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date: 20 February 2020

Wonder, Stevie [Wonder, Little Stevie; Judkins, Stevland Hardaway; Morris, Stevland Hardaway]free

  • David Brackett

Stevie Wonder, 2004. AP Photo/Chris Polk

(b Saginaw, MI, May 13, 1950). American singer, songwriter, keyboard player, harmonica player, and drummer. He was the most successful recording artist in black popular music of the early to mid-1970s. He displayed a restless creativity during this period, forging a style out of elements of soul, funk, rock, reggae, Tin Pan Alley, experimental electronic music, and African and Latin rhythms. However, he had already enjoyed an active career for a decade before his success reached its apex, and he has continued performing and recording into the 2010s.

Blind from shortly after birth he came to the attention of Berry Gordy, the owner of Motown, as a ten-year-old child prodigy. Around this time, his mother changed his legal surname from Judkins to Morris, and Gordy gave him the nickname Little Stevie Wonder. Wonder displayed his abilities as a multi-instrumentalist—he played piano, organ, harmonica, and drums—and singer from the start of his career, scoring a major hit with the live recording “Fingertips, Pt.2” in 1963 at the age of 13. He did not repeat this success until he dropped the “Little” prefix from his name and emerged from adolescence with “Uptight” in 1966. This recording featured a near-manic vocal intensity and a dance groove that became a trademark in subsequent hits during the period 1966–70, including “I was made to love her” (1967), “For Once in my Life” (1968), and “Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours” (1970). At this early stage the eclecticism with which he was later associated was present in the sophisticated harmony of such melodic ballads as “My Cherie Amour” (1969) and in his recordings of protest songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1966). Unlike many artists associated with Motown (with the exception of singer-songwriters such as Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye), Wonder wrote or co-wrote many of his early hits, mostly in collaboration with Sylvia Moy and Henry Cosby.

A change in direction toward greater artistic autonomy can be heard in Where I’m Coming From (1971), for which Wonder wrote or co-wrote, with his wife at the time, Syreeta Wright, all the material. Songs like “If You Really Love Me” experimented with multiple tempos while others expressed a more outspoken political stance than was typical of Motown at the time. This variety hinted at the transformation in style that occurred after his 21st birthday, in 1971. After initially refusing to re-sign with Motown, Wonder recorded enough material on his own for two albums, which he then used as leverage to negotiate a new contract that gave him vastly increased creative control, the publishing rights to his songs, and a higher royalty rate for his recordings. The two albums released in 1972, Music of my Mind and Talking Book, evidenced an increased expressive range and musical confidence with Wonder playing most of the instruments and even providing most of his own background vocals. They were conceived with unifying themes, and the songs contained lyrics that moved far beyond the traditional Motown preoccupation with romance. In terms of musical style, songs like “Superstition” revealed Wonder as a full-fledged participant in the funk genre and featured the heretofore neglected rhythmic incisiveness of the clavinet (a kind of electric harpsichord), while “You are the sunshine of my life” and “Superwoman” displayed Wonder’s interest in jazz harmonies and ability as a melodicist. During the early 1970s Wonder also began to collaborate with Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, who assisted him in creating many of the innovative synthesizer timbres featured in these and subsequent albums. “Superstition” and “You are the sunshine of my life” became Wonder’s first number one pop hits since the release of “Fingertips” almost ten years earlier. His successful tour with the Rolling Stones in 1972 also demonstrated that his audience had expanded to include a greater number of white, countercultural listeners without losing his core fan base of African Americans.

Wonder’s next album, Innervisions (1973), consolidated the innovations from the previous two albums and added greater consistency. It yielded several crossover hits and earned him a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, the first time this honor had been granted to an African American. His most critically acclaimed album, Innervisions features a mixture of funk, jazz, and pop; the songs explore social problems, such as drug use (“Too High”) and poverty (“Living for the City”), spiritual aspirations (“Higher Ground”), self-realization (“Don’t you worry ’bout a thing”), and the ups and downs of love (“All is fair in love” and “Golden Lady”). Once again Wonder played most of the instruments, provided most of the vocal tracks, and continued to expand his palette with the innovative use of synthesizers. Both thematically and vocally, Innervisions and the other albums from this period clearly reveal the roots of Wonder’s music and worldview in African American gospel music.

Three days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was involved in a serious car accident that left him in a coma for four days. Nevertheless, his next album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), was released less than a year later. It received critical acclaim and commercial success approaching that of its predecessor and earned Wonder his second Grammy Award for Album of the Year. This was followed after two years by a sprawling double album, Songs in the Key of Life (1976), which included a bonus EP that revealed Wonder continuing to push himself to expand musically and lyrically. Although the lyrics were occasionally more obtuse than they had been in the past, the album followed the previous two in terms of its critical and commercial success; it won Wonder his third Grammy Award for Album of the Year in four years and yielded the hit singles “I Wish” and “Sir Duke,” the latter inspired by Duke Ellington.

After the artistic and commercial efflorescence of the period 1971–6, Wonder’s productivity slowed. Following Songs in the Key of Life, his next album, Journey through the Secret Life of Plants (1979), was a soundtrack for a movie that was never released. The predominantly instrumental, low-key sound represented a departure for Wonder, and the record was unsuccessful commercially. Recordings in the 1980s returned to the sound of his mid-1970s work and included collaborations with Paul McCartney (“Ebony and Ivory”), Michael Jackson (“Just Good Friends” and “Get It”), and Julio Iglesias (“My Love”), and “I just called to say I love you” (1984); this last song was recorded for the soundtrack of The Woman in Red and in 2013 remained his biggest hit single. Wonder’s social consciousness found expression in such songs as “Birthday” (1980), which advocated a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. (granted on 15 January 1986), and in other efforts on behalf of AIDS, anti-apartheid, fund-raising for blind and learning impaired children, and the homeless. He has continued to record and collaborate with a wide range of musicians and artists, including filmmaker Spike Lee (Jungle Fever, 1991 and Bamboozled, 2000), Babyface Edmonds (“How Come How Long,” 1997), Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, and Andrea Bocelli. In addition to his collaborations, Wonder released several solo albums during the 1990s and 2000s: Conversation Peace (1995), the live recording Natural Wonder (1996), and A Time to Love (2005).

Bibliography

  • C. Eisner: Stevie Wonder (New York, 1977)
  • J. Peisch: Stevie Wonder (New York, 1985)
  • S. Lodder and S. Wonder: Stevie Wonder: a Musical Guide to the Classic Albums (San Francisco, 2005)
  • C. Werner: Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul (New York, 2005)
  • Z. Lundy: Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (33 1/3) (New York, 2007)
  • M. Ribowski: Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: the Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder (New York, 2010)