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Stevie Wonder - "Sir Duke"

In "Sir Duke," Stevie Wonder's tribute to Duke Ellington, the chorus ("You can feel it all over, you can feel it all over, people") is sung over this progression (in B major):

| B - - - | Fm7 - - - | Ema7 - - - | C#m7 - F#11 - | B - - - | ...

I'd be very interested in any thoughts on that "Fm7".  The rest of the progression is conventional.

Recording here: https://youtu.be/s6fPN5aQVDI (first chorus is at 0:45).

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  • 5 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • Great progression! To my ears, there are at least two factors that make the Fm7 chord intelligible within the context of the larger chorus.

    1) Part of a ii-V-I fake-out. The Fm7 has the voicing of a ii7 within a standard jazzy ii-V-I harmonic module, in this case one that would tonicize EbM (bIV or III# in B). That's a pretty far flung region to tonicize, but chromatic sequences involving ii-Vs that go to bizarre places before returning to the home key are fairly common. I could imagine a more boring version of this progression being B-Fm7-Bb7-Ebm7-Ab7-C#m7-F7-B. Of course, that's not what happens, and the Fm7 instead resolves "deceptively" down by step to EM7 -- kind of like a tritone substitution, where EM7 serves double duty as bV (or bIIM7) to an unrealized EbM, and and IV with respect to the global key.

    2) A bit of a simpler explanation is that Fm7, by sharing three common tones with G#M, is an alteration of the more familiar functional V/ii chord. In fact, the harmonic syntax of the chorus works perfectly fine if that second chord is G#7. On this interpretation, the F(nat) bass note is either a kind of "underseventh" added dissonance, or a 13th that somehow found its way below the rest of the chord.

    I'd be very curious to hear what your own interpretation is, Marty!

  • Thanks Frank, and yes to all of that.

    I think the genius of the Fm7 is that it's a little bit of three different things combined:

    - At the moment it hits, you think it might possibly be starting a ii-V to D#/Eb, the III of B.  (This song being an homage to Duke Ellington, I'm reminded of the modulation to III that starts the bridge of Prelude to a Kiss.)  But once you get past beat 3 of that measure with no chord change, you realize you've probably been faked.

    - Once you get to beat 1 of the next measure, you've heard the strong root motion down a half-step from F to E.  In that context you'd have expected the F chord to be a subV7/IV, F7 (or maybe a bII/IV, Fmaj7).  It's Fm7 instead, but you still hear the flavor of a subV7/IV approach because of the root motion.  Kind of tempting to just call it that, F7, with a chromatic alteration of 3 down to b3, but that seems like cheating because that's a fundamental change in chord quality.  I suppose you could say this isn't "really" an "Fm7 chord" at all, but rather a passing chord or sonority that has two common tones with the Ema7 that it resolves to.

    - And then there's the VI aspect:  The "Fm7" has three common tones with G#, and a G#7 would be perfectly fine here, B - G#7 - Ema7 - C#m7, a cycle-3 progression.  So you can think of this as G#/F, and I definitely get that flavor when I hear it.  In fact, you've already been primed somewhat to hear it that way, because the verse of the song starts: B - G#m.  Also worth noting here is that the bassline gives more prominence to the note G#/Ab than would be typical ... in this context you'd tend to expect, basically, a 1-5-1-5, F-C-F-C bassline, but instead, Ab is prominent.  (In the first chorus it's on beats 2 and 4.)

    The end result is that while it's hard to pin down the Fm7 from a functional standpoint, it sure sounds like functional harmony!

  • Hi Marty,

    I tend to think of it along the lines of your second explanation, i.e., as a tritone sub (or altered tritone sub) for the V7 of IV. This 1–b5-4 bass motion seems fairly common in R&B, such as in the beginning of "Mr. Telephone Man" by New Edition and the beginning of "Love on Top" by Beyoncé. The pitch content of the chords in those songs is not exactly the same as it is in "Sir Duke," but I hear it as basically the same harmonic "gist."

  • Thanks Trevor, great examples!  Mr. Telephone Man sounds to me like bV7(#5), and Love On Top sounds like bV7(b5), so both are actual subV7/IV, vs. bv7 in Sir Duke, but like you I get that same vibe from the strong b5-4 root motion.

    In Sir Duke there are two melody notes over the Fm7: first Bb, then Ab.  Kind of interesting to hear the morphing effect you get if you first play Fm7 under the Bb, then F7#5#9 under the Ab.

    I'd love to find another example of this use of bv7.