This song finds Stevie chronicling his younger days from the 1950s onto the early '60s when he was a "nappy-headed boy" growing up in difficult circumstances. Despite living in poverty, he looks fondly on those days and wishes they could come back once more. It was a simple time when his only worry was "for Christmas what would be my toy."
Wonder wrote the song after attending a Motown company picnic in 1976 where he participated in contests and games; an afternoon in which he felt that he rekindled his childhood. "I had such a good time at the picnic that I went to Crystal Recording Studio right afterward and the vibe came right to my mind," he said.
The song was Stevie's fifth #1 on the Hot 100, staying at the summit for one week. He topped the chart on nine different occasions throughout his career.
The voice that says "You nasty boy!" is Wonder's sister, Renee Hardaway.
Nathan Watts' infectious 8-note bassline is one reason why "I Wish" is one of Stevie Wonder's most sampled songs. The best example is Will Smith's 1999 chart-topper "Wild Wild West
," which was the theme song to the film by the same name starring Smith and Kevin Kline.
Along with "Sir Duke," this was one of two #1 US hits from Songs in the Key of Life, a landmark double album that Wonder produced himself.
Taking two years to complete, the album was a salute to Wonder's perfectionist ethos ("If it takes two years or seven years, I must be satisfied when it's done"), with the largest and most diverse collection of songs out of all his releases. It was the first album Wonder produced after signing a seven year contract with Motown Records, reputed to be worth $13 million. The Motown representative that bartered the contract said that the success of this album, which won the Album of the Year Grammy Award, convinced him that he had not been cheated in the deal. Clearly it was worth it, earning not just commercial success but praise from other artists who cite its influence. Elton John said of the album in 2003, "Let me put it this way: wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of Songs in the Key of Life. For me, it's the best album ever made, and I'm always left in awe after I listen to it."
This won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.
Stevie Wonder told ABC Audio during a virtual press conference that he always writes the music and melody first to let the words become their own. He cited this song as an example, explaining it was originally going to be about "The Wheel of 84" and other Eastern religious spiritual teachings. "But then it was one time we were in the studio," he added, "just talking about things that happened when we were kids... back in the day... So it turned into 'I Wish.'"
Listening to the house band at Motown Records gave wonder a great respect for the anonymous musicians who play on the hits, so he listed song-by-song credits on his albums starting in 1972 with Music of My Mind. The credits on "I Wish" read:
Nathan Watts – bass
Hank Redd – alto saxophone
Raymond Maldonado – trumpet
Trevor Laurence – tenor saxophone
Steve Madaio – trumpet
Stevie Wonder – vocals, Fender Rhodes, ARP 2600 Synthesizer, drums
The Australian Idol first season winner, Guy Sebastian, covered this on his second album Beautiful Life (2004).
This was used on American Horror Story in the 2013 episode "Madness Ends."
Jacob Artist sang this on Glee in the Stevie Wonder-themed episode "Wonder-ful" in 2013.
An interesting cover version of this song was an entirely instrumental rendition by the saxophonist Najee, appearing on his Stevie Wonder tribute album Songs From the Key of Life (1995), in which he substitutes his sax for Wonder's voice in the first half of the song, then breaks into a bearable solo (although he's no Charlie Parker), without entirely crossing the boundary between pop and jazz.