Stevie Wonder

Stevie WonderStevie Wonder was born Steveland Hardaway Judkins (later taking the name of Steveland Morris when his mother married) in Saginaw, Michigan on May 13, 1950. Born premature, baby Steveland was placed in an incubator for oxygen treatment. Sadly, he received too much oxygen, causing him to suffer from premature blindness. Though his family didn’t know it then, it was actually his loss of sight that later provided Wonder with a heightened awareness of sounds, evident in his vibrant, colorful music. Even as a child, Wonder was never deterred by his handicap, beginning to learn the piano at the age of seven and mastering both the drums and the harmonica by the age of nine. In 1954, Wonder’s family moved to Detroit where Steveland joined his church’s choir. The already musically inclined child absorbed this gospel influence and increased even further his musical interest.

While performing for some friends in 1961, Wonder was discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles. White quickly arranged an audition for Wonder at Motown records, where Berry Gordy signed the child prodigy on the spot. Gordy dubbed the child with the name Little Stevie Wonder and placed him in the care of producer/songwriter Clarence Paul. Stevies first two albums were released in 1962: A Tribute to Uncle Ray, which consisted of covers of Stevie’s idol Ray Charles, and The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, a jazz album showcasing his instrumental skills on piano, harmonica, and percussion. Neither of these albums, though they did show Stevie’s prodigal talents, sold exceptionally well because they lacked clear musical direction. This all changed in 1963, however, with the release of the jovial live album The 12 Year Old Genius, featuring the single “Figertips, Pt. 2”. This harmonica instrumental release shot to the top of both pop and R&B charts, making the album Motown’s first chart-topping LP and establishing Wonder’s commercial success.

Over the following year, Wonder produced a few more singles but all failed to reach the level of success that “Fingertips, Pt. 2” had. Wonder’s voice began to change, compelling his label to place his career temporarily on hold. Stevie did not sit idly by, rather he took up studying classical piano at the Michigan School for the Blind. Wonder reemerged triumphant in 1965, dropping the “Little” portion of his name and releasing the dance oriented smash “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” The song was number one in R&B and reached the Top Five on the pop charts. Wonder co-wrote the song, causing the public to view him as a more mature vocalist, and this led to the similar success of his next release “Nothing’s Too Good for My Baby.” These singles initiated a run of US Top 40 smashes that continued for over six years.

During this early part of Stevie’s career, Motown marketed the young prodigy as they did any other star-selecting Wonder’s material and compiling albums which blended traditional soul compositions with sounds meeting current pop criterion. With minimal control over what he was allowed to produce, Wonder still managed to give the world an early glimpse of his humanitarian principles. He released a hit cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Ron Miller’s “A Place in the Sun” in 1966. By this time, Wonder began to demand more control over his career. He co-wrote his next several hits, including “Hey Love,” “I Was Made to Love Her” (number one in R&B and number two in pop), and “For Once in My Life” (number two pop and R&B). For Wonder’s album For Once in My Life (1968) he co-wrote over half of the material and co-produced several tracks for the first time. His success commercially continued with three chart-toppers from this album, “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” “You Met Your Match,” and “I Don’t Know Why.” In 1969 he released a song he actually recorded three year previously, “My Cherie Amour,” to much success and later the Top Ten “Yesterday Me, Yester-You, Yesterday.” For the album Singed, Sealed, & Delivered Wonder received co-production credit for the first time. The single “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” was co-written by Wonder and singer Syreeta Wright, whom he married later that year. The marriage between Wonder and Wright lasted only 18 months, but the two continued to collaborate on musical endeavors. Wonder found continued success with the singles “Heaven Help Us All” and a rearrangement of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.” Wonder also began to combine with other Motown artists on releases, including the Spinner’s “It’s a Shame” and the Miracles “Tears of a Clown,” which became the groups’ only number one pop song.

In 1971, Wonder’s contract with Motown expired as he turned 21. He was also given access to the royalties set aside in his trust fund. Rather than immediately renewing his Motown contract, Wonder, who for some time now had fought with the label for more control over what he produced, set out on his own. Wonder financed and recorded two albums of exclusively his own material, giving him the ability to experiment with varying and more ambitious musical forms for the fist time. For Where I’m Coming From, Wonder forged the use of the synthesizer in black music, and also broadened his lyrical concerns to incorporate racial issues and spiritual concerns. Though the album produced only the Top Ten hit “If You Really Love Me,” it was critical in proving to Motown that Wonder was no longer content to produce albums of hit singles and filler-he wanted his work to be an artistic statement. Using the money from his trust fund, Wonder built his own recording studio and enrolled in music theory classes. He worked with Motown to negotiate an entirely new recording deal, in which he received much higher royalty rates and established his own music production company, Black Bull Music. This allowed Wonder to retain the rights to his music and gave him full artistic control over his music. Under this new music deal, Wonder first released Music of My Mind, which he produced and wrote entirely on his own. This album showed the industry the new Wonder, an artist of original talent willing to push the boundaries of contemporary R&B music.

Talking Book, released in 1972, showcased Wonder’s artistic advances and met with tremendous commercial success. The album became on of the strongest R&B works to ever be released, perfecting Wonder’s song craft as well as his use of futuristic electronic sounds. The funk classic “Superstition” (praised for featuring one of the most distinctive examples of the sound of the clavinet) and the mellow ballad “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” went on to win three Grammy’s between them. Wonder amazingly pushed his success even further with the 1973 release of Innervisions; a socially aware concept album about state of contemporary society. From this, the singles “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” became hits, and Innervisions received a Grammy for Album of the Year. Later that year, Wonder narrowly escaped death when a large timber fell on his car while en route to a concert in North Carolina. He suffered serious head injuries and lapsed into a coma, but thankfully recovered in a relatively short amount of time. The accident and his near brush with death had considerable impact on Wonder’s next few releases, as they incorporated the awareness of mortality and a renewed focus on spirituality. Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) was overall more somber, but featured the upbeat hit “Boogie On, Reggae Woman” and the scathing Richard Nixon critique “You Haven’t Done Nothin.” Wonder won his second straight Album of the Year Grammy. During this time, Wonder had been involved as a producer on Syreeta’s second album and upon its completion he retreated to his studio for two years to devout all his energy on creating what would be considered his magnum opus. Released in 1976, the double album Songs In The Keys of Life exceeded the expectations of any Wonder fan. It is considered by many to be Wonder’s most ambitious and fulfilling work of all time. The album showed Wonder’s talent in a variety of musical forms and a range of instruments, as well as thrilling audiences with a cheery tribute to Duke Ellington and praising powerful black figures in “Black Man.” If there were still people questioning Wonder’s musical abilities, this album secured him as one of the most admired musicians in the field of contemporary music.

For three years following the release of his magnum opus, Wonder released no new recordings. Instead, he directed his energy to creating the soundtrack music to the documentary film The Secret Life of Plants. This double album was released in 1979 (though the documentary never reached the public) to minimal success. The mostly instrumental album managed to make the Top Ten list but most speculated this was due to Wonder’s previous record alone. Eager to stay on top, Wonder released the pop album Hotter Than July in 1980. The reggae infused “Masterblaster (Jamming)” shot Wonder back to the top of the charts, as did “Happy Birthday,” a tribute song to Martin Luther King Jr. which was apart of Wonder’s campaign eventually successful to make this black leader’s birthday a national holiday. The Hotter Than July LP was Wonder’s first to go platinum thanks to enormous fan support.

When working on a follow up album in 1981, Wonder was hindered by delays. He sought outside projects, and in 1982 completed a racial harmony duet with Paul McCartney entitled “Ebony and Ivory.” The duet hit number one, and Wonder additionally released his greatest hits set Original Musiquarium I. From this, the new singles “That Girl,” and the jazzy “Do I Do” were both noteworthy chart-toppers. Next, still unable to finish his follow up to Hotter Than July, Wonder took on the project of creating a soundtrack for the Gene Wilder comedy The Woman in Red. The well-known song “I Just Called to Say I Love You” had audiences enthralled, and it soon became the best selling single ever and went on to win an Oscar for the Best Song. Though the public adored the hit, critics disregarded it as unsophisticated and sentimental.

Finally, in 1985 the album Wonder began 5 years ago was released. In Square Circle went platinum and consisted of several strong songs, most notably “Part Time Lover.” On the humanitarian front, Wonder performed on the number one charity singles “We Are the World” by USA for Africa and “That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne Warwick and Friends. In 1986 President Reagan granted the request of Wonder and his fellow campaigners to have Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday celebrated as a national holiday. The first Martin Luther King Day was celebrated on January 15, 1986 with a concert headlined by Wonder. It was a triumphant day for this outspoken campaigner of black rights.

In 1987 Wonder returned with the release of Characters, which was to be his final release of the ’80’s. This album, best known for the single “Skeletons,” was a hit on the R&B charts, but slid on the pop side. In 1989 Wonder was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame– a tribute to Wonder’s tremendous influence on contemporary music. Following two years of silence, Wonder emerged in 1991 with the soundtrack to Jungle Fever, a Spike Lee film. His next full album, Conversation in Peace (1995) failed to ignite the public but did win two Grammies for the single “For Your Love.” Coolio helped to revive Wonder’s notoriety by putting a rap spin on Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” which he called “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Temporarily back in the limelight, Wonder created a duet with Babyface, “How Come, How Long” (1996) that became a hit. Since then, Motown has continued to release Stevie Wonder’s work, repackaged in a variety of ways and recompiled endlessly, in order to showcase his legacy. Stevie Wonder is viewed today as a living legend; a man who continues to influence contemporary artists through his unique jazz soul, talent in a wide variety of musical genres, and willingness to defy set standards to convey a deeper social message.

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Records:

Stevie Wonder – I wish, Motown 1979

Stevie Wonder – Golden Lady, Tamla

Stevie Wonder – Make Sure You re Sure, Shelter Records

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