Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


WONDER, Stevie

(b 13 May '50, Saginaw MI) Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist. His real name is sometimes given as Steveland Judkins; the ASCAP biographical dictionary gives it as Stevland Morris. A premature baby, he was made permanently blind by receiving too much oxygen in an incubator; he was named Little Stevie Wonder by Berry Gordy, who signed him to Motown '61 after the Miracles' Ronnie White heard him play harmonica at age ten. Much was made of his blindness; in additional comparison to Ray Charles his live first LP was called Little Stevie Wonder/The 12-Year-Old Genius; both LP and single 'Fingertips' were no. 1 hits: two singles had previously flopped but he was a hit in Motown's touring show and 'Fingertips' was a finished showpiece by the time of its recording at Chicago's Regal Theatre. He had 56 hit singles '63-86 (27 in top ten, nine at no. 1) and 21 hit albums.

As his voice deepened so did his repertoire; he had hits with Bob Dylan's 'Blowing In The Wind', his co-written 'I Was Made To Love Her', and 'For Once In My Life' (previously recorded by Tony Bennett). He appeared in films Bikini Beach and Muscle Beach Party, continued having hits; co-wrote 'Tears Of A Clown' for the Miracles, their first no. 1 pop hit '70; he produced his own album Where I'm Coming From '71: it was uneven, reached only no. 62 in pop LP chart but included a top ten hit 'If You Really Love Me'. At Motown he was a prankster, insatiably curious, prodigiously talented; the company had looked after his schooling and his royalties; when he turned 21 his contract ran out and he came into a million dollars: he formed a production company Taurus and a publishing company Black Bull, and moved with his wife to NYC at a time when Motown was moving to LA. (Syreeta Wright d 6 July 2004 of breast cancer aged 58. She was from Pittsburgh, signed by Gordy as Rita Wright; the marriage to Wonder was brief but they remained friends and collaborators. He masterminded LPs Syreeta '72 and Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta Wright '74; she continued to record for Motown, co-wrote songs on several of his albums during this significant period, later had a top 5 hit duet with Billy Preston, 'With You I'm Born Again' '80; her last album was The Spell '83).

Stevie stayed with Motown, but on his own terms, the first Motown artist to obtain complete control over his own work. He was enchanted by Zero Time, by Tonto's Expanding Head Band (Tonto: The Original New Timbral Orchestra, a group of synthesizers), recruited Tonto's Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff as guides and plunged into the technology, master of it ever since and doing more things well than anybody else in pop: one of the few who can do it all himself without rhythmically stiff results. Music Of My Mind '72 was his twelfth album (including two Greatest Hits sets); it reached no. 21; he toured that year with the Rolling Stones, gaining exposure to white audiences, and his subsequent new albums all reached top five. Talking Book '72 included no. 1 hits 'Superstition' and 'You Are The Sunshine Of My Life'; Innervisions '73 included two top ten hits; in mid-'73 he survived a near-fatal car crash. Fulfillingness' First Finale '74 included no. 1 'You Haven't Done Nothing' (with Jackson 5 on background vocal), no. 3 'Boogie On Reggae Woman'; two-disc Songs In The Key Of Life incl. a bonus 7-inch EP with four tracks, also no. 1 hits 'I Wish' and tribute to Duke Ellington 'Sir Duke' (last two both no. 1 albums). Looking Back '77 was another compilation, a top 40 three-disc set; then two-disc Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants '79 took three years to make; a largely instrumental soundtrack to a film that was never made, it still reached no. 4. Hotter Than July '80 was followed by two-disc Original Musiquarium, a compilation of '72-82 hits at no. 4; The Woman In Red '84 was a soundtrack LP, with no. 1 hit 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' (won an Oscar), Dionne Warwick on three songs; In Square Circle '85 included no. 1 hit 'Part-Time Lover', also 'It's Wrong (Apartheid)', with a chorus in Xhosa dialect sung by South African exiles.

He accepts the challenges of new genres such as reggae, rap (as in 'Master Blaster (Jammin')', top five pop hit and no. 1 in black chart from Hotter Than July; his 'Happy Birthday' from the same LP was tribute to Martin Luther King; he led the movement to make King's birthday a national holiday. Songs like 'You Ain't Done Nothing' and 'Living For The City' (top ten '73) include social commentary; he has devoted much time and energy to causes such as research into cancer and AIDS and a campaign against drunken driving; his duet with Paul McCartney 'Ebony And Ivory' was a no. 1 '82 (on CBS; the only Wonder hit that did not appear on Tamla/Motown); he contributed to USA for Africa's charity record 'We Are The World' '85, and brought two Ethiopian women into the recording session at 4 a.m., raising the emotional high of it. He has won 16 Grammys. Some feel that his ballads are sometimes undistinguished, such as 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' and 'Part-Time Lover', but songs like 'My Cherie Amour' ('69), 'You Are The Sunshine Of My Life', 'Isn't She Lovely' (from Songs In The Key Of Life) are regarded by many as among the era's most enduring love songs: basically he can do no wrong, one of the USA's best-loved recording artist. Characters '87 included a duet with Michael Jackson on 'Get It', a few meandering ballads, but also sprightly funk; an example of a completely different album on CD, with two important tracks adding twelve minutes' playing time. He contributed to the soundtrack of Spike Lee's Jungle Fever '91 and to Quincy Jones's Halleluja! '92, a contemporary version of Handel's Messiah. The album Conversation Piece '95 had many guests including jazzmen Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis; live Natural Wonder '95 included the Tokyo Philharmonic. An earlier album Alfie (originally released under pseudonym Eivets Rednow) was reissued on MoJazz CD '95.