On August 7, 1970, Stevie Wonder released an album titled Signed, Sealed & Delivered on Tamla records, and this album featured his own cover version of The Beatles’ December 3, 1965 chart-topping Parlophone(UK)/Capitol(US) single We Can Work It Out. Stevie performed the song in his own style, transforming it from folk-rock into a funky R&B tune. While the lyrics are the same in Stevie’s version and the melody is pretty much also the same, the feel of Stevie’s adaptation is completely different. Instead of being a laid-back acoustic guitar driven folksy song, Stevie’s version is upbeat, full of shouting backing vocals, and is more of a danceable R&B tune. Stevie’s reason for covering the song was not to hijack the hit, as Michael Coyle argues was the reason for a lot of cover version of pop hits, but rather to pay homage to The Beatles while at the same time offering his own funky interpretation of the song. By the time Stevie released his version, The Beatles’ We Can Work It Out had already been released for five years and was by now a well established mega-hit for The Beatles. Stevie aimed to take this hit that everyone was already familiar with and demonstrate how well it could be spun from folk-rock into his own unique brand of R&B.
The original Beatles version of We Can Work It Out is driven primarily by tambourine, acoustic guitar, and vocals. Harmonium, an instrument that sounds kind of like a cross between an organ and an accordion, also played in important role in the songs sound. The drums and bass are further back in the mix compared to the other instruments. The role of the rhythm section that drums and bass usually play is primarily left to the tambourine and acoustic guitar. The prominence of the acoustic guitar and tambourine make the song feel very folksy. But the waling of the harmonium, despite being further back in the mix actually makes the biggest difference in giving the song its feel. It gives the song a kind of melancholy feel. The harmonium compliments the feeling Paul puts into the lead vocals, a feeling of longing for something, like he’s longing to work this situation out with his girl. In addition, John’s vocal harmony in the chorus interacts beautifully with Paul’s very moving and expressive lead vocal.
Stevie Wonder may have technically been performing the same song, but the feel, mood and style he adds to it is entirely different. It is already apparent that this version is going to be quite distinctive from the original when it the first few seconds of the song opens up with some signature Stevie Wonder style funky clavinet playing. Then at the end of the 3rd bar, the rest of the band enters, beginning with a strong drum accent together with Stevie shouting a powerful “hey!” Already from this point it has been established that unlike the Beatles mellow folksy version, this version is going to be upbeat, cheerful and groovy. This version of the song is driven heavily by the drums, bass guitar, clavinet, and by powerful R&B style vocals. Stevie’s cover also features backing vocals, but rather than tight harmonies, the backing vocals consist more of high-energy shouting that is more typically found in R&B than folk. Stevie’s version doesn’t alternate between 4/4 and 3/4 time like the original version does but rather stays in a driving 4/4 groove the whole way through, making it more danceable. Stevie even adds an entire harmonica solo section to the song where he showcases his signature harmonica playing style. Overall, Stevie’s We Can Work It Out is very different from the original despite the fact that the melody and lyrics generally remains the same.
Stevie Wonder recently appeared on a CBS special honoring the 50th anniversary of the Beatles famous first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, and at this event, Stevie performed his rendition of We Can Work It Out. Before starting the song, Stevie offered an explanation for why he chose to cover the song.
I wanted to share a video of this performance but it got removed from YouTube for copyright infringement. But I did manage to transcribe what he said before it got taken down:
“I was 13 when I heard them sing for the first time, and I remember clearly this song that I’m about to do, I heard it when I was 15 years old, and it had a nice thing to it but I said someday I’m going to do it again with a little funky thing with it.”
The fact that Stevie can clearly remember when he first heard The Beatles clearly demonstrates how much of an impact The Beatles have had on him. He is offering homage to The Beatles by covering their song but at the same time he wanted to make it his own by making it into more of a funky R&B tune that is more typical of Stevie’s style. He especially makes the song his by adding his own harmonica solo to the song. Stevie was not in any way looking to steal market share from the original song while it was charting, the song had already had its run on the charts and had been released for five years when Stevie released his cover. Rather, Stevie was offering a fresh take on a familiar hit that people could enjoy the novelty of and appreciate the way in which Stevie was able shift the song so masterfully from folk rock into R&B.