Stevie Wonder “is an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer. A prominent figure of 20th century popular music, Wonder has recorded more than thirty top ten hits, won 25 Grammy Awards (a record for a solo artist), plus one for lifetime achievement” (Wikipedia). “He has nine U.S. number-one hits to his name and album sales totaling more than 100 million units. Wonder has recorded several critically acclaimed albums and hit singles, and writes and produces songs for many of his label mates and outside artists as well” (Wikipedia).
The Boy Genius
Wonder “was the third of six children. As a premature infant Wonder was placed in an incubator and accidentally given too much oxygen, causing him to go blind. Stevie never looked upon his blindness as being a handicap. “I did what all the kids my age were doing, I played games, rode bikes and climbed trees.” When Stevie’s family moved to Detroit, his mother was afraid to let her seven-year-old boy out of the house. To pass the time, Wonder would beat spoons on pots, pans, and any other surface that helped him keep rhythm with the tunes he heard on the radio. As he became proficient on various real instruments, he started playing at the local church and soon grew to be something of a neighborhood sensation. His first introduction in the music field came when he received a gift of a small six hole harmonica from his uncle and a set of toy drums for Christmas. A local Kiwanis Club replaced the toy drums with a set of real drums soon after.
Ronnie White of the Miracles heard the ten-year-old boy playing the harmonica and called him to the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. When Gordy came to hear Wonder, he signed him on the spot. When Wonder began recording in 1962, he was only eleven years old. Even then, his talent was evident, although there was no sign of how deep it was. After all, the music was the work of a startlingly gifted child; it was all exuberant flash, with few complexities.
“At the age of thirteen, he had a major hit, Fingertips (Pt. 2), a 1963 single taken from a live recording of a Motor Town Revue performance. The song, featuring Wonder on vocals, bongos, and harmonica, and a young Marvin Gaye on drums, was a #1 hit on the U.S. pop charts and launched him into the public consciousness” (Wikipedia).
The Teenage Wonder
“Dropping the ‘Little’ from his moniker, Wonder went on to have a number of other hits during the mid-1960s, including…Blowin’ in the Wind, a Bob Dylan cover which was one of the first songs to reflect Wonder’s social consciousness. He also began to work in the Motown songwriting department, composing songs both for himself and his label mates. One such example is ‘Tears of a Clown’, the number one hit performed by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles” (Wikipedia).
He also married backup singer Syreeta Wright in 1970; they “divorced eighteen months later, but they continued to collaborate on musical projects” (Wikipedia).
Wonder also started amassing Grammy nominations. His first came in 1966 when Uptight lost both Best R&B Recording and Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance awards to Ray Charles’ “Crying Time.” For Once in My Life lost the 1968 Best Male R&B Vocal Performance to Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours lost in the same category two years later to B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” Hard to quibble with losses to those classics, huh?
Lou Rawls’ “A Natural Man” beat Wonder’s cover of We Can Work It Out in that category in 1971. Wonder should have lost again that year – but it should have been to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”
A New Direction
Stevie was growing tired of churning out material through Motown’s assembly-line approach. He’d had tastes of writing and producing in addition to his singing and instrumental abilities, but he didn’t really have control over his material. He “allowed his Motown contract to expire…[and] left the label on his twenty-first birthday in 1971” (Wikipedia).
“Wonder independently recorded two albums, which he used as a bargaining tool while negotiating with Motown. Eventually, the label agreed to his demands for full creative control and the rights to his own songs, and Wonder returned to Motown in March 1972 with Music of My Mind” (Wikipedia), which, “unlike most previous artist LPs on Motown, …was an actual LP, a full-length artistic statement” (Wikipedia).
Wonder’s new creative peaks also brought accolades. In 1973, Wonder won Grammys for Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for Superstition, “which is one of the most distinctive examples of the sound of the clavinet. The song, originally intended for rock guitarist Jeff Beck, features a rocking groove that garnered Wonder an additional audience on rock radio stations” (Wikipedia). That song and You Are the Sunshine of My Life were #1 pop hits, although the latter mined more romantic territory and “has been a staple love song for the decades since” (Wikipedia). It lost Record and Song of the Year, but won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Oddly, he also took home a Grammy for Album of the Year, but for Innervisions, not Talking Book, which spawned the aforementioned songs.
To be fair, Innervisions was so slouch. “Political considerations were brought into greater focus than ever before” (Wikipedia) on an album that featured “the driving, percolating Higher Ground (#4 on the pop charts) followed by the memorable epic Living for the City (#8)” (Wikipedia).
On August 6, 1973, just days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was in a serious automobile accident while on tour, when a log from a truck went through a passenger window and struck him in the head. This left him in a coma for four days and resulted in a permanent loss of his sense of smell” (Wikipedia).
Despite the setback, Wonder eventually recovered all of his musical faculties” (Wikipedia) and released 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which on the strength of songs such as “the #1 You Haven’t Done Nothin’ (a political protest song) and the Top Ten Boogie on Reggae Woman” (Wikipedia) won him another Grammy for Album of the Year. Then Wonder didn’t release any new material in 1975, a fact acknowledged by Paul Simon when he took home the Grammy for Album of the Year. He said, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album this year.”
Songs in the Key of Life
However, Wonder was back the next year with a 1976 Album of the Year Grammy for Songs in the Key of Life, a double album released after Wonder signed a $13-million contract with Motown. It is often regarded by fans as Wonder’s best album.
Always on the cutting edge of modern recording technology, the album is a tour de force of studio wizardry, yet it’s also a deeply personal and humane work. The album deftly blends the social commentary of his recent work with an exuberance harking back to his earliest records. It also resonates with a renewed spiritual dimension which lends the music even greater impact. “Sprawling in style, unlimited in ambition, and sometimes lyrically difficult to fathom, the album was hard for some listeners to assimilate, yet is regarded by many as Wonder’s crowning achievement and one of the most recognizable and accomplished albums in pop music history. The album became the first of an American artist to debut straight at #1 in the Billboard charts, where it remained for 14 non-consecutive weeks” (Wikipedia).
Taken as a whole, the album tells his life story, spanning from childhood (I Wish) to the birth of his own daughter (Isn’t She Lovely). It takes time out to pay respects to the masters of jazz (Sir Duke), illuminate the struggles of the inner city (Village Ghetto Land) and confront society’s ills (Pastime Paradise, the basis of massive 1995 rap hit “Gangsta’s Paradise”). Possibly the single most influential album of the entire decade.
“Possibly exhausted by this concentrated and sustained level of creativity, Wonder stopped recording for three years” (Wikipedia). “It was in Wonder's next phase that he began to commercially reap the rewards of his legendary classic period. The ‘80s saw Wonder scoring his biggest hits and reaching an unprecedented level of fame evidenced by increased album sales, charity participation, high-profile collaborations, and television appearances” (Wikipedia).
“This period had a muted beginning, for when Wonder did return, it was with a soundtrack album for the film Journey through the Secret Life of Plants (1979). Mostly instrumental, the album was panned at the time of its release but has come to be regarded by some critics as an unusual classic” (Wikipedia).
Hotter than July (1980) became Wonder’s first platinum-selling single album” (Wikipedia), although Songs in the Key of Life would later be certified for sales of 10 million. The song “Happy Birthday was a successful vehicle for his campaign to establish Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. The album also included Master Blaster (Jammin’), his tribute to Bob Marley…and the sentimental ballad, Lately, which was later covered by Jodeci” (Wikipedia), who took the song to #4 on the pop charts.
“In 1983, Wonder performed the song Stay Gold, the theme to Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaption of S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders” (Wikipedia). He would also do film work when he recorded the soundtrack album for The Woman in Red in 1984. The lead single, I Just Called to Say I Love You, was a #1 pop and R&B hit in both the United States and the United Kingdom…It went on to win an Academy Award for Best Song in 1985” (Wikipedia). Wonder landed another #1 pop hit, Part-Time Lover, as the lead single for 1985’s In Square Circle.
The ‘80s saw Wonder doing plenty of collaborations, most notably “a #1 hit [in 1982] in collaboration with Paul McCartney in their paean to racial harmony, Ebony and Ivory” (Wikipedia). Wonder also wrote Jermaine Jackson’s 1980 top 10 pop hit Let’s Get Serious and was “featured in Chaka Khan’s  cover of Prince’s I Feel for You, alongside Melle Mel, playing his signature harmonica” (Wikipedia). “In roughly the same period he was also featured on harmonica on Eurythmics’ single, There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart) and Elton John’s I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” (Wikipedia).
Wonder was also part of two high-profile charity singles – “the all-star charity single for African famine relief, We Are the World, and he was part of another charity single the following year, the AIDS-targeted That’s What Friends Are For” (Wikipedia). Both were big #1 pop hits.
Other guest performances included harmonica on John Denver’s If Ever, a song from Denver’s 1985 Dreamland Express that Wonder co-wrote, and a duet with Michael Jackson on Just Good Friends, from Jackson’s 1987 Bad album.
After 1987’s Characters LP, Wonder continued to release new material, but at a slower pace. He recorded a soundtrack album for Spike Lee’s film Jungle Fever in 1991” (Wikipedia) and released Conversation Peace in 1995. It was his last studio effort for ten years.
Wonder continued to work with others, most notably in 1996 “with Babyface for an emotionally-charged song about spousal abuse (domestic violence) called How Come How Long” (Wikipedia) and, in 1999, “Wonder was featured on harmonica in the Sting hit Brand New Day” (Wikipedia).
The 21st Century
Wonder's first new album in ten years, A Time to Love, was released on October 18, 2005…The first single, So What the Fuss, was released in April and features Prince on guitar and background vocals from En Vogue…The album also featured a duet with India.Arie on the title track A Time to Love” (Wikipedia).
The new millennium was also marked by more collaborations, including a 2006 “guest appearance on Busta Rhymes’ …Been through the Storm” (Wikipedia), and on “Snoop Dogg’s…Conversations, …[which] is a remake of [Wonder’s] Have a Talk with God” (Wikipedia). He also contributed “harmonica and additional vocals on [Andrea Bocelli’s] Canzoni Stonate, from Bocelli’s 2006 Amore.
Also notable – “on August 2, 2007, Stevie Wonder announced…[a] 13 concert tour – his first U.S. tour in over ten years. This tour was inspired by the recent passing of his mother” (Wikipedia). He also won another Grammy “for best pop collaboration with vocals…for [he and Tony Bennett’s] rendition of For Once in My Life from Bennett’s Duets: An American Classic” (Wikipedia). The two have tentative plans to record an album together.