Stevie Wonder





Stevie Wonder has had an incredible career spanning over fifty years and numerous musical phases. Born Steveland Hardaway Judkins in Saginaw, MI, on May 13th, 1950, he later altered his name to Steveland Morris when his mother re-married. When he was born, Stevie was placed in an incubator and given too much oxygen, causing permanent sight loss. Stevie has always considered his blindness to be a gift from God, allowing him to heighten his other senses (most notably his hearing.) "I did what all the kids my age were doing, I played games, rode bikes and climbed trees." His first introduction in the music field came when he received a gift of a small six hole harmonica from his uncle and a set of toy drums for Christmas. A local Kiwanis Club replaced the toy drums with a set of real drums soon after. As he became proficient on various real instruments, he started playing at the local church and soon grew to be something of a neighborhood sensation.

When Steveland was ten, he sat in the living room of Ronnie White, a member of The Miracles recording group. Shaking his head from side to side the boy repeated the question asked of him, "Can I sing? Yeah, I'm bad, I'm better than Smokey." The brash kid began to sing The Miracles recording of "Lonely Boy". Impressed by the little boy's talents, Ronnie set up a meeting for him with Brian Holland, a talent scout for Motown. When Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, came to hear the ten-year-old, he signed him on the spot. His name was then changed to Little Stevie Wonder, the "Little" being naturally dropped once Stevie grew out of it. His first album, "Little Stevie Wonder, the 12 Year Old Genius" made the child a huge star, and gave Stevie a number one hit with single "Fingertips Part II" in July, 1963. He hit the road with other Motown acts, and scored hits a string of hits with "Up-Tight (Everything's Alright)" (#3 in 1966), "Blowin' In The Wind" (#9 in 1966), "A Place In The Sun" (#9 in 1966), "I Was Made to Love Her" (#2 in 1967), "For Once in My Life" (#2 in 1968), "My Cherie Amour" (#4 in 1969) and "Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday" (#7 in 1969).

In 1970, Stevie married fellow Motown singer, Syreeta Wright and released the hit album "Signed, Sealed and Delivered". Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived and the couple was divorced in two years later. Although Wonder co-produced, wrote, and played many of the instruments on his albums, Motown still maintained a stranglehold over his professional and personal life. Motown had Wonder appearing with whiter-than-white Frankie Avalon and purer-than-pure Annette Funicello in such fare as the movie Bikini Beach. Is it any wonder that he wanted out of his contract when he turned twenty-one? Once Stevie he reached the age of majority in 1971, he didn't immediately re-sign with Motown. Now able to draw funds from his trust fund, he invested in his own recording studio where he could finance his own recordings. Stevie also took some music theory classes at USC to improve his song writing capabilities. Stevie recorded two albums on his own, "Where I'm Coming From" and "Music Of My Mind" with the programming aid of Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. Margouleff and Cecil helped Stevie pioneer the use of synthesizers in popular music, most notably in "Music of My Mind". With these two albums, Stevie negotiated a contract with Motown that allowed him more freedom in artistic matters and a higher royalty percentage. Such a contract was nearly unheard of then, since Motown had a reputation of being merely a hit-making machine with little variety. Once the new contract was signed, Stevie released the two albums. Although they were not huge successes, Stevie showed signs of the genius that was about to come.

Wonder eventually made amends with Berry Gordy, and Motown distributed "Music Of My Mind". In 1972, Wonder went on tour as the Rolling Stones' opening act (they had been his opening act years before), and this introduction to White audiences was pivotal to his success as an adult performer. In late 1972, Stevie began his string of critically acclaimed and Grammy winning albums with "Talking Book". This LP brought Stevie out from the mini-slump he had been suffering through chart-wise with two number one hits, the funky "Superstition" and the now standard "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life". The effort was a big hit with the public. The power and emotion of the album in many ways shone true because many of the songs were written in reference to the relationship with his former wife and musical partner, Syretta Wright. The programming of Margouleff and Cecil helped to represent these feelings in an all new manner.

Less than a year later Stevie released the now classic "Innervisions" featuring the hits "Higher Ground" (#4) and "Living For the City" (#8). The latter is perhaps the most dramatic and inspiring song Stevie has ever written. This song, along with many Marvin Gaye classics from "What's Going On", helped Soul music adequately face and question the prevailing racial problems and inadequacies. "Higher Ground", along with "Jesus Children of America" allowed Stevie to express his spirituality and love for God unlike ever before. The album was full of other powerful tunes like "Too High" and "He's Misstra Know-It-All" which are about drug abuse and gangsters/players, respectively.

In August of 1973, Stevie Wonder was involved in a near fatal accident on the way to a concert in North Carolina when his car was crushed by timber falling off of a logging truck. He was comatose for nearly a day and lost his sense of smell due to the crash. Otherwise, he came out of the accident without major injury, but with an all new sense of mortality. His next album, "Fulfillingness' First Finale" (1974) expressed this new sense of life musically. The album did have its share of variety, such as the anti-Nixon funk anthem "You Haven't Done Nothin'" (#1) and the happy "Boogie On Reggae Woman" (#3). However, the album was on the whole more introspective and life-affirming than his previous efforts.

Throughout this period, Stevie Wonder nearly swept all possible Grammys he was eligible for. Winning for Best R&B Artist, Best Album, Best Song, Best Male Vocal, etc. While in-between albums in 1976, Paul Simon, in his acceptance speech for winning the Album of the Year Grammy jokingly thanked Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album that year. Stevie in fact did not release an LP during that period because he was working on what would be his masterpiece double-album entitled "Songs in the Key of Life", released in 1976. This album ran the gamut of different musical styles from the baroque classical in "Village Ghetto Land" to the Gospel/S oul of "As", the fusion Jazz of "Contusion" to the Middle-East influenced "Pastime Paradise", and the boogie-woogie Jazz of "Sir Duke" (#1), to the all-out Funk of "I Wish" (#1).

Stevie took extended time off to work on the soundtrack for the movie Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Mostly instrumental, the album didn't fair as well as previous Wonder efforts, although it did sport the hit "Send One Your Love" (#4). The movie accompanying the soundtrack was never completed. Despite the lukewarm response of the album, it did serve as a precursor to new age music of the 1980s. Motown felt after this project that caution should be used when releasing new material. This attitude led to albums being released less frequently than before. His first album of new Soul material was "Hotter Than July" in 1980. The Martin Luther King, Jr. anthem "Happy Birthday" was included on "Hotter", calling for a national holiday for the slain civil rights leader. Thanks to the efforts of Stevie, the U.S. Government declared that King's birthday be a national holiday two years later.

During the 1980s Stevie Wonder entered a phase of his career which was perhaps his most successful commercially. However, critics panned most of his work in this period, stating that it failed to live up to his previous outings. During this time, Stevie seemed more interested in making music for people rather than for himself or other reasons. Hits like "Ebony and Ivory" (#1 in 1982), with Paul McCartney, "I Just Called to Say I Love You" (#1 in 1984), "Part Time Lover" (#1 in 1985), "Go Home" (#10 in 1986), and "That's What Friends Are For" (#1 in 1986) reflected this feeling. Stevie didn't stop helping others through his music and activities however. He fought against drunk driving, apartheid in South Africa, and hunger in Ethiopia through song. His mini-duet with Bruce Springsteen in the benefit song "We Are The World" remains as one of the weirdest yet most powerful and memorable musical exchanges ever. In 1987, the album "Characters" saw a return for Wonder to the funkiness he's always been known for.

Throughout the '90s, Stevie continued making important music. He composed and performed the soundtrack for the Spike Lee movie Jungle Fever (1991) which successfully mirrored the drama and feeling of the film. His 1994 album "Conversation Peace" was Stevie back in vintage form, beautiful, catchy melodies intermixed with meaningful lyrics and funky rhythms. "For Your Love" won two Grammys at the 1996 Grammy Awards for Best R&B Song and Best R&B Male vocal. That same year, the Grammy people awarded Stevie with the Lifetime Achievement Award due to his outstanding musical career, not to mention his numerous Grammy wins. Stevie wannabes D'Angelo and Tony Rich performed an outstanding Wonder medley to commemorate the event. And despite a somewhat unfortunate absence from the top of the U.S. charts throughout the nineties, Stevie still remained visible in the public eye, with performances at Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Tribute in 1992 ("Blowin' in the Wind"), at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Inductions, and at the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics where he performed "Happy Birthday" with Gloria Estefan, Trisha Yearwood, Al Green and others with slightly-changed lyrics to celebrate the modern Olympiad's centennial birthday.

Stevie's career as a musician transcended the realm of music. He has been an active voice for numerous causes. From fighting hunger, blindness and disease in Africa and the U.S.A. to fighting for racial equality and recognition, Stevie has already left a legacy of love and compassion along with his incredible music. Wonder, beside being awarded the Grammy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996 was one of the first inductees into Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was the featured performer at the Super Bowl half-time show in January of 1999. As the new century rolled around, Wonder continued to write and perform to sell out crowds. In 2001, Stevie married again, this time to his girlfriend, Kai Millard. 2005 saw the release of a new album, "A Time To Love", along with a new music video incorporating description technology which contained an audio track for people who have trouble seeing. The CD featured performances by Bonnie Raitt (playing slide guitar), Gospel singer Kim Burrell, India Arie and Wonder's own daughter, Aisha Morris, whom listeners may remember as the source of her dad's delight on "Isn't She Lovely".

On October 17th, 2006, Stevie received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, then segued from his acceptance speech into a medley of his songs that included "My Cherie Amour" and "I Wish". On August 2nd, 2007, Wonder announced the A Wonder Summer's Night concert tour, his first in the US in over ten years. On August 28th, of '08, Stevie performed at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Songs included the previously unreleased "Fear Can't Put Dreams to Sleep" as well as "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours". On September 8th of that year, Wonder kicked off the European leg of his Wonder Summer's Night tour, which included stops in the UK, Holland, Sweden, Germany, Norway, France, Italy and Denmark. From there he headed to Australia and New Zealand. That same year, Billboard magazine ranked him at #5 on their list of their 100 All-Time Top Artists.

On US President Barack Obama's Inauguration Day on January 20th, 2009, Stevie performed "Brand New Day" with Sting. On February 23rd, '09, he received the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Pop music from President Obama at the White House. On July 7th, of that same year, Wonder performed "Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer" and "They Won't Go When I Go" at the Staples Center for Michael Jackson's memorial service. On October 29th, he performed at the 25th anniversary concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Stevie was awarded the Commander Of The Arts And Letters by French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand on March 6th, 2010, an award he had been due to receive in 1981, but scheduling problems had gotten in the way. His 2010 tour included stops in England, Ireland, Norway as well as America.

On June 25th, 2011, Wonder performed at the opening ceremony of the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. He and Christina Aguilera gave a musical tribute at Etta James' funeral on January 28th, 2012, and he was called on to perform at Whitney Houston's memorial service on February 19th, 2012, where he dedicated a re-worded rendition of "Ribbon in the Sky" to Ms Houston. March of 2012 brought the news that Stevie had been booked as the featured performer at the Bestival festival on Isle of Wight on September 9th. The year was not without trouble however, when Stevie's cousin, Alpha L. Walker and his girlfriend Tamara E. Diaz, were arrested for attempting to extorted Wonder by threatening to sell a film ranting against the singer's treatment of his family to various media outlets for millions of dollars. The pair pleaded not guilty but later changed their plea to no contest and were sentenced to time served. In August, 2012, Stevie filed divorce papers to end his eleven year marriage, citing irreconcilable differences.

In July, 2013, Stevie was in the news again when he vowed never to perform in Florida following the acquittal of Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman who gunned down teenager Trayvon Martin. At a show in Quebec City, Canada, he told an audience, "I decided today that until the Stand Your Ground law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again. As a matter of fact, wherever I find that law exists, I will not perform in that state or in that part of the world."

Stevie's Summer 2014 European tour included stops in Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Italy. Following the CBS TV special Stevie Wonder: Songs In the Key Of Life - An All-Star Grammy Salute, which aired February 16th, 2015, the album "Stevie Wonder: The Definitive Collection" re-entered the Billboard 200 chart at #40, selling over 7,000 copies in one week. That was followed by an extensive trek across America called the Songs In The Key Of Life Tour which found Stevie performing all of the songs from his classic 1976 album as well as his other greatest hits. On October 5th, 2015, Stevie's divorce from fashion designer Kai Millard was finalised after several years in court. On May 6, 2016, Stevie closed out a public memorial for Prince with a performance of "Purple Rain" in front of several thousand fans in Los Angeles. In January, 2017 Stevie was back in the spotlight again when he sang an altered version of "My Cherie Amour" to outgoing First Lady Michelle Obama on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show.