Stevie Wonder Biography
In the course of following Stevie Wonder on his relentless travels, journalists come to realize just how beloved an entertainer he is. "It dawned on me," wrote Giles Smith in the New Yorker, "that a substantial part of Stevie Wonder's public life consists of the voices of complete strangers telling him they love him." Rolling Stone's David Ritz had a similar epiphany. "Following Stevie Wonder around New York is exhilarating work," he wrote. "I get the feeling that he loves being Stevie Wonder. He loves the attention, the adulation, the chance to perform." What's more, Ritz remarked, Wonder's "optimism is infectious." Such optimism may spring from a deep spiritual wellspring, but it is also sustained by decades spent creating indelible, meaningful music.
It is estimated that Wonder—born Stevland Judkins Morris in Saginaw, Michigan—was blinded by a surfeit of oxygen in his incubator shortly after his premature birth. "I vaguely remember light and what my mother looks like," he ventured in a 1986 Life interview, "but I could be dreaming." His father left the family early on, and he and his five siblings were raised by their mother. She moved the clan to Detroit, where they struggled mightily to survive. Though he has groused good-naturedly in adulthood at the limitations his sightlessness has placed on him, Wonder told Ritz that as a child he soothed his mother's tears by telling her that he "wasn't sad." He recalled, "I believed God had something for me to do." Along with his siblings, he paid musical tribute to the Almighty in the Whitestone Baptist Church Choir, along with his vocal prowess demonstrating a gift for piano, harmonica, and drums by age 11.
Thanks to the intercession of a friend, Stevland was brought to the attention of Berry Gordy, president of Detroit-based Motown Records, and Gordy's producer Brian Holland. Gordy placed the exceptional young ster's career in the hands of his associate Clarence Paul, whom he designated as Stevie's mentor. Paul told Rolling Stone's Ritz that Gordy had instructed him, "Your job is to bring out his genius. This boy can give us hits." Handed the show business moniker "Little Stevie Wonder," the talented adolescent—signed to the Motown offshoot label Tamla—did indeed produce a stunning string of hits.
Wonder's fourth single, "Fingertips, Pt. 2," appeared in 1963 and became the first live performance of a song to reach the top of the U.S. pop charts. Also that year, Wonder became the first recording artist to reach the top position on the Billboard Hot 100, R&B singles, and album charts simultaneously. Unable to attend a regular Detroit school while becoming a pop sensation, Wonder was sent to the Michigan School for the Blind at Motown's expense.
"Motown meant discipline to me," Wonder recalled to Ritz. "The attitude was 'Do it over. Do it differently. Do it until it can't be done any better.'" Under such demanding circumstances the young performer grew up fast. In 1964 he put aside the "Little" label and let fans focus on the Wonder; over the next few years he churned out pop-soul smashes like "Uptight," "Nothing's Too Good for My Baby," "I Was Made to Love Her," and "For Once in My Life." By 1968 his label had amassed enough chart-toppers to fill his first Greatest Hits album.
In 1969 Wonder met President Richard Nixon at the White House, where he received a Distinguished Service Award from the President's Committee on Employment of Handicapped People. Meanwhile, he continued to pile up hits, as "My Cherie Amour" sold over a million copies and "Signed Sealed Delivered (I'm Yours)" vaulted up the charts. 1970 saw Wonder marry Syreeta Wright, a Motown employee and aspiring singer; the two wrote together, and Wonder produced several successful records for her. The marriage was short-lived, however; they divorced in 1972. By all accounts, they remain friends.
Wright has said that Wonder's music was her chief rival. "He would wake up and go straight to the keyboard," she recalled to Smith of the New Yorker. "I knew and understood that his passion was music. That was really his No. 1 wife." Wonder fathered children by three other women over the next couple of decades, though he did not remarry. "I was at the birth of two of my children," he confided in Life. "I felt them being born—it was amazing." In a 1995 Rolling Stone interview, the 44-year-old artist did express a yearning for matrimony, calling it "the space where we're most relaxed and able to give and receive maximum love. I'm not there yet—but soon. It's one of my goals."
When Wonder turned 21 in 1971 he was due the money he had earned as a minor (this arrangement had been stipulated in a previous agreement). But Motown only paid him $1 million of the $30 million he'd earned during that time. After considerable legal wrangling he managed to attain a unique degree of artistic and financial autonomy. "At 21, Stevie was interested in being treated well and in controlling his life and in presenting his music, and all those things were extraordinary things for a young man to ask at that point," explained Johanan Vigoda, Wonder's longtime attorney, to Smith of the New Yorker. "It wasn't the freedom to be dissolute or undisciplined. He wanted to be free so that he could bring the best of himself to the table."
What Wonder brought to the table—with the establishment of his own music publishing company and near-total creative freedom—was an increasingly sophisticated body of work that managed to fuse the high spirits of classic soul, the down-and-dirty syncopations of funk, exquisite melodies, and his own introspective and increasingly politicized lyrical sensibility. From a sonic standpoint, too, he was a trailblazer, demonstrating the versatility of the synthesizer when it was still something of a novelty instrument in the R&B world.
Wonder's momentum was almost stopped permanently by a 1973 automobile accident that nearly claimed his life and left him with deep facial scars. If anything, however, this event provoked him to redouble his efforts. Virtually all of Wonder's work during the early to mid-1970s is essential pop, most notably his albums Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and the epic Songs in the Key of Life. His songs from this period—including the percolating funk-rock workouts "Superstition" and "Higher Ground," the effervescent "Boogie on Reggae Woman," the jubilant paean to classic jazz "Sir Duke," the grittily nostalgic "I Wish," and the breezy chartbuster "You Are the Sunshine of My Life"—left most of Wonder's competition in the dust both artistically and commercially. "What artist in his right mind," mused singer-songwriter and soul icon Marvin Gaye in the presence of Rolling Stone's Ritz, "wouldn't be intimidated by Stevie Wonder?"
1979 saw the release of Wonder's musically beguiling Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, the theme of which many listeners found a little eccentric, to say the least. "It was a consideration of the physical and spiritual relationships between human beings and plants," Wonder explained to Ritz, quipping that "some called it shrubbish." Though he increasingly failed to match his creative and sales peaks of the preceding decades, Wonder was still a giant presence in the world of pop. His Hotter Than July, with its reggae-driven hit "Master Blaster (Jammin')," indicated his continuing creative restlessness. And "That Girl," the unstoppable love song "I Just Called to Say I Love You"—which won an Academy Award for best song and stands as Motown's top-selling single internationally—and his duet with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney on the anti-racism anthem "Ebony and Ivory" all burned up the charts.
Over the years Wonder also became progressively more involved in politics, lobbying for gun control, against drunk driving and the apartheid system enforced by South Africa's white minority, and on behalf of a national holiday in recognition of civil rights martyr Martin Luther King, Jr. He played a number of benefits and made public service announcements, often winning honors for his advocacy. The slogan underneath his picture on a poster for Mothers Against Drunk Driving read: "Before I ride with a drunk, I'll drive myself." He also contributed his labor to the Charge Against Hunger campaign organized by American Express.
By the late 1980s, Wonder had become less prolific than he had been in the past, but he was still phenomenally successful. He received a Grammy for 1986's In Square Circle and in 1989 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He won plaudits for his work on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's 1991 film Jungle Fever, allegedly composing the material for it in the space of three weeks. "Movies are always a good challenge," he told Neil Strauss of the New York Times, "because it's taking what's happening visually and, even though I'm not able to see it, getting a sense of the movie and finding a new way to work with it." His work for Jungle Fever had preempted a collection of songs he'd been crafting while living in the African nation of Ghana; the resulting disc would not hit stores for several years.
In 1992—by which time multimillion-dollar deals had become commonplace—Wonder signed a unique lifetime pact with Motown. "This is a guy you don't ever want to see recording for anyone else," company president Jheryl Busby told the New Yorker's Smith in 1995. "I worked hard to make Stevie see that we had his interests at heart. Stevie is what I call the crown jewel, the epitome. I wasn't looking at Stevie as an aging superstar but as an icon who could pull us into the future." Wonder himself seemed to share this sense of his eternal newness: "I'm going to be 45," he reflected to Ritz in Rolling Stone, "but I'm still feeling new and amazed by the world I live in. I was in the Hard Rock Cafe in Tokyo last week, and they started playing my records, and I started crying, crying like a little kid, thinking how God has blessed me with all these songs."
When Conversation Peace—the album on which Wonder had been working for nearly eight years—was released in 1995, it garnered a range of reactions. Vibe deemed it "a decidedly mixed bag, leapfrogging back and forth between divine inspiration and inoffensive professionalism"; reviewer Tom Sinclair took particular exception to the "cloying sentimentality" of some of the songs, as did other critics. Entertainment Weekly praised the album's sound, but noted that "the song selection here, while frisky, is thin, making this comeback small Wonder." Time's Christopher John Farley, however, while allowing that the recording "isn't a slam dunk," called it "another winner for Wonder." Regardless of their respective verdicts, most reviewers concurred that Wonder's versatility, passion, and chops remained intact.
Wonder proved the validity of these observations during his 1995 concert tour. "Running 2 1/4 hours, it was an outstanding show—full of pure, old-fashioned R&B," declared Los Angeles Times writer Dennis Hunt of Wonder's performance at the Universal Amphitheatre. Pondering the performer's endurance and the disappearance of most of his contemporaries from the scene, Hunt observed, "Some may point to exquisite taste as the key to Wonder's success, but the real secret is his ability to stay current, to be fluent in the R&B style of the moment." Not surprisingly, critics were virtually unanimous about Wonder's 1995 live double CD, Natural Wonder, which Rolling Stone called "an important and revelatory statement."
It took ten years for Wonder to release his next album—ten long years, in the opinion of his label, which went through troubled times over those years, including several changes in management. By mid-2005, Wonder had released the first single from the album, a funky number called "So What the Fuss" which featured Prince on guitar. The video for the single was greeted with acclaim as the first-ever video with descriptive narration for the visually impaired. The narration, voiced by rapper Busta Rhymes, describes the actions that accompany the song, including comments on what Wonder is wearing and what instruments are being played. The album, A Time 2 Love, was expected to follow by mid-summer 2005, yet Wonder kept delaying its release, to the frustration of Motown execs. Newsweek quoted wonder as saying: "The reason they haven't got it is I'm not ready to give it to them. However long it takes me, I'm giving the very best that I can…I won't settle for less." It remains to be seen how this album will fit into the Wonder pantheon of music.
Wonder has clearly slowed down the pace at which he releases albums, though he continues to consider himself both a musician and an activist. He conducts an annual holiday benefit concert to provide toys to underprivileged children, he performed at the Live 8 benefit concert in 2005, and he owns a Los Angeles radio station, KJLH, that is dedicated to serving L.A.'s black community. Asked by Billboard whether he had become more activist than musician, Wonder answered: "I'm more musician. My way of expressing how I feel when I'm talking about political or social positions is better served when I do it through my music. It's not to say I can't express myself verbally. But music is the vehicle I've been given as a way to do that." Wonder's plans for the future include a variety of projects. "I plan to do a book," he told Billboard, "and I'm excited about the prospects of a film…. It would be very inspirational in the things that I went through growing up as a little boy being blind and the things my mother had to contend with…. Then maybe there would be another film about the second half of my life…. More than anything, I want to do a musical. I'd also like to do an acting role. I have a couple of ideas I've been working on, film storylines that are pretty good." Though many in the music industry view Wonder as one of the forefathers of modern funk and R&B, Wonder insists that his musical career is far from over: "For me to say I've reached my peak is to say that God is through using me for what he has given me the opportunity to do. And I just don't believe that."
Albums (On Motown, unless otherwise noted)
Little Stevie Wonder: The Twelve-Year-Old Genius, 1963.
Recorded Live (includes "Fingertips, Pt. 2"), 1963.
Uptight (includes "Uptight"), 1966.
Down to Earth, 1967.
I Was Made to Love Her (includes "I Was Made to Love Her"), 1967.
Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits, 1968.
For Once in My Life (includes "For Once in My Life"), 1969.
My Cherie Amour (includes "My Cherie Amour"), 1969.
Stevie Wonder Live, 1970.
Signed Sealed and Delivered (includes "Signed Sealed Delivered [I'm Yours]"), 1970.
Where I'm Coming From, 1971.
Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, 1972.
Music of My Mind, 1972.
Talking Book (includes "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and "Superstition"), 1972.
Innervisions (includes "Higher Ground"), 1973.
Fulfillingness' First Finale (includes "Boogie on Reggae Woman"), 1974.
Songs in the Key of Life (includes "Sir Duke" and "I Wish"), 1976.
Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, 1979.
Hotter Than July (includes "Master Blaster [Jammin']"), 1980.
Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium (includes "That Girl"), 1982.
In Square Circle, 1985.
Jungle Fever (soundtrack), 1992.
Natural Wonder, 1995.
Conversation Peace, 1995.
At the Close of a Century (boxed set), 1999.
The Definitive Collection, 2002.
A Time to Love (includes "So What the Fuss"), 2005.
With Paul McCartney, "Ebony and Ivory," Tug of War, Columbia, 1982.
With Chaka Khan, "I Feel for You," I Feel for You, Warner Bros., 1984.
With Dionne Warwick, "That's What Friends Are For," 1986.
With Lenny Kravitz, "Deuce," Kiss My Ass, 1995.
Also contributed songs to albums by Rufus, Minnie Riperton, and other artists.
Love, Dennis, and Stacy Brown, Blind Faith: The Miraculous Journey of Lula Hardaway, Stevie Wonder's Mother, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
Lodder, Steve, Stevie Wonder: A Musical Guide to the Classic Albums, San Francisco, CA: Backbeat, 2005.
Werner, Craig Hansen, Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, New York: Crown, 2004.
Billboard, May 13, 1995, p. 26; December 11, 2004, p. 15.
Ebony, July 2004, p. 24.
Entertainment Weekly, March 31, 1995, p. 61.
Jet, May 8, 1995, pp. 56-58; May 22, 1995.
Life, October 1986, pp. 67-74.
Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1995, p. F1.
Newsweek, June 20, 2005, p. 44.
New Yorker, March 13, 1995, pp. 78-87.
New York Times, January 25, 1995, p. C15.
Rolling Stone, July 13, 1995, pp. 82-85, 126; January 25, 1996, p. 72.
Time, September 4, 1995, p. 76; April 10, 1995, p. 88.
Vibe, March 1995, pp. 97-98.
Stevie-Wonder.com, www.stevie-wonder.com (August 11, 2005).
Stevie Wonder Official Site, www.steviewonder.net (August 11, 2005).
—Simon Glickman and Tom Pendergast
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