Stevie Wonder has had 50 years at the top, more than 30 top 10 hit singles, over 150 million albums sold, 26 Grammys, one Academy Award, and a string of sold-out shows all around the world. Sometimes though, the numbers don't tell half the story. This, remember, is a man who has been blind since birth. A man who taught himself to play piano and most other instruments by the time the rest of us are still learning how to tie our laces. A man who between the ages of 22 and 26 produced a series of albums so far ahead of their time that no less a current musical giant than Kanye West was still talking about trying to match them more than 30 years later. And, perhaps most importantly, a man who still, in his 57th year, works tirelessly to promote the essential principles of peace, love and understanding for all.
This then is the story of Stevie Wonder, from the very early days in Michigan right through to the current heat of A Wonder Summer’s Night...
Stevie Wonder was born Stevland Hardaway Judkins (later changing the surname to Morris) on May 13, 1950 in the town of Saginaw, Michigan. The key defining moment of his early life, however, happened before he was even born. A premature baby, the blood vessels at the back of his eyes did not have time to reach those at the front, causing both retinas to detach, leading to a lifetime of permanent blindness.
Stevie’s family moved to Detroit when he was four and the young lad started to play the piano at the age of seven, mastering the instrument within just two years. By the time he was 11 years old, this boy wonder was equally proficient on the harmonica and drums, an astonishing feat that not surprisingly led to him being signed up at the age of 11 by legendary Motown supremo Berry Gordy Junior. Bar a short break in the early 70s, Motown has been home to the music of Stevie Wonder ever since.
It was as Little Stevie Wonder that the world first came to hear of this young prodigy, via his debut worldwide hit Fingertips (Pt. 2), released when he was still just 13 years old. An instant number one hit in the US, Fingertips features Little Stevie on vocals, bongos, and harmonca, while the drumming duties are performed by one Marvin Gaye.
Now a teenager, Stevie soon dropped the “Little” prefix, going on to have a number of in the mid-60s as simply Stevie Wonder, among them the frenetic Uptight (Everything’s Alright) and a version of Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind that first showcased the social conscience for which he would later become so renowned. It was also around this time that Stevie began to write for other artists other than himself, famously giving Smokey Robinson the music for the peerless Tears Of A Clown as a Christmas present in December 1966.
Having already changed his name from Judkins to Morris to Wonder, Stevie briefly changed it one more time to Eivets Rednow (try reading it backwards), releasing one eponymous album under this odd moniker in 1968 before wisely changing it back again and scoring a further stream of huge hits over the next three years as plain old Stevie Wonder, among them such all-time classic three-minute gems as I Was Made To Love Her, For Once In My Life, My Cherie Amour, Yester Me Yester You YesterDay and the triumphant Signed Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours).
By 1971, still to celebrate his 21st birthday, the former Little Stevie could already look back at a career that many other major artists would envy over the course of a lifetime. Rather than sit back and rest on his laurels, however, Stevie Wonder was just about to stun the world with what was yet to come...
"Here is a man who taught himself to play piano and most other instruments by the time the rest of us are still learning how to tie our laces."
Following on from a brief disagreement with Motown over creative control, Stevie returned to the fold in 1972 with Music Of My Mind, the first of five albums over the same number of years that would firmly establish the artist in the pantheon of all-time musical greats.
Just six months after Music Of My Mind came Talking Book, three-time Grammy winner, home to Superstition and You Are The Sunshine Of My Life to name but two standout tracks, and, according to Rolling Stone magazine, among the 100 greatest albums ever made. Footage of Stevie singing Superstition on a 1972 episode of Sesame Street has become a YouTube favourite, with Stevie looking pretty close to the coolest man on the planet, head bobbing in textbook fashion while his band blast out that instantly recognisable riff behind him.
Three more Grammys and two top 10 singles in Higher Ground and Living For The City were the immediate rewards for 1973’s Innervisions, an album that many critics still regard as one of the all-time greats, with Rolling Stone listing this one as high as number 23. And it was in Rolling Stone around this time that Stevie famously expressed his fear that someone somewhere was out to kill him. Just days after the interview, of course, Stevie was hit in the head by a log that came off a truck and through the window of his tour bus, leaving him in a four-day coma and with a permanent loss of any sense of smell.
Incredibly, not only did Stevie make a full recovery from this near-death experience, but within the space of a few months was already back at work on what would become his fourth classic album in a row, 1975’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale. In what was now becoming an annual event, this too won the Grammy for Album Of The Year, as well as yielding the infectious worldwide hit in Boogie On Reggae Woman.
Still aged just 25, Stevie Wonder had now won back-to-back Grammys for Best Album, a feat he was incredibly to repeat yet again just two years later with the double-album Songs In The Key Of Life, the fifth and final chapter of this golden five-year five-album period. Number one in the US charts for 14 weeks, and home to such perennial Stevie radio favourites as Sir Duke, I Wish, and Isn’t She Lovely, Songs In The Key Of Life also showcases the darker, more political side of the artist’s work in the 70s through songs such as Village Ghetto Land, Pastime Paradise (to be reworked nearly 30 years later by Coolio to such stunning effect), and the epic Love’s In Need Of Love Today, still resonant more than 30 years on today.
With 12 Grammies between them and at least four placings on any reputable list of The 100 Greatest Albums Of All Time, this five-album golden patch from Stevie in the 70s is a feat matched by few and held in awe by many. For the man himself, though, a brief respite at the end of this amazing decade was soon to be followed by even greater commercial success in the years to come...
"Footage of Stevie singing Superstition on a 1972 episode of Sesame Street has become a YouTube favourite, with Stevie looking pretty close to the coolest man on the planet."
INTO THE MAINSTREAM
Not surprisingly, Stevie took a two-year break from recording after this intensive burst of activity, breaking silence only to write various hits for other artists, among them Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) for Aretha Franklin and the brilliant Let’s Get Serious for none other than Jermaine Jackson.
When Stevie did eventually return with his own work, it was with the largely instrumental Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants, an album that met with a muted critical reaction on its release but which is now regarded by many as a worthy heir to the more widely celebrated offerings of the 70s.
Any temporary doubts regarding Stevie’s popular and critical appeal were, however, immediately dispelled with the 1980 release of the Hotter Than July album and its standout single Happy Birthday, the first instalment in what was to become the triumphant campaign to have Dr. Martin Luther’s birthday (January 15) established as an American national holiday. Another hero, Bob Marley, was also celebrated on the infectious Master Blaster (Jammin’), while tracks such as All I Do and Lately would take Stevie’s music to an even bigger audience around the world.
Just two years later came Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium, a mixture of old material and four new songs, among them Do I Do and Ribbon In The Sky, still a staple of aspiring reality TV hopefuls to this day. This was also the year in which Stevie had one of his biggest-ever worldwide hits with Ebony And Ivory, his classic duet with a certain Paul McCartney.
Again, just two more years were to pass before yet another album, this time the soundtrack for the movie The Woman In Red, featuring the enormous hit single I Just Called To Say I Love You, still much-loved by karaoke participants the world over and the song that finally won Stevie his Oscar, in the highly competitive category of Best Song.
High-level duets and special guest appearances were to become increasingly a feature of Stevie’s work throughout the 80s and beyond, ranging from his instantly recognisable opening harmonica blast on Eurythimics’ There Must Be An An Angel (Playing With My Heart) through to his subtler but equally effective contribution to Elton John’s smash hit I Guess That’s Why They Call The Blues.
And it was working with the stellar cast on the US Live Aid single We Are The World that was to introduce Stevie to a whole new generation appalled by what they were watching unfold in famine-ravaged Africa. Closer to home, Stevie was also a key part of the line-up on the AIDS benefit single That’s What Friends Are For, before ending the decade with the Characters album, featuring yet another guest appearance, this time from none other than Michael Jackson himself. As his 40th birthday approached, Stevie may well have planned to ease off just a little after three decades in the public eye, but the world, it soon became apparent, still wanted more...
THE LEGEND GROWS
By the time he celebrated his 40th birthday on May 13, 1990, Stevie Wonder had already pretty much done it all, having sold millions of albums, won countless awards, earned the adulations of fans and peers, and shone a light on the key social issues of the day. Far from disappearing though, the new decade was to see the Wonder legend grow even greater, as a whole new generation became familiar with the great man’s work.
The first instalment in this was to be the soundtrack for Jungle Fever, the 1991 movie from the director who at this time was the hottest, coolest, and newest kid on the Hollywood block, Mr. Spike Lee. Featuring a blistering version of the classic Living In the City, the movie also featured a host of new Stevie compositions, among them Feeding Off The Love Of The Land, later to be album included on the charity compliation Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal.
Four years later came Conversation Peace, Stevie’s first non-soundtrack album since 1987’s Characters, and notable for yet another Grammy, this time for Best Vocal Performance on the hit single For Your Love. The following year saw two perfect illustrations of just how far Little Stevie had come, the first when Songs In The Key Of Life was selected for the full hour-long documentary treatment on the Classic Albums TV series, the second when the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta ended with a spine-tingling version of John Lennon’s Imagine played to an audience of billions around the globe. The man chosen to perform this rare honour? You got it in one.
The decade drew to a close with two more of the duets for which Stevie had by now become famous, the first with rapper Babyface on How Come How Long, a searing look at the reality of domestic abuse, the second with Sting on Brand New Day, showing yet again how effortlessly the world’s favourite guest artist can fit into whichever genre may take his fancy.
At 50 years old, when many might be starting to ease off the gas, it was clear that a new millennium was going to witness yet more intriguing chapters in the ongoing incredible story of Stevie Wonder...
HERE AND NOW
Following on from his closing act at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Stevie was the natural choice to be the star performer at the grand opening of the 2002 Winter Paralympics in Salt Lake City and, 20 years on from the original Live Aid, the only serious contender to top the bill at the 2005 Live 8 concert in Philadephia.
And then came the news that all Stevie fans had been waiting for, the confirmation that there indeed would be the first new studio album for a decade, 2005’s A Time To Love, kicking off with the hit single So What The Fuss, featuring who else but Prince on guitar duties.
The following year saw Stevie again reach out to a whole new audience via the smash TV show American Idol, with one classic episode featuring the 12 young contestants bravely trying their hand at performing a Wonder original, while the master himself performed live as an added bonus.
The same year also saw Stevie yet again reach out to today’s top urban artists, with his guest slot on Busta Rhymes’ The Big Bang album as well as his reworking of Songs In The Key Of Life’s Have A Talk With God for Snoop Dogg’s most recent offering, The Blue Carpet Treatment.
And after this came 'A Wonder Summer’s Night', Stevie’s first live outing for over a decade in 2008, a tour that has already taken in the US and mainland Europe, and which will see him play his first shows in the UK since his last visit to these shores way back in the mid-90s. And then there was a small intimate show in Somerset. Glastonbury 2010 proved Stevie Wonder to be every inch the legend we all knew he was, and a field crammed with over 100,000 dirty campers screaming along to the hits is a real testament to the man.
Always looking ahead, though, Stevie has already announced his next two albums, one to be called The Gospel Inspired By Lula, the other the self-explanatory Through The Eyes Of Wonder, as well as a further rumoured collaboration with Tony Bennett, building on the success the pair have already enjoyed for their Grammy-winning version of For Once In My Life.
For now, though, if you missed him at Glasto, sit back, relax and enjoy the now iconic images from the Wonderful evening on Worthy Farm. Rocking out on keytar on the Pyramid Stage floor, no problem. Singing 'Happy Birthday' to Michael Eavis, sure! They all just add to the man's legend.
"It was clear that a new millennium was going to witness yet more intriguing chapters in the ongoing incredible story of Stevie Wonder…"
STEVIE WONDER NEED TO KNOW
The pop, hip hop and R&B world have not been slow to embellish their art with the best bits of the Wonder back catalogue. Elements of Stevie’s music have surfaced in tracks by artists such as Warren G, Public Enemy, Fifty Cent and Will Smith. Coolio’s “Gangster Paradise” took sampling to a whole new level. Released in 1995 for inclusion on the “Dangerous Minds” soundtrack, “Gangster’s Paradise” lifted it’s beat, tune and backing orchestration wholesale from Stevie’s “Past Time Paradise”.
Over the familiar sawing strings and trigger-cocked click beat, the LA born rapper evokes imagery from the 23rd Psalm to paint a painfully vivid picture of life on the ghetto streets. The song is both a lament and a warning and signalled the end of hip-hop’s all consuming glorification of the gangsta lifestyle. The Grammy Award winning Gangster’s Paradise” went to number one in thirteen different copies and was the first rap single to sell more than a million copies in the UK.
During his mammoth career Stevie Wonder has given away songs other artists would keep guarded under lock and key. One of the most notable examples of this is “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), which has been recorded by Cyndi Lauper, Luther Vandross, and, most famously, the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. Stevie actually recorded the song himself in the sixties but his version never saw the light of day until his Anthologies collection was released in 1976. Before this, Aretha had heard the song three years previously and her impassioned take on a rejected lover’s determination to win back her lover soared to number one in the R&B chart.
It was a musical match made in heaven; two living legends side by side at the piano - and it finally happened in 1982 on “Ebony and Ivory”, the cross-Atlantic chart-topping ode to racial harmony. The title was inspired by the British comedian Spike Milligan who McCartney overheard saying, “Black notes, white notes, and you need to play the two to make harmony, folks!” Recorded live in the studio by both artists, “Ebony and Ivory” was Stevie’s longest running chart topper and equalled all of McCartney’s post-Beatle output for time spent at the top.
In an interview in 2005 Kanye West said, "I'm not trying to compete with what's out there now. I'm really trying to compete with "Innervisions" and "Songs in the Key of Life". It sounds musically blasphemous to say something like that, but why not set that as your bar?” Since he launched his career, Kanye West has arguably come closer to that bar than perhaps any other contemporary artist. Initially deemed by the industry to be not “ghetto” enough to cut it as a rapper, the former producer has infused the hip-hop genre with a fresh sensibility redolent of prime time Wonder. Evoking Mary J Blige’s maxim that “the ghetto is not something you get into”, West has kept the spirit of Stevie aflame with his lyrical themes of Afro-American pride through self-knowledge and self-improvement.
It’s one of the most distinctive noises in popular music; like an exuberant bird in flight, a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo is an audio hallmark of quality. One of the more popular recent urban legends had Stevie playing the harmonica on the theme tune to the children’s TV show Sesame Street. It’s not true, but you could be forgiven for believing it, such has been the ubiquity of Stevie’s sweet harp tones throughout the back pages of soul, pop and R&B. Guest appearances include Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You”, Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”, The Eurythmics “There Must Be An Angel” and “As Time Goes By” by Carly Simon.