THE OPENING IS spare, just electric piano over a gently throbbing synth bass line, and then the vocal: “A boy is born in hard time Mississippi / surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty.” The radio cut of Stevie Wonder’s 1973 hit song “Living for the City” is a four-verse sketch of a loving Black family who work hard, live right, and yet can’t get ahead under the racist economic and social strictures of their Southern town. The instrumentation builds quickly—drums, synthesizer, hand claps, backup vocals—all performed by Wonder. It fades out on a choir of Wonders, singing variations of the chorus: “Living just enough, just enough for the city.”
The album version, more than 7 minutes long, segues from that repeated chorus into a spoken interlude. The boy of the first verse is now a young man arriving in New York City. He is quickly arrested for unwittingly taking a handoff of something illegal and incarcerated for 10 years. The melody and vocals return, heavier, rougher, with Wonder singing from “inside my voice of sorrow” to describe a now broken man who wanders the city, homeless.
“Living for the City” is from the album Innervisions, the third of an astonishing run of five albums Wonder released between 1972 and 1976. During this period, Wonder, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist who made his recording debut in 1962 as a 12-year-old, was stretching lyrically, innovating musically, and embracing a deeper social consciousness.