went on to have a pretty good career of her own; her highest-charting single, the 1979 Billy Preston duet “With You I’m Born Again,” peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.)
It must be weird singing backup on your ex-husband’s cheaters’ anthem, but maybe Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright existed in some enlightened state that went beyond possessiveness. Or maybe they were just good friends who hadn’t been married to each other for more than a decade. In any case, Wright is just one of eight backing vocalists on “Part-Time Lover.” Another is was Philip Bailey, the lead singer from Earth, Wind & Fire. (As a solo artist, Bailey’s highest-charting single is the 1985 Phil Collins duet “Easy Lover,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 7.) Peter Byrne, from the new wave duo Naked Eyes, also sings backup on “Part-Time Lover.” (Naked Eyes’ highest-charting single, their 1983 cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Always Something There To Remind Me,” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.)
Other than Stevie Wonder himself, the most prominent singer on “Part-Time Lover” is Luther Vandross. Vandross had spent the ’70s doing session work for people like David Bowie and Chic, but then he’d broken out — first as a lead singer for the post-disco group Change, then as a solo artist. By 1985, Vandross was four albums into his solo career, and he was a rising superstar within Black music, a persistent hitmaker on the R&B chart. But he hadn’t really crossed over; at the time, Vandross’ highest-charting single on the Hot 100 was the 1983 Dionne Warwick duet “How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye,” which peaked at #27. (Later on, Vandross would peak at #2, when he and Mariah Carey teamed up for a 1994 cover of Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s 1981 chart-topper “Endless Love.” The Vandross/Carey version is a 5.)
On “Part-Time Lover,” Luther Vandross is basically the secondary lead singer. He’s the guy we hear scatting over much of the song, doing the cool percussive d-d-d-d-d-d-d effect. If pop music in 1985 worked the way it does now, then Vandross would’ve been a featured artist on “Part-Time Lover,” and Wonder might’ve seemed as if he was building himself up by throwing a rising star on the track. But Vandross isn’t in the “Part-Time Lover” video, and it seems like Wonder mostly just used him on the song because he liked what Vandross did with it. There’s a cool contrast between Vandross’ deeper voice and Wonder’s urgent tenor, and Vandross goes a long way toward making the song playful, even silly. That scatting lets you know that the people involved in these love affairs don’t take them too seriously, and that maybe you shouldn’t, either. Nobody seems to feel betrayed. You don’t throw casual wordless vocals all over a song about betrayal. Everyone’s just having fun.
Someone could probably hear something morally objectionable in the whole tone of “Part-Time Lover,” though god knows the newly-formed PMRC didn’t complain about the song. They must’ve known that going against Stevie Wonder would be a losing PR battle. Anyway, the song is too breezy and unserious to demand that kind of outrage. “Part-Time Lover” is a perfectly decent piece of ’80s pop. Its sound is thin and tinny and nowhere near as immaculately thought-out as the best Stevie Wonder music, but it’s also a sticky and pleasant little jam.
After “Part-Time Lover,” Stevie Wonder more or less ceased to exist as a relevant-pop-chart artist. Only one more Stevie Wonder single made the top 10: The 1985 follow-up “Go Home,” another joint from the In Square Circle album, which peaked at #10. (It’s a 7.) Stevie Wonder will appear in this column again as a sample source and as a credited songwriter, and he’ll also be one of the singers on an all-star singalong. But barring some kind of improbable late-career comeback, we won’t see Stevie Wonder as a lead artist in this column again. In that way, then, “Part-Time Lover” marks the end of a remarkable 22-year run.
But Stevie Wonder has continued to have a pretty great career even outside that pop-chart context. He was already a beloved legend in the ’80s, and he’s stayed busy. He sang a couple of high-profile duets with Michael Jackson. He soundtracked Spike Lee’s 1991 movie Jungle Fever. He played at the closing ceremonies of a couple of different Olympics and at the Obama inauguration. He played at memorial services for Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. He has collaborated with Sting, Gloria Estefan, *NSYNC, Céline Dion, Snoop Dogg, Drake, Mark Ronson, and Travis Scott — all of whom will eventually appear in this column.
Just last month, Stevie Wonder put out two new singles — one with Gary Clark Jr., another with Rapsody, Cordae, Chika, and Busta Rhymes. Both of them are pretty good! Also, whenever he gets a chance, Wonder still puts on euphoric, transformative live shows. Once this pandemic is over, if you get a chance, you should go see Stevie Wonder.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s KRS-One riffing on “Part-Time Lover” on the 1991 Boogie Down Productions track “Part Time Suckers”:
(KRS-One’s highest-charting single, 1995’s “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know,” peaked at #57.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s 2Pac’s 1991 track “Part Time Mutha,” which is built on the melody of “Part-Time Lover”:
(2Pac will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lady Saw and T.O.K. transforming “Part-Time Lover” into the 1998 dancehall sex-jam “Hardcore Lover”:
(Lady Saw has never had a Hot 100 single as lead artist. Her highest-charting guest-artist single is No Doubt’s 2002 track “Underneath It All,” which peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: 50 Cent and Olivia interpolated the “Part-Time Lover” melody on 50’s 2005 single “So Amazing.” Here’s the video:
(50 Cent will eventually appear in this column. As lead artist, Olivia’s highest-charting single is 2001’s “Bizounce,” which peaked at #15. As a guest, Olivia will eventually appear in this column.)