#81: Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July (1980)

Throughout the next however many months I’ll be counting down my 100 favorite albums, because why not. I’m up to number eighty-one.

“Hey, kid, do you want an egg? I have soft-boiled and hard-boiled.” The egg dealer was named Bea, and she looked like a Bea, unless you’re picturing Bea Arthur, who had the standard issue Bea hair style but from the neck down was more of a Nancy. Sitting in a golf cart in her white Polo shirt, white shorts and sun visor, the egg dealer was Bea to the core. She was an older woman, as all Beas are, whatever their age.

It was summer, and six-year-old I was at day camp. Candy Mountain was the camp’s name, though nobody dispensed a Pixy Stix or Razzles or Pez. They, or more specifically Bea, one of the camp’s administrators, offered eggs. I assumed that other kids had cravings for eggs, and I was a weirdo for not sharing that yearning.  By that age I had already decided to never eat an egg – IT’S SOMEBODY’S CHILD! – a decision I have yet to go back on. My opposition also applies to ingesting anything with “egg” in its name. I’ve never tasted eggnog. Not only is “egg” off-putting, but why would I drink something called “nog?” That must be the name of the caveman who invented it. “Me Nog. Drink this!” I would rather have wax lips or Wacky Packs. I felt the same way when I was 6. Keep your eggs, Bea-yotch, and hand me a stick of bubblegum designed to look like a cigarette, a popular candy in 1970. Packaged in replica cigarette boxes and bearing the names of actual cigarette brands, the gum was covered in powdered sugar so you can blow through the cigarette tube and it looks like smoke coming out, making a six-year-old look as cool and sophisticated as a real smoker! That’s good marketing.

Thoughts that went through my head watching Bea the egg trafficker at day camp:

  1. I’d hate to go trick or treating at Bea’s house. No Necco Wafers. No Bottle Caps. No elastic bands with different color candies that you pull over your head and eat bit by bit, staining your neck; and
  2. I hope someday I never have a menial job that doesn’t utilize my skills. (I may be fuzzy on the age when this last thought hit me.)

After a couple of years at Candy Mountain my parents sent me to a sleepaway camp called Echo Lake. I was an outcast there as well, not for dietary reasons but because the activities centered around sports, and I was as athletic as a cactus.  One counselor introduced us to a “sport” he must have learned in the yard at San Quentin. Dodgeball was where the brawny, strapping pre-teen boys who could throw a ball with the force of a category 5 hurricane would at the same time hurl their balls at the faggot with the glasses and braces who on occasion wet his bed. One kid, Marshall, threw the ball at me with the rage of a 30-year-old man who discovered his far more attractive wife was having an affair with Chet, the handsome 6’2” college student with perfect teeth who lived two doors down when he wasn’t at the university leading the rowing team to victory. “Hey Chet, you think I’m going to let you rumpy pumpy with my wife? Maybe a red foam ball in your broad round right deltoid will make you rethink that!” Thwak!

Eventually, the camp counselors allowed me to dodge dodgeball. While the other boys played with their balls, I was at the Arts & Crafts shack, where I learned macramé and made “God’s Eyes” using yarn, glue, and popsicle sticks. I may have been a sissy when I first got to camp, but when I left, I was a sissy with 23 God’s Eyes and a macramé guitar strap.

Once I got my driver’s license at age 17, I substituted summer camp for a summer job. I worked at a pharmacy in Fort Lee, NJ for the Siegels, a married couple who detested each other. Not a day would pass without them yelling and Mrs. Siegel pelting her husband with whatever was in reach – deodorant, perfume bottles, a stapler – all in full view of the customers. Despite that, it wasn’t a great place to work.

My job responsibilities included making deliveries using the Siegels’ car, which had a hole in the driver side floorboard, no air conditioning and only one window you could roll down, and brakes that worked provided you planned your stops two blocks ahead of time. In the store I would ring up purchases, organize the shelves, and pretend to be organizing the shelves when in fact keeping an eye on customers Mr. Siegel perceived as “suspicious.” At first I was impressed by how from his years in the biz he could spot a suspicious person as soon as they walked through the door. After tailing three or four potential customers I realized his definition of “suspicious” was “Black.” I was so embarrassed having to carefully monitor shoppers my racist boss found dubious. What could be more humiliating than following Black people while they shop? (Black person: “Being followed while I shop.”) Then Mr. Siegel would complain how Black people come into the shop but never buy anything. Gee, I wonder why, Grand Wizard. Do they not know that the only reason I’m standing so close to them wherever they are in the store is to protect them from flying staplers? I was so afraid one of these customers would recognize me later outside of the store and get revenge. “Aren’t you that guy from the pharmacy who followed me around? I’m not flying this plane while you’re on it.”

Some days the Siegels brought their three children to work. Peter was 8 and resembled 70s child actor Mason Reese. Bonnie was 14 years old and also resembled 70s child actor Mason Reese. In the middle was Andrea, who Mr. Siegel introduced to customers as “the attractive one.” “One out of three ain’t bad,” he’d say while the Mason Reeses busied themselves putting pills in prescription vials.

After my second summer working there the Siegels sold the pharmacy and immediately the vibe at the store changed. It was quiet, peaceful, serene. Boring. I found a new summer job.

In my essay inspired by the Pet Shop Boys’ album Actually (#94), I wrote of my summer job at Lipton. At the time I was a student at Brandeis University, which sits just outside the Ivy League. I excelled at math. I had excellent communication skills. I was majoring in Computer Science. And my summer job, for a wage of $3.85 per hour, was counting out eleven croutons, placing them in a packet of dehydrated soup, and heat-sealing the packet, over and over again for eight hours a day, five days a week. I rationalized that it could have been worse. I could have applied for that job and been turned down. “You’re not the right fit,” as if I didn’t know that already. Or maybe the HR recruiter could have said “Didn’t you work last summer in that pharmacy in Fort Lee, following me around when I wanted to buy Tylenol?”

After graduating college I got a full-time job at CBS Records. Finally, I didn’t get summers off. Hallelujah! Those past summers were disruptive and nothing good came of them. A very wise man once that the only good summer was Donna Summer, and I have to agree, for I’m the one who said it.

Summer is the Nickelback of seasons. Besides the crappy jobs or spending eight weeks at a sleepaway camp that was one step down from Guantanamo, there’s the heat. July is way too hot, and August is hotter than July. The only thing hotter than July I like is the 1980 Stevie Wonder album of that name. Bammo! Just call me the Sire of Segues. The Prince of Pivots. The Tsar of Transitions. The Milker of Metaphors.

Stevie Wonder never had to resort to making deliveries for a pharmacy in order to get some spending cash. He had his first #1 single at the age of 13. He was 30 years old when he released Hotter Than July, his 23rd album. By that time he already had 36 top ten hits on the US pop charts as a singer, plus several more as a writer. He probably was better than me at dodgeball, too.

The album’s big hit was “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” where Stevie sings of a celebration in the park. The revelers blasted Bob Marley from a boombox, which sounds like a lot more fun than that summer day I went to Central Park with my friend Kathy to tan. We spread out a blanket on a grassy field just off a popular footpath. Not ten minutes after we got there another couple spread out a blanket amidst Kathy and me and the dozen or so other sun worshipers. They disrobed. Completely. They pulled the flimsy, hole-ridden blanket over them and they proceeded to rumpy pumpy. To bake the potato. To bam bam in the ham. Twice. I was jealous. It’s not that I wanted to sweep the chimney with Kathy. It was that this couple’s lack of shame around doing a bit of the old in out in public contrasted with the anxiety I experienced removing my shirt to go tanning. Suddenly I was eleven years old again, taking a dodgeball in the face. I still don’t fit in.

The story of that master blaster jammin’ his ladyfriend in the park reminds me of the time I was walking home from the Britney Spears concert at Madison Square Garden. It was eleven at night and the blocks were pretty dead until I reached my always hoppin’ neighborhood of Chelsea, where on the corner of 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue, a man who bore a passing resemblance to Shrek shouted to me “HEY! DIDN’T I FUCK YOU IN THE PARK LAST WEEK?” I swear all of New York State was at the corner of 23rd and Seventh at that moment. Drivers stopped driving. Pedestrians stopped pedestrying. Thirty-six million eyes were on me. I was mortified to think that everyone thought I would, out in the open in a public place, rumpy pumpy with someone so slovenly, so homely, so not a Chet. “Um, that wasn’t me,” I replied, but nobody believed me. They pointed and laughed and whispered to each other. An unflattering photo of me appeared the next day on the front page of the New York Post under the headline Shrek Shags Schwartz. Through much effort I was able to get any mention of it scrubbed from the Internet. You’re going to have to trust me on this one.

The other US top 40 single from Hotter Than July was “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It.” Although it reached a respectable #11 on the pop chart, it is largely forgotten by those who don’t have the album. It’s a lightweight though catchy number in which Stevie addresses the rumblings that his lover is having an affair, singing “Somebody’s been pickin’ in my cherry tree” and “Somebody’s been rubbin’ on my good luck charm,” which are very silly euphemisms for baking the potato.

Perhaps the best-known song on Hotter Than July is “Happy Birthday,” which hit #2 in the UK, #5 in Ireland, #8 in Switzerland, yet didn’t even chart in the US , which is ironic, as the song makes the case for turning the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into an American holiday. It took a lot of marching, lobbying and organizing, but finally, in 1983, a bill making Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a holiday was signed into law. See – music can change the world. On the King Holiday in 2023, Wonder posted a video on Instagram, saying “Forty years later…what have we done for the planet? How have we really helped each other? Where has poverty been eliminated, why are guns still protected, and why has hate been elevated?…Dr. King, I wish I could say you were here, but it feels like we did not deserve you then, and we’re not much better now.” Scratch my last comment. Music can only do so much. Neanderthal thinking from the days of Nog pollute the minds of too many people.

Racism is also addressed on Hotter Than July’s “Cash In Your Face,” wherein Wonder uses a higher vocal register to portray a man is not allowed to move his family into an apartment complex because they’re, as Mr. Siegel would say, suspicious. Using a lower vocal register, Wonder portrays the landlord, who comes up with a host of reasons to deny the application for a vacant apartment. That the wannabe lessee can provide good references is of no matter to the landlord: “You might have the cash but you cannot cash in your face / We don’t want you living in here.” America was so racist in 1980! And before 1980. And since 1980. We can stop the marketing of bubblegum cigarettes to kids, but America can’t shake its traditions of hate.

To be sure, “Cash In Your Face” is no “Living For the City,” a classic from Stevie’s album Innervisions, which is coming up on this list. And “Do Like You,” a joyous tribute to his son Keita, is no “Isn’t She Lovely,” the classic joyous ode to his daughter Aisha from his album Songs in the Key of Life, which also is coming up on this list. (For a moment I was hesitant about comparing the two songs, so as not to hurt little Keita’s feelings, but then I realized he’s 46 now, so he should be able to handle a cold hard truth.) While Wonder’s work on Hotter Than July may not be at the level of the most of the albums he released during the ten years prior, it is a worthwhile album, which says a lot about the level of genius with which Stevie spoiled us. Its themes remain resonant, the melodies are memorable and work perfectly in concert with the lyrics, and I love the way Stevie uses his voice – in the sense that he’s a great singer and in that he uses his stature to bring awareness to issues and to try to effect positive change. He’s a good egg.

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