Wonder, Stevie (originally, Morris, Steve-land)
Wonder, Stevie (originally, Morris, Steve-land)
Wonder, Stevie (originally, Morris, Steve-land), child prodigy star who matured into one of the greatest pop singer/songwriters of the 1960s-80s; b. Saginaw, Mich., May 13, 1950. Afflicted by blindness as a newborn, Steveland Morris moved with his family to Detroit in 1954. Playing harmonica by the age of five, he started piano lessons at six and took up drums at eight. Writing his first song by the age of ten, Wonder was spotted in 1961 by The Miracles’ Ronnie White, who took him to Brian Holland. Holland arranged an audition with Motown Records’ Berry Gordy Jr., and Wonder was immediately signed to the Tamia label and assigned the name “Little” Stevie Wonder. Working primarily with songwriter-producer Henry Cosby until 1970, Wonder scored a surprising top pop and rhythm-and-blues hit in 1963 with the raucous harmonica instrumental, “Fingertips—Part 2,” recorded live at Chicago’s Regal Theater, complete with mistakes, musical puns, and a shouting stage manager. The following year he enrolled in the Mich. School for the Blind, studied classical piano, and managed moderate pop hits with the harmonica-based songs “Workout, Stevie, Workout” and “Harmonica Man.” He also appeared in the 1964 films Bikini Beach and Muscle Beach Party.
Dropping the “Little” appellation in the summer of 1964, Stevie Wonder emerged in 1965 and 1966 with the energetic dance-style smash hit “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” (which he cowrote with Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy), the major hit “Nothing’s Too Good for My Baby,” and a near-smash hit version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” from Uptight. While recording a wide variety of material on his albums, Wonder quickly established himself as a popular crossover singles artist with romantic ballads and uptempo pop-style songs such as “A Place in the Sun,” “Trav’lin’ Man,” the top rhythm-and-blues and pop smash “I Was Made to Love Her,” and “I’m Wondering,” the latter two cowritten with Cosby and Moy. Following an album of Christmas material and an instrumental album released under the name Rednow Eivets (Stevie Wonder backwards), Wonder’s For Once in My Life yielded five hits, including the top R&B and smash pop hit “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” and the crossover smash hit title song. My Chérie Amour produced two smash hits with the title song and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday.”
Stevie Wonder’s first self-produced album, Signed Sealed and Delivered, contained four hits, including the top R&B and smash pop hit title song and the crossover smash “Heaven Help Us All.” Unjustly criticized for the easy-listening nature of his songs (only “My Chérie Amour” proved a smash easy-listening hit), Wonder certainly did record pop-style material, and his flexible vocal style was unlike any other Motown act. He began experimenting with various rhythmic and musical textures and different electric keyboard instruments, including the synthesizer, with Where I’m Coming From. The album included the crossover smash “If You Really Love Me” and the neglected ballad “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” both written by Wonder and then-wife Syreeta Wright.
In 1971, at the age of 21, Stevie Wonder negotiated a new contract with Motown that gave him artistic control over his recordings and provided for the unprecedented formation of his own music publishing company, Black Bull Music, and production company, Taurus Productions. For his first album under the new contract, Music of My Mind, he played every instrument, coauthored the songs with Syreeta Wright, and produced. The album sold remarkably well despite yielding only one hit, “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).” The album began to establish Wonder as an album artist, and, as a consequence of a well-received summer 1972 tour with The Rolling Stones, he attracted a huge following among the white rock audience while retaining his black fans.
Stevie Wonder’s growing popularity and recognition was immeasurably bolstered by the exceptional Talking Book album, one of the finest albums of the 1970s. In addition to producing two top pop hits with the mellow “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (a smash R&B hit) and the seminal “Superstition” (a top R&B hit), the album contained three other excellent songs, “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” “Blame It on the Sun,” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).” For his next album, Wonder performed virtually all the instrumental chores and solely composed all the songs. The monumental Innervisions yielded two top rhythm-and-blues and smash pop hits with the socially conscious “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City,” and the smash R&B and major pop hit “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing.” The album also included favorites such as “Too High,” “Golden Lady,” and “All in Love Is Fair.”
Working with other artists, Stevie Wonder cowrote The Miracles’ 1970 top pop and rhythm-and-blues hit “The Tears of a Clown,” wrote and produced The Spinners’ 1970 smash R&B and major pop hit “It’s a Shame,” and wrote Rufus’s 1974 smash pop and R&B hit “Tell Me Something Good.” He produced Syreeta Wright’s first and second albums and Minnie Riperton’s Perfect Angel, which included her top pop and smash R&B hit “Lovin’ You.” However, on Aug. 6,1973, he was involved in a serious auto accident near Durham, N.C., that left him in a coma for four days.
Stevie Wonder staged a remarkable recovery and recorded yet another outstanding album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale. It debuted at the top of the album charts and produced the top pop and R&B hit “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” (ostensibly an indictment of Richard Nixon) and the seminal crossover smash “Boogie On, Reggae Woman,” while including the religious “Heaven Is 10 Million Years Away.” Following a tour in the winter of 1974, Wonder essentially retired from the road to work on his epic, Songs in the Key of Life. Eventually issued in the fall of 1976 accompanied by a four-song EP, the album included two top crossover hits, “I Wish” and the tribute to Duke Ellington, “Sir Duke.” The album also contained the moderate crossover hits “Another Star” and “As,” as well as “Isn’t She Lovely” and other captivating songs. Earlier, in April, Wonder had signed a contract renewal with Motown valued at $13 million, the largest such contract to date.
Film producer Michael Braun subsequently approached Stevie Wonder about composing a song for a documentary on plant life. Wonder ultimately composed and recorded an entire score, later returning to the studio to add more songs and lyrics and overdub the sounds of nature. Eventually issued as Journey through the Secret Life of Plants, the album was criticized as esoteric, inaccessible, and tedious, yet it yielded a crossover smash with “Send One Your Love.” Wonder toured in 1980 and recorded Hotter Than July, which produced a top rhythm-and-blues and smash pop hit with “Master Blaster (Jamming,” inspired by Bob Mar-ley, and the smash R&B and major pop hit “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It.” The album also contained his tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., “Happy Birthday,” the ballad “Lately,” and uptempo songs such as “Let’s Get Serious” and “Always.”
Stevie Wonder has maintained a relatively low profile since the early 1980s. In 1982, he scored a top rhythm-and-blues and smash pop hit with “That Girl” from his anthology set Original Musiquarium, which also provided hits with “Do I Do” and “Ribbon in the Sky.” His duet with Paul McCartney on “Ebony and Ivory” also became a top R&B and smash pop hit in 1982. He participated in the campaign to establish Martin Luther King Jr/s birthday as a national holiday and hosted a 1986 television special marking its first celebration. He provided seven original songs to the soundtrack to the 1984 film The Woman in Red, including the maudlin top pop and rhythm-and-blues hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and the major crossover hit “Love Light in Flight.” The soundtrack album also included the didactic “Don’t Drive Drunk,” but the song did not appear in the movie.
Touring in 1983 and 1986, Stevie Wonder issued his first album of new material in five years, In Square Circle, in 1985. The album yielded four hits, including the top pop and rhythm-and-blues hit “Part-Time Lover” and the crossover smash “Go Home.” He participated in the recording of U.S.A. for Africa’s “We Are the World” in 1985 and later recorded with Elton John and Gladys Knight as Dionne Warwick’s “friends” on the top pop and rhythm-and-blues hit, “That’s What Friends Are For.” Characters, from 1987, produced two top R&B hits with “Skeletons” (a major pop hit) and “You Will Know,” and the R&B smash duet with Michael Jackson, “Get It.” Stevie Wonder was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. He composed and recorded 11 songs for the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s provocative film Jungle Fever, released in 1991. He eventually toured in support of 1995’s Conversation Peace, recording the live Natural Wonder album with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orch.
Tribute to Uncle Ray (1963); The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder (1963); The 12-Year-Old Genius (1963); Workout, Stevie, Workout (1963); With a Song in My Heart (1964); Stevie at the Beach (1964); Uptight—Everything’s Alright (1966); Down to Earth (1966); I Was Made to Love Her (1967); Someday at Christmas (1967); Eivets Rednow (1968); For Once in My Life (1969); My Chérie Amour (1969); Live (1970); Signed, Sealed and Delivered (1970); Where I’m Coming From (1971); Music of My Mind (1972); Talking Book (1972); Innervisions (1973); Fulfillingness’First Finale (1974); Songs in the Key of Life (1976); Journey through the Secret Life of Plants (1979); Hotter Than July (1980); The Woman in Red (music from soundtrack; 1984); In Square Circle (1985); Characters (1987); Jungle Fever (music from soundtrack; 1991); Conversation Peace (1995); Natural Wonder (live; 1995).
C. Dragonwagon, S. W.(N.Y., 1977); C. Eisner, S. W.(N.Y., 1977); J. Haskins, The S. W. Scrapbook (NY., 1978).