Born Steveland Judkins, 13 May 1950, Saginaw, Michigan, USA. Born Judkins, Wonder now prefers to be known as Steveland Morris after his mother’s married name. Placed in an incubator immediately after his birth, baby Steveland was given too much oxygen, causing Steveland to suffer permanent blindness. Despite this handicap, Wonder began to learn the piano at the age of seven, and had also mastered drums and harmonica by the age of nine. After his family moved to Detroit in 1954, Steveland joined a church choir, the gospel influence on his music balanced by the R&B of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke being played on his transistor radio. In 1961, he was discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles, who arranged an audition at Motown Records. Berry Gordy immediately signed Steveland to the label, renaming him Little Stevie Wonder (the “Little” was dropped in 1964). Wonder was placed in the care of writer/producer Clarence Paul, who supervised his early recordings. These accentuated his prodigal talents as a multi-instrumentalist, but did not represent a clear musical direction. In 1963, however, the release of the ebullient live recording “Fingertips (Part 2)” established his commercial success, and Motown quickly marketed him on a series of albums as “the 12-year-old genius” in an attempt to link him with the popularity of “the genius,” Ray Charles. Attempts to repeat the success of “Fingertips” proved abortive, and Wonder’s career was placed on hold during 1964 while his voice was breaking. He re-emerged in 1965 with a sound that was much closer to the Motown mainstream, scoring a worldwide hit with the dance-orientated “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” which he co-wrote with Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy. This began a run of US Top 40 hits that continued unbroken (apart from seasonal Christmas releases) for over six years.
From 1965-70, Stevie Wonder was marketed like the other major Motown stars, recording material that was chosen for him by the label’s executives, and issuing albums that mixed conventional soul compositions with pop standards. His strong humanitarian principles were allowed expression on his version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” and Ron Miller’s “A Place In The Sun” in 1966. He co-wrote almost all of his singles from 1967 onwards, and also began to collaborate on releases by other Motown artists, most notably co-writing Smokey Robinson And The Miracles’ hit “The Tears Of A Clown,” and writing and producing the (Detroit) Spinners’ “It’s A Shame.”
His contract with Motown expired in 1971; rather than re-signing immediately, as the label expected, Wonder financed the recording of two albums of his own material, playing almost all the instruments himself, and experimenting for the first time with more ambitious musical forms. He pioneered the use of the synthesizer in black music, and also widened his lyrical concerns to take in racial problems and spiritual questions. Wonder then used these recordings as a lever to persuade Motown to offer a more open contract, which gave him total artistic control over his music, plus the opportunity to hold the rights to the music publishing in his own company, Black Bull Music. He celebrated the signing of the deal with the release of the solo recordings, Where I’m Coming From and Music Of My Mind, which despite lukewarm critical reaction quickly established him at the forefront of black music.
Talking Book in 1972 combined the artistic advances of recent albums with major commercial success, producing glorious hit singles with the polyrhythmic funk of “Superstition” and the crafted ballad, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.” Wonder married fellow Motown artist Syreeta on 14 September 1970; he premiered many of his new production techniques on Syreeta (1972) and Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta (1974), for which he also wrote most of the material. Innervisions (1973) consolidated his growth and success with Talking Book, bringing further hit singles with the socially aware “Living For The City” and “Higher Ground.” Later that year, Wonder was seriously injured in a car accident; his subsequent work was tinged with the awareness of mortality, fired by his spiritual beliefs. The release of Fulfillingness’ First Finale in 1974 epitomized this more austere approach. The double album Songs In The Key Of Life (1976) was widely greeted as his most ambitious and satisfying work to date. It showed a mastery and variety of musical forms and instruments, offering a joyous tribute to Duke Ellington on “Sir Duke,” and heralding a pantheon of major black figures on “Black Man.” This confirmed Wonder’s status as one of the most admired musicians and songwriters in contemporary music.
Surprisingly, after this enormous success, no new recordings surfaced for over three years, as Wonder concentrated on perfecting the soundtrack music to the documentary film, The Secret Life Of Plants. This primarily instrumental double album was greeted with disappointing reviews and sales. Wonder quickly delivered the highly successful Hotter Than July in 1980, which included a tribute song for the late Dr. Martin Luther King, “Happy Birthday,” and a notable essay in reggae form on “Masterblaster (Jamming).”
The failure of his film project brought an air of caution into Wonder’s work, and delays and postponements were now a consistent factor in his recording process. After compiling the retrospective double album Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I in 1982, which included four new recordings alongside the cream of his post-1971 work, Wonder scheduled an album entitled People Move Human Play in 1983. This never appeared; instead, he composed the soundtrack music for the film The Woman In Red, which included his biggest-selling single to date, the sentimental ballad “I Just Called To Say I Loved You.”
The album on which he had been working since 1980 eventually appeared in 1985 as In Square Circle. Like his next project, Characters in 1987, it heralded a return to the accessible, melodic music of the previous decade. The unadventurous nature of both projects, and the heavy expectations engendered by the delay in their release, led to a disappointing reception from critics and public alike.
Wonder’s status as an elder statesman of black music, and a champion of black rights, was boosted by his campaign in the early 80s to have the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King celebrated as a national holiday in the USA. This request was granted by President Reagan, and the first Martin Luther King Day was celebrated on 15 January 1986 with a concert at which Wonder topped the bill. Besides his own recordings, Wonder has been generous in offering his services as a writer, producer, singer or musician to other performers. His most public collaborations included work with Paul McCartney, which produced a cloying but enormous hit, “Ebony And Ivory,” Gary Byrd, Michael Jackson, and Eurythmics, and on the benefit records by USA For Africa and Dionne Warwick & Friends. Conversation Peace in 1995 was an average album with no outstanding songs, but our expectation of Wonder is different to that of most other artists. He could release ten indifferent, poor, weak or spectacular records over the next 20 years and nothing would change our fixed perception of him and of the body of outstanding music he has produced since 1963.