Among the most moving performances at Michael Jackson's memorial service was Stevie Wonder's emotional renditions of two songs: “Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer” and “They Won't Go When I Go.” Media reports seemed baffled by these two choices, as they are somewhat obscure to casual Wonder fans. To clarify the often misidentified tracks, the following details the songs' backgrounds.
“Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer” derives from his 1971 album Where I'm Coming From, which departed from his previous pop-oriented work. Here he gained full control of his material, co-writing every track with then-wife Syreeta Wright.
Two successful singles emerged from the album: “If You Really Love Me,” which nodded toward his “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” sound, and “Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer.” The track encompasses some of Wonder's best songwriting, likening the end of a relationship to the changing of seasons. Shifting from spring to summer to autumn, the lyrics track his lover's changing feelings: “You said there would be warm love in springtime/That was when you started to be cold,” he sings; he hopes that “the cold would leave by summer” and that she would be “the life in autumn.” When Wonder, accompanying himself on piano, holds the final note on the line “why didn't you stay?” it clearly emphasizes his grief and longing.
At the memorial service, Wonder then segued into “They Won't Go When I Go,” a spiritual tune from 1974's Fulfillingness' First Finale. This album shows his further progression into sophisticated songwriting and arranging, although the overall sound is more intimate and stripped down. Virtually every track on this work demonstrates his vast artistry, although “You Haven't Done Nothin'” (featuring backup vocals by the Jackson 5) and “Boogie on Reggae Woman” experienced the greatest chart success. But “They Won't Go When I Go” contains some of the most somber lyrics Wonder ever wrote, backed by heavily classical-influenced piano. A sampling of the lyrics illustrates the song's somber tone:
Unclean minds mislead the pure
The innocent will leave for sure
For them there is a resting place
People sinning just for fun
They will never see the sun
Fleeing from “the greed of man,” “lying friends,” and “hopeless sinners,” the narrator longs for his soul to be released to the “kingdom” where no evil can touch him. Despite these dark images, the song ends on a strong, defiant note: "No one can keep me/From my destiny,” Wonder sings, holding the last syllable. While the track may deviate from Wonder's typical themes of optimism and desire to change the world, it represents his continual exploration of spirituality. Perhaps it can be seen as a bookend to another Fulfillingness' First Finale song, “"Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away," where he responds to those who doubt God's existence. Quite simply, “They Won't Go When I Go” is a quiet masterpiece that, until now, received less attention than it deserved.
Before performing “Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer,” Wonder seemed to state that Michael Jackson covered this song. However, discography searches reveal no such recording (if anyone knows where such a recording exists, I'd love to hear it). But Wonder and Jackson recorded together several times, such as on the aforementioned “You Haven't Done Nothin'.” One of their most notable collaborations exists on Jackson's Off the Wall album, with the Wonder composition “Can't Help It.” Wonder occasionally performed the song live, but never issued a studio recording. The duo went on to record two duets: “Just Good Friends” from Jackson's Bad, and “Get It” from Wonder's Characters album. Of course they also performed together on the all-star “We Are the World” single.
Both “Never Thought You'd Leave in Summer” and “They Won't Go When I Go” can be found on the excellent four-CD collection At the Close of a Century. However, Fulfillingness' First Finale in particular is a valuable addition to any music collection, as it shows an artist expanding his creative horizons lyrically, thematically, and musically. If anything positive can emerge from Jackson's death, it's that these two often overlooked songs have finally earned some much-deserved acclaim.