Once, Twice, Eight Times a (Golden) Lady – Eight Versions of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady”

Among pop music writers, Stevie Wonder’s tunes are definitely some of the most often-covered by jazz musicians, and it’s not for nothing – they’re great tunes. I’ve looked at a number of versions of “Isn’t She Lovely” in a previous column, The SFJAZZ Collective has made an album of Stevie Wonder tunes, as did Madlib under his Yesterday’s New Quintet guise and The Deep Blue Organ Trio. In this column, I’ll look at a few different versions of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady”, off of his 1973 album Innervisions.

The original version of “Golden Lady” starts with a solo piano introduction before an easy, bouncy drum and bass groove comes in at about 0:25. A little bit of strummed guitar and synthesizer join this groove and then Stevie’s vocals come in shortly afterward. The verse moves through some interesting chord changes and then at about 1:20, the very catchy chorus comes in for the first time. After this first chorus, the synthesizer becomes a little more prominent underneath the vocal line. This second verse keeps the easy groove going, but adds a little bit more instrumentation underneath the vocal – a really great, slow build. After the second chorus, starting around 2:45 or so, there’s an instrumental break for a keyboard solo before the vocal returns. Then at 3:30, we’re back to the chorus. Stevie moves through the chorus at the end of this tune, changing the key as he moves from one chorus to the next (you thought Beyonce came up with this idea?). This groove rides out to the end of the tune, Stevie moving through the keys during the repeated choruses and keeping the vibe going. This is an incredible song as it is here, but the interesting chord changes and the key changes at the end of the tune would seem to make it irresistible to jazz musicians.

One year after Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Ronnie Foster released his version of “Golden Lady”, on his On the Avenue album. Foster’s version jumps right in with a bouncy, bass-heavy groove over some straightforward funky drums. Foster’s organ handles the vocal line over rhythm guitar from Phil Upchurch, and at about 0:45, the chorus comes in for the first time over a great horn arrangement from Pee Wee Ellis. Foster plays through another verse, then moves to the chorus again. After the second time through the chorus, Foster takes a fine organ solo. At about 3:30, the horns come back in with a nice swell at the end of the organ solo and then Foster moves back into the verse section, then to the chorus just after 4:00. As on the Stevie Wonder version above, Foster takes the chorus through several key changes here at the end of the tune, with his organ soloing over these changes as the tune fades. This is a fun version of “Golden Lady” that shares some of the same sounds that were popular during the era and something of the overall feel of the tune, but without the subtle buildup from Wonder’s original version above.

Moving forward a few decades, in 2001, Soulive recorded their organ trio version of “Golden Lady” for their Doin’ Something album, though this was only included on the Japanese version of the album and wasn’t available stateside until the 2005 compilation Steady Groovin’ was released. Soulive is Alan Evans on drums, Neal Evans on organ, and Eric Krasno on guitar, and they’d covered Stevie Wonder before this – “Jesus Children of America” was on their 2000 album Turn it Out. Their version of “Golden Lady” starts with Krasno’s funky guitar chords before the Evans brothers join in with some big organ chords and deep bass over a nice drumbreak. Alan Evans’ drums stay in drumbreak mode throughout, with just enough variation to make you notice the differences when he strays from the basic pattern. Here, Neal Evans’ organ takes the verse and then Krasno’s guitar takes the vocal line during the chorus. They play through a couple of verses and the second chorus and then at about 2:30, Evans takes an organ solo over the rhythm guitar and drumbreak, keeping things in this head-nodding space. At about 3:30, they return to the chorus and once again, Krasno’s guitar takes the vocal line over Evans’ organ chords. As on Wonder’s version, they move through several key changes and then starting around 4:45, Krasno starts to take some more liberties with the melody and takes a guitar solo as the song fades. (If you stick with this through the silence after “Golden Lady”, there’s also a solo piano piece tacked onto the end of this – presumably Neal Evans here, but it’s not credited as far as I can find.) This is a fine version of the tune, squarely in the pocket of what Soulive does (or at least did at the time) best, with some nicely funky organ and guitar over a drumbreak.

Sticking with the drumbreaks, the next version I’ll look at is from Madlib, er, Yesterday’s New Quintet, off the 2004 album Stevie. After a brief, spacy intro, Madlib moves into the verse on the Rhodes over a raw drumbreak on this bass-heavy version of the tune. At about 1:00, the chorus appears for the first time. There’s not much improvisation from the Rhodes over the main melody line, with the variation instead coming from some tremolo chords behind the main melodic line. At about 2:30, after the second time through the chorus, these tremolo chords get a little space to themselves and a few drumrolls are added. After this little break, the chorus returns at about 3:10. After moving through the chorus a few times, this version fades without the key changes at the end of the song. A pleasant enough version of “Golden Lady”, but definitely one for the beat-heads.

Kurt Elling’s 2011 album The Gate included his version of “Golden Lady”, arranged by Laurence Hobgood. Elling’s vocals are backed here by Laurence Hobgood on piano, Terreon Gully on drums, John Patitucci on bass, John McLean on guitar, Bob Mintzer on sax, and Lennie Castro on percussion. They open right up with Elling’s vocals, then bring in some muted piano and the bass underneath, bringing the tune in with some great atmospherics until the first verse comes in at about 0:50. They move through this at a simmer, taking the tune in a bit of a different direction from the funkier stuff above. Nice little riff at about 2:00 after the first chorus, and then into the second verse. Second chorus at about 2:40, with Elling improvising a bit on the melody during the chorus. After the chorus, a sax solo starts around 3:15 or so, with a sort of floating, smooth feel in here. Then around 4:00, Elling’s vocals return as they move through the key changes over the repeated choruses at the end of the tune, with Elling’s multi-tracked vocals adding some harmony behind the main vocal line. At about 5:00, Elling breaks into scat for a little while, and then they bring things down shortly afterward, ending with some muted piano notes fading – really great ending to this version. Elling’s vocals are really great here, and it’s good that the group took the song in a different direction, thanks to Hobgood’s great arrangement – no way anybody could follow Stevie Wonder’s vocals on the original, so Elling’s group made this their own song.

Deep Blue Organ Trio’s 2012 album Wonderful! included their version of “Golden Lady”. The trio is Bobby Broom on guitar, Chris Foreman on organ, and Greg Rockingham on drums. This version opens with a solo organ introduction, followed by the guitar and drums at about 0:30. After a few guitar chords, the first verse starts around 0:40, with Broom’s guitar taking the melody over the organ bass and chords and the rolling drums. At about 1:20, they move to the first chorus. The trio keeps Rockingham’s drums rolling along underneath the melody, without much embellishment to the melodic line. At about 2:40, Foreman opens it up, taking a nice organ solo after the second chorus. Very good stuff around 3:30 or so as he plays off the melody of the chorus, then continues along with his improvisation. Again at 4:20 or so, he moves back to the chorus, and then at 4:30 hands the melody back to Broom’s guitar for another verse. Into the chorus again just before 5:00, and the trio moves through the various key changes at the end of the tune, repeating the chorus. As on Soulive’s version above, Broom’s guitar takes increasing liberties with the melody, moving into a fine solo as the organ continues to cycle through the repeated choruses and key changes. At about 6:30, Broom is moving back toward the “Golden Lady” melody a bit; a fade starts not long after as the guitar solo continues. This is a fine organ trio version of the tune. A really nice organ solo in the middle of this. It seems clear that the trio has an idea of where they wanted this to go, and they took it there. The drums on this really set the Deep Blue Organ Trio’s version apart from Soulive’s version – where Soulive used a backbeat, these drums gave the tune a whole different feel from either the original Stevie Wonder version of the tune or from Soulive’s organ trio version.

Moving in a bit of a different direction, Robert Glasper and Derrick Hodge did a duet version of “Golden Lady” for the 1 Mic, 1 Take series on YouTube in 2013. Hodge starts this off with a big, grooving bassline before Glasper’s floating chords come in. They play through the first verse and then move to the first chorus at about 1:15. They add some nice chord substitutions at a few points in this. After the first chorus, Hodge’s bass takes the melody for the second verse as Glasper comps behind him. After the second chorus (also led by Hodge’s bass on the melody), Glasper takes a fine piano solo based closely on the “Golden Lady” melody and then moves through the chorus again. This continues, with Glasper adding more and more ornamentation to the melody… very nice chords around 4:05 or so, followed by some right hand runs. At about 5:00, Glasper returns to the verse, with some thicker chords underneath, and then moves back into the chorus at 5:30 or so. At 6:00, Hodge is playing percussion on the body of his bass as Glasper continues this improvisation. It seems like they didn’t have an ending set for this performance, and instead improvise a beautiful end to the tune, with Glasper playing some ascending runs and Hodge returning to his bass. Great duet version of the tune.

Also in 2013, Brad Mehldau did a solo piano version of “Golden Lady” in San Francisco. He opens this version of the tune with some nice chords as his left hand plays a few runs underneath at first, and then he gradually moves toward the “Golden Lady” chords, putting together a great improvised introduction that is casually amazing – is there another pianist besides Mehldau who plays like this? At about 1:00, he moves into the verse with his right hand taking the melody and his left hand playing a busy bassline underneath. He plays through the verse and moves into the chorus at about 1:35 or so, playing big, full chords with a churning rhythm to them. For the second verse, his left hand again plays a fast bassline underneath the vocal line for the first half of the verse and then the second half of the verse gets a more floating feel that carries into the chorus. Starting at about 3:45, there are just no words for this… Mehldau does Mehldau and you’ve just got to listen. At about 4:30, he returns to the “Golden Lady” melody, but in a little bit of a darker place than the tune started. He continues the improvisation, hinting at the “Golden Lady” theme in a low register again starting around 5:30 and then passing the melody from a low register to an upper register over these choppy chords – beautiful stuff. When he returns to the “Take me right away” vocal line around 7:05, remind yourself to take a deep breath because you likely haven’t for the last few minutes. This version won’t be a definitive version of the Stevie Wonder tune, but it’s an incredible example of what can be done using “Golden Lady” as a springboard.

“Golden Lady” has served as a soul-jazz jam, an organ trio spotlight, and a vehicle for some fantastic acoustic piano improvisations. This tune has a great groove, plus an interesting melody and harmony. As the versions here attest, there is plenty of space to explore within this tune. Where will it go next? Keep listening.

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