Wow, I haven’t done one of these in a long freaking time.
Oh well, I got inspired to do this installment of Shuffling on My iPhone (formerly Shuffling on My iPod but who still uses iPods?) because on May 13th the legendary Stevie Wonder celebrated his 68th birthday and to commemorate the occasion I have been listening to a metric ton of Stevie songs over the past couple days. I have gone from “Fingertips” to “Part-Time Lover” and everything in between. But the one song that has gotten the most replays from me is 1968’s “I Don’t Why”.
“I Don’t Why” is not one of Stevie’s bigger hits. It was a modest hit at best that maxed out at #39 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was the B-Side to a much better known and more successful song in “My Cherie Amour” so it isn’t a shock that “I Don’t Know Why” was not given the love it deserved.
But for me, well, it is my all time favorite Stevie Wonder song.
From the opening of the song with the clavinet I was hooked. I mean who the hell uses a clavinet in an R&B song? Only a genius like Stevie Wonder that’s who! And he later showed that skill with the clavinet on “Superstition“.
And Stevie’s vocals are just sublime. This was an 18 year old Stevie who had tossed aside the ‘Little Stevie Wonder’ persona and was coming out as a full-fledged adult performer who was singing about love and loss and really showing that he felt that in his vocals. Stevie begins the song with a little melancholy undertone in his voice singing to an woman who treats him bad despite how much he loves her. As the song goes on and Stevie recounts all the ways this woman has done him wrong his voice gets more emotional and raw culminating in a primal scream near the end of the song where Stevie yells, with a combination of rage and yearning, that he is on his knees pleading…it is such a sadly beautiful show of emotion by a man who can’t stop loving this woman regardless of how futile it is. In the pantheon of unrequited love songs this one is definitely near the top for me.
The song has been covered a few times, most notably by The Jackson 5 and The Rolling Stones. The Jackson 5 version, titled “Don’t Know Why I Love You“, really doesn’t convey the emotions necessary to make the song work just because Michael Jackson was around 11 or 12 years old when they recorded it and his slight soprano just doesn’t have any emotional heft to it especially for a song about the pain of love.
The Rolling Stones version is pure style over substance because Mick Jagger doesn’t seem to connect to the subject matter of the song at the visceral level that a singer needs to. Mick sounds like he could take or leave this woman and not like her not loving him back is the most painful thing in the world.
The song was given a major pop culture boost a few years ago when it was used in a pivotal scene in the Season 2 episode of SCANDAL called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. In the season 14 episode, the married President of the United States is at the christening of his Chief of Staff’s new baby when he sees Olivia Pope (his true love) across the room and the two characters lock eyes as that awesome clavinet starts playing and its like the entire world falls away and only the two of them are in that room while Stevie Wonder sings about painful love. It is a really strong scene that bleeds into some truly epic angry sex in a closet and is made all the more compelling by the acting abilities of Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn with an assist from the musical genius of Stevie Wonder.
So in conclusion…”I Don’t Know Why” is a great song that deserves to be discovered and enjoyed by more people. So get out there and find it, download it and listen to it. I bet you’ll end up loving it as much as I do.