American music icon…living legend….musical genius….pioneer.
Those are just few descriptive words on a very long list of praises we could come up with to describe Stevie Wonder–an indisputable genius of not only R&B, but all popular music in general. Blind since birth, Wonder’s heightened awareness of all sounds helped him to cook up soulful, colorful music that coincided perfectly with his never-ending ambition to please his devoted fans. Nearly every music project he took on was crafted to perfection to mix with his trademark stamp of his cheery positivity–and for that all of us will be forever grateful.
Born Steveland Hardaway Judkins in Saginaw, MI, on May 13, 1950, Wonder was a premature infant and put on oxygen treatment in an incubator, which as a result of the excess of oxygen perpetuated a visual condition known as retinopathy of prematurity, which in turn caused his blindness. In 1954, Wonder and his family moved to Detroit, and in no time at all, a music-driven Stevie began singing in his church’s choir. From that heavenly moment, he blossomed into a genuine prodigy, taking on piano, drums, and harmonica…all by the tender age of nine years old.
While he was performing for some of his friends in 1961, Stevie was discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles, who got the singer an audition with Berry Gordy at Motown where he was signed almost immediately. Once at the label, Stevie was linked up with producer/songwriter Clarence Paul, under the new name Little Stevie Wonder. He released his first two albums in 1962: A Tribute to Uncle Ray, which featured covers of Stevie’s hero and inspiration, Ray Charles, and The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, an orchestral jazz album spotlighting his timeless instrumental skills on piano, harmonica, and assorted percussion. While neither set sold very well, it set everything up in 1963 for the release of his live album, The 12 Year Old Genius, which featured a new extended version of the harmonica instrumental “Fingertips.” Edited for release as an official single, thanks to Wonder’s irresistible, youthful presence, “Fingertips, Pt. 2” bulldozed its way to the top of both the pop and R&B charts, all while making The 12 Year Old Genius Motown’s first chart-busting album.
While continuing to whip up moderate singles (and dealing with a changing voice), none seemed to maintain the chart status that was on “Fingertips, Pt. 2.” level. In fact, as his voice changed, Stevie’s recording career was temporarily put on hold as he studied classical piano at the Michigan School for the Blind. Finally dropping the “Little” portion of his stage name in 1964, Wonder re-emerged the following year with the infectious classic, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” which became another chart smash. Not only did he co-write the song, but it also reinvented him as a child performer and into a more mature vocalist in the music chart game, which would help in making his follow-up record, “Nothing’s Too Good for My Baby,” another smashing success. A short time after, Wonder started to blend social activism views into his work, which would appear in 1966 through his hit cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and its follow-up, “A Place in the Sun.” However, Motown still had the ruling factor in Wonder’s choice of material, so this new direction would not yet become a major facet of his work…for the time being.
Now that Mr. Wonder was getting just a little bit older, a little bit wiser, it was time for him to start taking a little more control of his work–and that’s just what he did. He co-wrote several of his next hits, all of which made the R&B Top Ten — “Hey Love,” “I Was Made to Love Her” and “For Once in My Life.” It was his 1968 album For Once in My Life that showcased his unstoppable ambition; he co-wrote about half of the material and, for the first time, co-produced several tracks. The record contained a Stevie-sized serving of hits also including “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” “You Met Your Match” and “I Don’t Know Why,” with the singer striking gold again in 1969 with the pop and R&B Top Five hit “My Cherie Amour,”( a track in which he actually recorded three years prior) and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday.” This was all followed by a true crowning achievement in 1970 when Wonder received his first-ever co-production credit for the album Signed, Sealed & Delivered;he co-wrote the R&B chart-topper “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” with singer–and soon to be wife–Syreeta Wright.
Once the ’70s started getting their boogie on, Stevie’s career took a major turning point as 1971 saw our boy turning 21 and having his contract with Motown expire. Like the professional player he is, Stevie had set his music royalties aside in a trust fund which became available to him on his 21st birthday. A month before, Wonder released Where I’m Coming From, his first entirely self-produced album, which also marked the first time he wrote or co-wrote every song on an album and also marked the first time his keyboard and synthesizer productions dominated his arrangements. There were rumblings that Gordy was reportedly not fond of Stevie’s new work, and the album wasn’t a major commercial success, producing only the Top Ten hit “If You Really Love Me,” as well as the classic B-side flow “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” All music shade aside, the set went down as a brilliantly ambitious attempt at Stevie making his first unified album-length artistic statement, with the world noticing that he was no longer content to release albums composed of fluff. With that being thrown down, Wonder did not immediately renew his contract with Motown, instead, he used proceeds from his trust fund to build his own recording studio and to enroll in music theory classes at USC. He would also negotiate a new deal with Motown that dramatically increased his royalty rate and established his own publishing company, Black Bull Music, which allowed him to retain the rights to his music; most importantly, he wrested full artistic control over his recordings, as Gaye had just done with his groundbreaking tune, “What’s Going On.”
Now that our boy was going strong on his newfound creative independence from Motown, he had already begun really perfecting his genius craft. One perfection was his first set fully created at his new studio, Music of My Mind, a legendary album in which Mr. Wonder had not only produced, but played nearly all the instruments and written all the material, harking his arrival as a major, self-contained talent with a newfound vision that pushed the boundaries of R&B to its limits. The shimmering set produced a hit single in synth-driven serenade, “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” which in a weird twist of fate, came out right around the time that his marriage to Wright went south. But keeping on, that same year, Wonder toured with the Rolling Stones, which would only further cement his legendary status by bringing his music to a large white audience.
When it came time to record the follow-up to Music of My Mind, Wonder decided to reinvent his approach which led him to tighten up his songcraft while addressing his failed romance with Wright. The result was Talking Book, and it became the album that truly made Stevie a global phenomenon. Going down nice and smooth as one of the greatest R&B albums of all time, the whirling set managed to perfect Wonder’s out-of-this-world music experimentations going on to be hailed as a music masterpiece. The famed singer would strike chart gold not with just the album, but for pretty much every song on the set, including the funky classic “Superstition,” as well as the jazzed up ballad “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” with both tracks going on to win three Grammys between them. However, Wonder wonderfully topped himself the following year on his next album, 1973’s Innervisions, a true concept record about addressing the state of contemporary society that certainly held its own against Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as a pulsating pinnacle of socially conscious R&B. The ghetto musical story of “Living for the City” and the the self-enlightenment of “Higher Ground” both took over the music charts with the album taking home a well deserved Grammy for Album of the Year. However, Wonder was lucky to be alive to enjoy the fruits of his music labor as while being driven to a concert in North Carolina, a large timber fell on Wonder’s car where the singer sustained serious head injuries and lapsed into a coma, but fortunately for the music world and for all of us, he made a full speedy recovery.
Keeping on with his adult career reinvention, his next album, 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, was a bit less mainstream than its predecessors, but still contained those hits, including, “Boogie On, Reggae Woman” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin,” which would propel the legend to take home his second consecutive Album of the Year Grammy. But over the next few years, Wonder “retired” to his studio and spent two years crafting a large-scale project that would stand as his magnum opus, his 1976 smash, Songs in the Key of Life. The magnificent set was crafted up as a two-LP-plus-one-EP set that pulled praise to Wonder at his most ambitious levels. Some critics called it brilliant, but most critics hailed it as his greatest masterpiece and the culmination of his career. This was the album that would serve us with “Sir Duke,” Stevie’s magical tribute to music in general and Duke Ellington in particular, as well as the funky “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely,” one of his most famous tunes that was written for his daughter. Of course, there was also “Pastime Paradise,” another famous Stevie track that would later be deliciously sampled as the backbone of Coolio’s mainstream rap smash “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
With a tremendous amount of energy having been put into Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder was musically quiet over the next few years, finally returning in 1979 with his instrumental Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, which was actually the soundtrack to a never-released documentary. Although it helmed a handful of pop songs, including the hit “Send One Your Love,” its quirky flirtations actually confused most listeners and critics. But being that Stevie was still on fire, the set managed to crack the Top Ten on the album chart. It was also during this time that the press had speculated Stevie had gone off the deep end, and it was soon that Wonder rushed out the straightforward pop album Hotter Than July in 1980. The sultry reggae-flavoring of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” returned him to the top of his chart game as did album single, “Happy Birthday,” which would become the theme song of the successful campaign to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday with Wonder being one of the cause’s most active crusaders.
Once the ’80s got its leg warmers in gear, Wonder kept keepin’ on, crafting a follow-up album that was unfortunately plagued by delays, suggesting that he might not be able to maintain his one-time visionary genius. But he kept busy in the meantime, with “Ebony and Ivory,” his racial-harmony duet with Paul McCartney, which hit number one and found a music home on his greatest-hits set, Original Musiquarium I, which featured his biggest hits from 1972-1982. That was followed by his production of the soundtrack to the Gene Wilder comedy The Woman in Red, which wasn’t quite a full-fledged Stevie Wonder album but did feature a number of new songs, including “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” While absolutely adored by the public (it was his biggest-selling single ever), the cheeky number was panned by critics, but nonetheless, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” was an across-the-board number one smash, and won Stevie an Oscar for Best Song.
But finally, in 1985, Wonder completed his Hotter than July follow-up, In Square Circle, which was led by his last chart topping solo single, “Part Time Lover.” He also 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 & Friends, and returned quickly with a new album, Characters, in 1987. The record wasn’t a hit on the pop charts, but found music life on the R&B charts, giving lead single, “Skeletons” a lot more music bones, as well as becoming his final release of the ’80s. Wonder wouldn’t return to form until 1991 with the soundtrack to the Spike Lee film Jungle Fever, with his next full album of new material, 1995’s Conversation Peace, becoming a commercial flop despite winning two Grammys for the single “For Your Love.”
Pretty much since the late ’90s all the way until today, Motown has released a number of remasters and compilations attempting to define and repackage Wonder’s vast legacy and to undoubtedly make sure his memorable music catalog keeps on going from generation to generation. These music days, there’s no need to argue that his mystical, powerful musical influences helped paved the way for the neo-soul movement that came to prominence in the late ’90s. The words on this page truly only scratched the surface of Wonder’s impact on contemporary popular music, all the more reason for his rightful induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. For those who got the dubious chance to see him this past summer at Philly’s Dilworth Park for his surprise pop up concert, and for those that are seeing him during his Songs In The Key Of Life Tour, are truly lucky to get to be in the presence of such music greatness, because truly, they certainly don’t make them like Stevie anymore.
Go on, Mr. Wonder.