Stevie Wonder (born 1950) is one of the most cherished rhythm-and-blues singers and songwriters of his generation. The 19-time Grammy winner is known for his soulful voice and catchy tunes as well as for his commitment to political and humanitarian causes.
In the course of following Stevie Wonder on his relentless travels, journalists have 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 opinion. "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." Ritz also remarked that Wonder's "optimism is infectious."
It is believed that Wonder, born Stevland Judkins Morris in Saginaw, Michigan on May 13, 1950, was blinded due to an overabundance of oxygen in his incubator shortly after his premature birth. "I vaguely remember light and what my mother looks like," he said in a 1986 Life interview, "but I could be dreaming." His father left the family early on. He and his five siblings were raised by their mother. She moved the family to Detroit, where they struggled to survive. Though he has spoken good-naturedly in adulthood about the limitations of his blindness, 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, Wonder sang in the Whitestone Baptist Church choir and demonstrated a gift for playing the piano, harmonica, and drums by age eleven.
Thanks to the intercession of a friend, Wonder was introduced to Berry Gordy, president of Detroit-based Motown Records, and Gordy's producer Brian Holland. Gordy placed the exceptional youngster's career in the hands of his associate Clarence Paul, whom he designated as Wonder's mentor. Gordy told Paul, according to Ritz, that his job was to "bring out his genius. This boy can give us hits." Handed the show business moniker "Little Stevie Wonder," the prodigious adolescent-signed to the Motown offshoot label Tamla-did indeed yield hits.
Motown Encouraged Discipline
Wonder's fourth single, "Fingertips Part 2," appeared in 1963 and became the first live performance of a song to reach the top of the U.S. pop chart. Also that year, Wonder became the first recording artist to reach the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 and Rhythm & Blues singles charts simultaneously. Unable to attend a regular Detroit school because of his schedule, 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 and he put aside the "little" label in 1964. Over the next few years he churned out hits 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 produce hits like "My Cherie Amour," which sold over a million copies, and "Signed Sealed Delivered (I'm Yours)." In 1970, Wonder married 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. Wright has said that Wonder's music was her chief rival. "He would wake up and go straight to the keyboard," she recalled in a New Yorker interview. "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."
When Wonder turned 21, he was due the money he had earned as a minor through an arrangement stipulated in a previous agreement. But Motown only paid him $1 million of the $30 million he had 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 long-time attorney, in 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 syncopations of funk, exquisite melodies, and his own introspective and increasingly politicized lyrics. He demonstrated the versatility of the synthesizer when it was still something of a novelty in the rhythm & blues world.
Accident Redoubled Commitment
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 caused him to become more focused. Virtually all of Wonder's work during the early to mid-1970s was essentially pop, most notably his albums Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and the epic Songs in the Key of Life. His songs from that period, including "Superstition" and "Higher Ground," "Boogie on Reggae Woman," "Sir Duke," "I Wish," and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," were unrivaled both artistically and commercially. "What artist in his right mind," mused singer-songwriter and soul icon Marvin Gaye to Rolling Stone's Ritz, "wouldn't be intimidated by Stevie Wonder?"
In 1979, Wonder released Journey through the Secret Life of Plants, the theme of which many listeners found eccentric. "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 the 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. "That Girl," his 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 achieved great success.
Delved Into Politics and Charity Work
Over the years Wonder became progressively more involved in politics, lobbying for gun control, against drunk driving, against 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 under 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.
Wonder was less musically prolific in the 1980s, but still achieved a great amount of success. He won a Grammy for In Square Circle in 1986 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. He won praise for his work on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's 1991 film Jungle Fever. It was said that Wonder composed the material in just 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 preempted the release of a collection of songs he had been crafting while living in the African nation of Ghana; the resulting disc did not hit stores for several years.
In 1992, 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 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, "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."
Conversation Peace Met with Mixed Reactions
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." In 1996, Wonder added two more Grammy Awards to his extensive collection, receiving another best male rhythm & blues vocal performance honor and one for best rhythm & blues song for the tune "For Your Love" off of Conversation. In addition, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award that year.
Wonder's 1995 concert tour garnered acclaim. "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."
Wonder remained in the limelight, performing at a White House dinner for Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain in February of 1998, and appearing as a White House guest later that year. Also in 1998 he performed on the soundtrack of the animated Disney film Mulan. In January 1999, Wonder provided a dazzling halftime show during the Super Bowl. He was awarded yet another Grammy in 1999-his nineteenth-for best male rhythm & blues vocalist. In addition, he continued his humanitarian work, establishing along with German firm SAP, the SAP/Stevie Wonder Vision Awards. These awards recognized efforts to aid blind people in the workplace.
Wonder has continued his songwriting between other projects, and has expressed the desire to do a gospel album. But regardless of the genre he pursues, his music will undoubtedly reflect his spirituality. He has inspired a new generation of artists, including rock group the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who made their bid for mainstream popularity with a version of "Higher Ground," Lenny Kravitz and Michael Franti of Spearhead. However, he nonetheless expressed his determination to keep growing. "You're influenced all the time," he said in the New York Times, "and the day that you cannot be influenced by anything good is the day that you really have let your art die."
Further Reading on Stevie Wonder
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, March 31, 1995.
Jet, May 8, 1995; May 22, 1995; March 16, 1998; February 23, 1998.
Life, October 1986.
Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1995.
New Yorker, March 13, 1995.
Rolling Stone, July 13, 1995; January 25, 1996
Time, September 4, 1995; April 10, 1996; June 22, 1998; June 29, 1998.
Vibe, March 1995.