Stevie Wonder is easily one of the most naturally gifted musicians in modern music. In a career spanning five decades as a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Wonder has drastically altered the landscape of popular music.
His art transcends boundaries of all kinds as his influence continues to be seen in modern rock, r&b and hip-hop. Wonders music combines the highest level of musicianship and songwriting with the lyrical substance of self exploration and activist to create a body of work that is timeliness in nature.
At Home in Motown
Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins, Stevie Wonder was born on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Blind from birth, Wonder has strongly exceeded any limitations placed upon him. His surname was changed to Morris at age four upon his mother’s remarriage.
Wonder’s introduction to music came with a family move to inner-city Detroit where he initially sang in a gospel choir. He quickly learned to adapt and overcome his blindness while growing up in the rough Detroit neighborhoods.
“I was known as the blind boy who was always making noise, beating on walls, hitting on boxes, singing, and playing the bongos from morning till sunset on the front porch,” says Wonder. “People were like, ‘Give us a break.’”
At age seven, he began to learn the piano, and by age nine was fluent on both harmonica and drums.
At this point it was evident that little Stevie Wonder had a musical gift. By tuning into local radio, he received strong inspiration by rhythm and blues artists such as Ray Charles. Motown R&B combined with a gospel foundation led Wonder’s own musical voice to rapidly emerge.
Ronnie White, a founding member of the Motown group The Miracles was a neighbor of Wonder at the time. Upon a recommendation from his brother Gerald, Ronnie visited the eleven year old Wonder and was taken aback by his talent. White would introduce Wonder to Berry Gordy Jr., founder of the legendary Motown Records. Gordy was immediately impressed — and upon being signed to Motown, Steveland Hardaway Morrois became known as Little Stevie Wonder.
Stevie Wonder first recorded with Motown at the age of 12. The following year, he had his first number one hit on the pop and R&B charts with the single “Fingertips (Part 2)”. The track was recorded live at the Regal Theater in Chicago in 1963. While it showed Wonder’s natural vocal capability and harmonica prowess, it also featured a young Marvin Gaye on drums.
The 60s were a period of musical and personal growth for Wonder. Through the recording and release of over 10 albums, Wonder’s musical ability soared as he became fluent on the drums, piano, organ, and harmonica. However, most of the material on these albums was decided by Motown record executives.
Toward the late 60s, Wonder’s compositional strengths began to surface through writing for other Motown artists such as Smokey Robinson. The beginnings of his social consciousness were also evident in choosing covers such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
As Wonder approached his 21st birthday in 1971, his first recording contract with Motown was nearing its end. This would ultimately provide the freedom for him to create the music which proved to resonate powerfully. Wonder would change the face of modern music by creating songs which encompassed his musical and compositional gifts with social awareness and spiritual substance.
Anticipating the expiry of his contract with Motown, Wonder began to create music independently. Royalties from his previous work allowed him to finance the creation of his own recording studio. This provided the grounds for him to write and produce the album Where I’m Coming From. This album was the final album released in his first contract with Motown.
His newly recorded music gave Wonder leverage in negotiating a fresh contract with Motown. The contract gave Wonder not only more royalties but, more importantly, control over the songwriting, album themes, and production. Wonder was the first Motown artist to sign a deal with this level of creative control.
The art of Stevie Wonder is abundant in truth and substance in several aspects. The basis is, of course, the music. What makes Wonder’s music so contagious is his ability to play soulfully without fear.
The fear of failure, self-doubt, and how people will react to it, can cloud music and one’s ability to create it. Ego can either balance the art or, as certain popular music displays, can be severely detracting, leaving it void of substance.
On a personal and fundamental level, we all need to overcome either physical or mental obstacles to reach greater heights. Wonder is an extreme example of someone who has overcome a disability to connect with millions of people. With this connection he has also used his powerful music as a platform for philanthropic efforts.
Arguments will always fly as to why vintage music artists are still relevant.There are a certain group of artists who are. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Wonder, to name a few, have transformed culture through their sounds and words to defy the limitations of genre and time. Music and art have the power to change our existence.
In songs such as “Higher Ground”, Wonder began to do just that by incorporating uplifting and socially conscious themes:
People keep on learnin’
Soldiers keep on warrin’
World keep on turnin’
Cause it won’t be too long
Powers keep on lyin’
While your people keep on dyin’
World keep on turnin’
Cause it won’t be too long
I’m so darn glad he let me try it again
Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin’
Till I reach the highest ground
Music Of My Mind was Wonder’s first release under his new contract with Motown. It also marked the beginning of what is known as his “classic period”. The seventies were definitive for Wonder which saw the release of Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Innervisions, and the magnificent Songs in the Key of Life.
The series of releases in Wonder’s “classic period” were, and continue to be, highly influential musically and socially. His experimentation and inclusion of electric instruments, particularly synthesizers, made him a pioneer of new sounds in popular music. Wonder remains as one of the most sampled artists in pop and hip-hop.
“I’m a lover of music, constantly curious about the sounds I hear. I’m always thinking about how I can take my music to the next level,” he says. His futuristic approach has led to more than 30 top ten hits on the US charts, landing him in both the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is also the recipient of 25 Grammy awards, including a lifetime achievement award.
Throughout his lengthy career, Wonder has used his musical gift as a means of initiating positive change. His involvement in charitable organizations concerning civil and human rights is far reaching.
In the mid-80s, Wonder became a part of civil rights history by spearheading a campaign to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King as a US national holiday. The first of King’s birthdays was celebrated in 1986 after being but into place by President Reagan.
In 1999, Wonder was the youngest recipient of the Kenny Center Honors for his contribution to arts and culture. In 2009, he was named a UN Messenger of Peace for longstanding involvement with organizations such as the Children’s Diabetes Foundation, Employment of People with Disabilities, and Junior Blind of America.
Signed, Sealed, and Delivered
Currently, Wonder is set to release his most complete biography to date. The release of Signed, Sealed, and Delivered will coincide with his 60th birthday, as the book reflects on his 50-year career in music.
Wonder will also be playing several highly anticipated shows in Europe this summer, including a headlining spot at Glastonbury Festival in England. He will also headline the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in the U.S.
To experience some of Stevie Wonder’s music, seek out and have a listen to these select tracks which are standouts in an extraordinary career. These songs are an excellent starting point for new listeners and a glimpse at his large body of work. Below that, you will find two excellent videos for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
“Superstition” on Talking Book
“Higher Ground” on Innervisions
“Sir Duke” on Songs in the Key of Life
“Love’s In Need Of Love Today” on Songs in the Key of Life
“Master Blaster (Jammin’) ” on Hotter Than July
Stevie Wonder On Video
What Do You Think?
Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts on the music of Stevie Wonder. What are some of your favorite songs or albums? How have they affected you? If you have seen Stevie Wonder in concert, please share some of your comments about the shows.
“Stevie Wonder” Photo by Pete Souza, Wikimedia Commons
“Stevie Wonder” Photo by Antonio Cruz/ABr Wikimedia Commons