Wonder, Stevie (1950—)

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Wonder, Stevie (1950—)

In the 1970s, as pop music fractured into a thousand competing subgenres, Stevie Wonder blended pop, jazz, soul, rock, funk, and reggae without trivializing or pastiching. As he grew from child prodigy to music's foremost ambassador, he topped the charts while winning three consecutive Album of the Year Grammy awards. A producer, arranger, composer, singer, and master of numerous instruments, Wonder also did more than anyone to tame the synthesizer, transforming it from special effect to musical instrument. Lyrically, he addressed everything from social inequity to romance and heartbreak, from Plant Rights to the birth of his daughter; and topped it all off with unrelenting good humor.

Born prematurely on May 13, 1950, Stevland Judkins (later Stevland Morris) lost his sight while in a hospital incubator. From his earliest years he demonstrated an aptitude for music, banging on anything he could get his hands near until his family managed, despite their poverty, to acquire some instruments for him to play. When he was ten years old, a family friend introduced the boy to Motown founder Berry Gordy, who promptly signed the youth he soon renamed "Little Stevie Wonder." In addition to performing and recording, Wonder also took music lessons from Motown's legendary studio band, the Funk Brothers. Though two early singles flopped, the boy's exuberance and showmanship came through on a 1963 live recording, "Fingertips Part Two," that soon became a number one single; the album, Recorded Live—The Twelve Year Old Genius, also rose to number one, a first for Motown.

A couple of lean years followed before Wonder displayed an ability to write his own songs: his 1965 composition "Uptight" became a major hit and Gordy, who usually discouraged artists from writing their own material, assigned songwriters to help the budding genius. Over the next few years, hits included "For Once in My Life," "I Was Made to Love Her," and a cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" which marked Wonder's (and Motown's) first take on social themes. Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" was recorded in 1966 but only saw release in 1969 as a "B" side; it proved Motown's Quality Control department wrong when it soared up the charts. As he grew, Wonder became increasingly disenchanted with Motown's assembly line approach to hit-making, though he had more freedom than most of the label's artists. He was allowed to start producing some of his own music starting in 1968, and in 1970 won a Best R&B (rhythm and blues) Producer Grammy for Signed, Sealed & Delivered.

But in 1971, when he reached the age of majority and received a ten-year backlog of royalties, he did not re-sign with the company. Instead, he invested much of his fortune in new synthesizers and devoted himself to recording at Electric Lady Studios, designed by fellow sonic explorer Jimi Hendrix. Shocked that Wonder would consider abandoning the Motown family, Gordy negotiated a new contract that gave the artist unprecedented artistic freedom, including his own music publishing company. Wonder responded with a run of the most innovative, popular, and critically praised albums in Motown history, starting with two albums in 1972: Music of My Mind and Talking Book, which spawned two number one singles, the ballad "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and the funk tune "Superstition." The astonishing diversity of the material and the ear-opening range of synthesized sounds (programmed by associate producers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil) were to become trademarks of Wonder's adult career. The following three albums, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and the double album Songs in the Key of Life each won Album of the Year Grammies, and contained hit singles like "Livin' for the City," "You Haven't Done Nothin'," "I Wish," and "Sir Duke." The combination of trenchant political lyrics set to breathtaking melodies, unorthodox harmonies, and satisfying rhythms set a high-water mark for pop music; his positive, engaging manner kept the material from dragging the listener down.

Wonder was the foremost contributor to a trend in 1970s soul music (also upheld by Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, and War, among others) that shined a bright light on social problems but always with spirituality, a constructive attitude, and musical innovation. His do-it-yourself approach inspired a generation of artists who wrote and produced their own material (Prince being the most prominent example), and his unwillingness to take the easy way out has resulted in a book of compositions frequently played and recorded by top jazz musicians. Wonder's easy good cheer refuted the stereotype of the troubled, harassed superstar.

After Songs, however, his fame began to fade. A 1979 soundtrack to the film version of the bestselling non-fiction book The Secret Lifeof Plants, received mixed reviews from critics and record buyers alike, and Wonder rushed out Hotter Than July in 1980 to reassure confused fans that he had not lost his mind. The new album focused on more traditional political issues, with "Happy Birthday" kicking off Wonder's ultimately successful campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. While his next album was in the works, a duet written by and performed with Paul McCartney, "Ebony and Ivory," kept Wonder in the public eye. Then in 1984, "I Just Called to Say I Love You" (from the movie The Woman in Red) became Wonder's bestselling single ever, but had lasting negative consequences: the syrupy tune alienated many music critics and Wonder became pigeonholed as a sappy balladeer. That opinion was bolstered by In Square Circle (1985) and its hit "Part Time Lover," which marked an end to Wonder's dominance of the pop charts. The 1987 follow-up, Characters, which sold relatively poorly, led off with the single "Skeletons," a hard funk groove with lyrics obliquely addressing the Iran-contra affair. Despite the feel-good fundraising of mid-1980s events like "We Are the World" and "That's What Friends Are For" (Wonder participated in both), social criticism with any sharpness had fallen out of favor in pop music. The 1991 soundtrack to Spike Lee's Jungle Fever also sank without an impact, though it contained some fine work.

But even as styles changed, Wonder's influence could still be heard all over the airwaves, as his distinctive vocal style inspired New Jack Swing and soul artists like Boyz II Men, Mint Condition, and Jodeci. Later, in the mid-1990s, British retro outfit Jamiroquai rose to multiplatinum success by directly copying Wonder's landmark 1970s sound. In 1996, Wonder won a Lifetime Achievement Award and two Grammies for the new album Conversation Peace; he seems secure in his role as a living legend whose best work may be behind him, but who can still, on occasion, work his melodic magic.

—David B. Wilson

Further Reading:

Horn, Martin E. Stevie Wonder: Career of a Rock Legend. New York, Barclay House, 1999.

Taylor, Rick. Stevie Wonder: The Illustrated Disco/Biography. London, Omnibus Press, 1985.