Stevie Wonder – circa 1972
“For once I can say, ‘This is mine you can’t take it’ / As long as I have love I know I can make it” – ’For Once In My Life’ (Ron Miller, Orlando Murden)
This is how African-American singer and songwriter Stevie Wonder loses one of his five senses: It is the result of a traffic accident. Stevie Wonder is in the passenger seat of a 1948 Dodge flatbed truck. He is sleeping, with headphones on. The person at the wheel of the Dodge is momentarily distracted by something and fails to notice the truck in front of them until it is too late and the vehicles collide. The truck into which they crash is carrying logs of timber. The load slips and one log smashes through the windshield of the Dodge, striking Wonder full in the face. Stevie Wonder is rushed to hospital. He spends four days in a coma induced by a brain contusion. Although he recovers, Stevie Wonder incurs permanent damage: He loses his sense of smell. This fateful accident takes place on 6 August 1973 near Salisbury, North Carolina. Stevie Wonder is already blind. He lost his eyesight years earlier. But that’s a different story…
Stevie Wonder is born 13 May 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, U.S.A. At birth, his name is Steveland Judkins – or perhaps Steveland Morris as that is what the singer claims was on the birth certificate. He is the son of Calvin Judkins and Lula Mae Hardaway Judkins. Calvin Judkins is described as ‘an abusive lout’ while his spouse is viewed as a ‘hard-nosed, sometime hooker.’ Predictably, Stevie describes his mother more favourably: “Mama was my greatest teacher, a teacher of compassion, love and fearlessness.”
Stevie Wonder is a premature baby. The struggling newborn is hastily placed in an incubator. However an excess of oxygen in the incubator leaves him blind within hours. The condition is known as retinopathy of prematurity; the growth of the eyes is aborted and this causes the retinas to detach. “I can barely remember if I did see [as a child],” Stevie Wonder says, but he has vague recollections (possibly imagined) of the faces of his mother and the attending (white) doctor.
In 1954, when her son is 4 years old, Lula Mae Hardaway Judkins leaves her husband (Stevie’s father) and relocates to Detroit, Michigan, with her boy. She changes her name to Lula Hardaway and her son’s name to Steveland Morris (though, by Wonder’s account, that was always the name on his birth certificate). There are conflicting versions of explanations for the Morris surname. One version has it that Lula Hardaway changes her ‘son’s surname to Morris, partly because of relatives’ who, presumably, have that surname. A second version puts it that the name is altered to Steveland Morris when his mother (re)marries. A third version claims that Hardaway is the surname of Stevie’s stepfather. Whatever the reason, Steveland Morris is now the child’s name. In fact, for all his later fame as Stevie Wonder, Morris remains his legal surname. “My father was not the dominant person who raised the family. It was my mother who raised the family,” the singer points out.
“I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being black as a disadvantage,” insists Stevie Wonder. Still, growing up is a difficult period. “When I was a child, kids used to make fun of me because I was blind,” Stevie admits. His rather solitary life is enlivened by books (“Of course I read Braille, yes”) and, perhaps more importantly, by music. Not allowed out on his own, Stevie amuses himself with music on the radio. Within a few years, he begins singing in the local church choir. Stevie begins playing drums and harmonica when he is 5 and takes piano lessons soon after. He also adds bongoes to his musical skillset and is proficient in all four instruments by the time he is 9. A partnership with a young friend leads to the duo of Stevie And John performing on street corners, at dances and parties.
“My mother had a rule, obviously, that I couldn’t go across the street by myself,” recalls Stevie Wonder, “but I had to find a way of doing it.” That desire grows when, one day, he hears music playing down the street. The youngster investigates and finds another musical enthusiast. “I was discovered by Ronnie White’s cousin…We were friends,” he says of this new acquaintance. Although Stevie remembers it being Ronnie White’s cousin, other versions have it that it is Gerald White, Ronnie’s brother, who discovers Stevie. In any case, in 1961 Stevie sings his own composition, ‘Lonely Boy’, to Ronnie White. So who is Ronnie White? He is a member of the Detroit-based vocal group The Miracles. The Miracles are signed to a nascent local record label, Motown. Ronnie White arranges an audition for Stevie Morris with the head of Motown, Berry Gordy.
Berry Gordy, Jr., is an African-American entrepreneur. He starts out as a professional boxer. Gordy then opens a record shop – which fails due to his stubborn insistence on only stocking records he likes. In 1955 he goes to work on the assembly-line at the Ford automobile factory. By 1957 Berry Gordy has left that job and is working as an independent songwriter and record producer. He uses his earnings from this activity to create his own record label, Motown (a contraction of ‘motor town’, a nod to the automobile industry that is the main economic force in the label’s Detroit hometown). Motown’s first record is released in 1958. Motown is actually an umbrella title for three separate, interrelated labels: Motown, Gordy and Tamla.
What distinguishes Motown from virtually every other record label is that it is owned by an African-American (Berry Gordy) and its recording artists are also African-American. The label purports to furnish ‘The Sound of Young America’ (not ‘The Sound of Black America’) and is aimed at all races, not just an African-American audience – though, naturally, that is its major fanbase. Rhythm and blues is a virtual catch-all term for a recording by an African-American act. Strictly speaking, it is a more danceable progression from blues, itself the offspring of the call-and-response worksongs of the plantation workers that, in turn, can be traced back to African tribal music. Motown’s acts play rhythm and blues mixed with a generous dollop of pop in order to attract a wider (and whiter) audience.
Calling on his experience on the automobile production line, Berry Gordy organises Motown into different compartments. Each of his acts is wheeled through and fitted with suitable songwriters, record producers, musicians, and even consultants on deportment, fashion and choreography. The Motown musicians play on records by all the label’s acts. These musicians include: Joe Messina (guitar), Robert White (guitar), Earl Van Dyke (keyboards), James Jamerson, Sr. (bass), Benny Benjamin (drums) and James Giddons (percussion). Although they go unheralded at the time, this collective is later known as The Funk Brothers.
When Stevie Morris auditions for Berry Gordy he demonstrates his full multi-instrumental capability. Legend has it that Gordy is unimpressed with the youngster’s singing, drumming and bongo-playing, but is ‘astounded’ by his harmonica skills. Accordingly, when Stevie is signed to a recording contract, his mouth-organ playing is given a prominent place in his early works. Producer Clarence Paul is assigned to Motown’s latest signing (Stevie is actually on the Tamla imprint) and, reportedly, it is Clarence Paul who dubs him ‘Little Stevie Wonder’. When seeing the child prodigy at work, people call him ‘a little wonder’ so it is this term that is adapted into the stagename Little Stevie Wonder.
Although Stevie Wonder sang an original composition for Ronnie White of The Miracles, his own songwriting skills are put on the back burner for the first few years of his recording career. He ‘starts out in the general Motown mould.’ “They would have the rhythm worked out and I would just come to the sessions and play the piano,” Wonder recalls.
The first single by Little Stevie Wonder is ‘I Call It Pretty Music, But The Old People Call It The Blues’ (US no. 101). It is released in August 1962. The song is co-written by Motown boss Berry Gordy and the producer assigned to Wonder, Clarence Paul. The 12 year old singer vocalises in an endearingly high, schoolboy style, the song punctuated by his frantic harmonica riffs.
‘The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie’ (1962), the debut album for Little Stevie Wonder, is issued in September. The title is an early indication that Wonder’s musical tastes are quite broad and not limited to rhythm and blues and/or pop. The song ‘Fingertips’ first appears on this disc but since it plays a larger role later, it will be referred to further in due course. Henry Cosby produces this debut album.
‘Tribute To Uncle Ray’ (1962), the second Little Stevie Wonder album, is released in October, only a month after his debut. The ‘Uncle Ray’ of the title is a reference to 1950s rhythm and blues pioneer Ray Charles. Like Wonder, Ray Charles is blind, African-American and a piano player with a wider musical agenda than may be first supposed. Unlike Wonder, Ray Charles is a more tough-minded, ornery character. On this disc, Little Stevie Wonder sings cover versions of Ray Charles songs with a sprinkling of added Motown material. Clarence Paul produces this set.
Little Stevie Wonder notches up a couple of more singles in 1962: ‘Little Water Boy’ in October; and the doo wop-influenced ‘Contract On Love’ in December.
’12-Year Old Genius – Recorded Live’ (1963) (US no. 1) appears in May. Ray Charles was frequently called a genius, so the use of the word here is, again, an attempt to draw a parallel between the two artists. “No, I don’t think I’m a genius,” Wonder will later say, despite the tag following him through his career. The material on this album is recorded live at the Regal Theater in Chicago in June 1962. This means that Little Stevie Wonder was indeed 12 at the time of the recording, but he turns 13 eight days before this album is released. Berry Gordy is credited as the producer of this album. ‘Fingertips’ (US no. 1) (a track from Stevie’s debut album) is revisited here. It is a wild rhythm and blues instrumental rave-up that pits Stevie’s harmonica against a horn section. ‘Fingertips’ is co-written by Henry Cosby and Clarence Paul and is arranged and conducted by Clarence Paul. ‘Fingertips’ tops the U.S. singles chart for three weeks beginning on 10 August 1963. For one week (24 August 1963), Little Stevie Wonder has both the chart-topping album and single.
‘Workout Stevie, Workout’ (US no. 33) is the title of Little Stevie Wonder’s September 1963 single. It is also what the backing vocalists shout as the youngster wails on his harmonica in this frantic piece that has only minimal lyrics. The album ‘With A Song In My Heart’ (1963) in December closes out the year.
January 1964’s ‘Castles In The Sand’ (US no. 52) sets the tone for the next phase. It is co-written by the foursome of Hal Davis, Frank Wilson, Marc Gordon and Mary O’Brien and is produced by Davis and Gordon. The song is atmospheric, introduced by the sound of gulls and surf, and features a mellow string section. ‘Castles In The Sand’ is the last release credited to Little Stevie Wonder. From this point, he is simply Stevie Wonder. The rapidly maturing youngster is not so ‘little’ anyway, eventually reaching a height of six feet. The May single ‘Hey Harmonica Man’ (US no. 29) joins ‘Castles In The Sand’ on the June album, ‘Stevie At The Beach’ (1964). (Note: In the U.K., this album is renamed ‘Hey Harmonica Man’ (1964).) Another song from this album, the gospel-flavoured ‘Happy Street’, is issued as single in September and is performed by Stevie Wonder in his motion picture debut ‘Muscle Beach Party’ (1964). This is one of a series of beach movies featuring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Stevie also appears in their next film in the same year, ‘Bikini Beach’ (1964). Stevie Wonder, the blind black kid, seems a bit out of place with the surfside antics of the fun-lovin’ white teens, but it shows Motown’s determination to reach a larger audience. Around this time, Stevie Wonder’s voice begins to deepen considerably. Clarence Paul’s songs are too high-pitched for the teenager’s comfort. Stevie’s career is put on hiatus. During this time out he studies classical piano at the Michigan School for the Blind.
Stevie Wonder enters 1965 with ‘Kiss Me Baby’ in March. It’s the first of his singles for which Wonder gets a writing credit, a co-credit in this case with producer Clarence Paul. As it is almost completely an instrumental – aside from the spoken title – this harmonica-heavy track barely makes Wonder’s new, deeper voice heard. A better showcase is August’s cover version of Tommy Tucker’s 1963 hit ‘High Heel Sneakers’ (US no. 59). This is, in turn, upstaged by November’s ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ (US no. 3, UK no. 14). The songwriting is credited to Stevie Wonder in partnership with Motown regulars Sylvia Moy and Henry Cosby. ‘Uptight’ is a bracingly urgent jolt of rhythm and blues pop, its deep spirit enhanced by some sophisticated horns. The lyric outlines the tale of a poor boy (“The only shirt I own is here on my back”) that falls for a more upmarket gal. It’s a simple enough storyline, but it also shows the possible beginnings of Wonder’s interest in social justice.
The album ‘Uptight’ (1966) (US no. 33) in May of course includes 1965’s namesake single. It also scoops up some previously unaligned material such as the 1962 single ‘Contract On Love’ and 1965’s ‘Music Talk’ (the funky flipside to ‘High Heel Sneakers’). Among the tracks on this set are 1966 singles ‘Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby’ (US no. 20) (a stompin’ song from March) and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ (US no. 9, UK no. 36) (a cover version of Bob Dylan’s folk protest song from 1962 given a shrugging beat in this June makeover that, again, illustrates Wonder’s growing social conscience) along with its flipside, the pacey ‘Ain’t That Asking For Trouble’ (a Wonder original co-written with Clarence Paul and Sylvia Moy). Another notable track on this album is the shimmering ‘Love A Go Go’. The philosophical ‘A Place In The Sun’ (US no. 9, UK no. 20) is released in October and is included on the December album ‘Down To Earth’ (1966) (US no. 72). This disc is host to the excitable ‘Be Cool, Be Calm (And Keep Yourself Together)’ and the semi-ballad ‘Thank You Love’, two high quality efforts Stevie Wonder co-writes with Sylvia Moy and Henry Cosby. Wonder ends the year with a seasonal single in November, ‘Someday At Christmas’ (US no. 24).
‘Travelin’ Man’ (US no. 32) in February 1967 has a country music-like lilt. May’s ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ (US no. 2, UK no. 5) has a harder, rubbery twang. Stevie Wonder shares a songwriting credit for this one with not only Sylvia Moy and producer Henry Cosby, but the singer’s mother, Lula Hardaway. The album ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ (1967) (US no. 45), released in August, naturally includes the title track. The disc is padded out a bit with Wonder’s renditions of songs by other famous contemporary black singers such as James Brown’s ‘Please Please Please’ and Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’. This album is also noteworthy as the end of Clarence Paul’s involvement with his young charge (Paul co-produces this set with Henry Cosby). ‘I’m Wondering’ (US no. 12, UK no. 22), the September 1967 single, could almost be Stevie’s theme tune. Its marching beat is another collaboration from Wonder and Cosby. The previous year’s holiday tune becomes the title track for November’s ‘Someday At Christmas’ (1967) which is filled out with Stevie’s take on various traditional yuletide songs. (Note: Another Stevie Wonder song recorded in 1967 is the dreamy pop piece ‘Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)’. However this is not released by Wonder until the compilation album ‘Looking Back’ (1977). In the meantime, Aretha Franklin releases her version of the song in 1973.)
One of Stevie Wonder’s more offbeat projects is ‘Eivets Rednow’ (1968) (US no. 64), an album of easy listening instrumentals released in November on the Gordy label and credited to the pseudonymous Eivets Rednow (which is Stevie Wonder spelled backwards). The disc includes a version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1966 movie theme ‘Alfie’ (US no. 66) as well as an original instrumental from Henry Cosby and Wonder (or Rednow?), the utopian ‘More Than A Dream’. Stevie Wonder’s more mainstream singles from 1968 are ‘Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day’ in March, ‘You Met Your Match’ in June and ‘For Once In My Life’ in October. ‘Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day’ (US no. 9, UK no. 46) is written by Stevie Wonder, Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy. It has a warm groove and is a warning from Stevie’s narrator to another fellow to start treating his woman right or Stevie/the narrator will steal her away. ‘You Met Your Match’ (US no. 35) is co-written by Wonder, Don Hunter and Lula Hardaway (Wonder’s mother). This is a hotter, funkier single than its predecessor and is a tale of two lovers trying to outdo each other in romantic cruelty. ‘For Once In My Life’ (US no. 2, UK no. 3) is written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden. It is an uplifting, optimistic song of emotional resolve. All three of these singles are on the November album ‘For Once In My Life’ (1968) (US no. 50). The disc is co-produced by Henry Cosby, Don Hunter and Stevie Wonder.
In 1968 Stevie Wonder meets Syreeta Wright. She started working at Motown as a receptionist in 1965 and graduated to becoming secretary to producer William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson in 1966. She gets a chance to record a single herself in January 1968 but it has little impact. Although she is four years older than him, Syreeta Wright begins dating Stevie Wonder in 1969. He encourages her to branch into songwriting.
The double A sided single ‘I Don’t Know Why I Love You’ (US no. 34, UK no. 14) backed with ‘My Cherie Amour’ (US no. 4, UK no. 4) is released by Stevie Wonder in January 1969. Stevie co-writes both songs but his confederates are different on each track. Paul Riser, Don Hunter and Lula Hardaway share credit with the vocalist on the brooding ‘I Don’t Know Why I Love You’; its agonised vocal is built on an electronic keyboard sound. By contrast, ‘My Cherie Amour’ is feather-light pop, yet sweet and sublimely moving. The romantic protagonist declares, “Pretty little one that I adore / You’re the only girl my heart beats for / How I wish that you were mine,” but, in reality, “I’ve been near you but you never notice me.” Stevie Wonder co-writes ‘My Cherie Amour’ (loosely, the title is French for ‘My Dear Love’) with Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy. Both of these songs are on the album ‘My Cherie Amour’ (1969) (US no. 34, UK no. 17) issued in August. Stevie Wonder is credited as the producer of this album. It includes Wonder doing a cover version of edgy rock group The Doors’ 1967 hit ‘Light My Fire’. This is an odd choice for a rhythm and blues/pop artist to cover, but it is evidence of Wonder’s eclectic tastes. Among the other tracks on this disc is the sumptuous love song ‘Angie Girl’ (the B side to 1968’s ‘For Once In My Life’) and the big production number ‘Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday’ (US no. 7, UK no. 2) with becomes Stevie Wonder’s next single in September 1969.
A concert recording takes Stevie Wonder into the 1970s. It is March’s ‘Stevie Wonder Live’ (1970) (US no. 81). The studio album ‘Signed, Sealed & Delivered’ (1970) (US no. 25) comes in August and is home to four hit singles. January’s ‘Never Had A Dream Come True’ (US no. 26, UK no. 6) has a fat, musical theatre sound. The best of the bunch is the album’s title track, ‘Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours’ (US no. 3, UK no. 15) which is issued in June, two months before the parent album. This song boasts a twanging guitar and a stridently soulful vocal from Stevie in which he admits, “I’ve done a lot of foolish things that I really didn’t mean,” and throws himself on the mercy of his love to whom he ‘delivers’ himself. The idea for this song apparently comes from Stevie’s mother, Lula Hardaway, and she shares writing credit with her son, Syreeta Wright (Stevie’s girlfriend) and Lee Garrett. September’s ‘Heaven Help Us All’ (US no. 9, UK no. 29) is a dramatic slice of gospel soul complete with choir. The fourth single from the album is not issued until February 1971: The Beatles’ 1965 hit ‘We Can Work It Out’ (US no. 13, UK no. 27) is given a highly attractive funky makeover by Stevie Wonder.
On 14 September 1970 Stevie Wonder marries Syreeta Wright in Detroit.
October’s ‘Live At The Talk Of The Town’ (1970) – another concert recording – is released only in the U.K. (until 2005).
‘Where I’m Coming From’ (1971) (US no. 62) in April is the herald of a new phase in Stevie Wonder’s career. The singer takes more control of his own career, pushing the Motown organisation support team into the background. Stevie Wonder produces this album and co-writes most of the material with his wife, Syreeta Wright. ‘If You Really Love Me’ (US no. 8, UK no. 20) alternates low, bluesy verses with a big and brassy, punchy pop chorus. ‘Something Out Of The Blue’ is ornate with flutes and strings. Perhaps the most significant track though is ‘Do Yourself A Favour’ whose streetwise lyrics and electronic keyboards are the clearest pointers towards the future. Motown boss Berry Gordy is not fond of ‘Where I’m Coming From’ and this too is a portent of the future.
On 21 May 1971 Stevie Wonder turns 21. This is significant because Motown has been holding a substantial portion of their young performer’s earnings in a trust fund for him until this time. Wonder now gains access to these funds. Additionally, after much wrangling, he secures a new, more lucrative contract with Motown that importantly also grants him far greater artistic freedom than before. “Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision,” says Stevie Wonder. Motown has passed its peak now. Certainly the production-line methods that served the label so well in its heyday are breaking down. Of all Motown’s signings, probably none of them capitalise on this change as well as Stevie Wonder. Although he was a successful performer in the 1960s, that decade seems to be only a prologue to the full flowering of his talents in the 1970s.
Stevie Wonder assumes almost total control of his work. He produces the recording sessions. He writes virtually all his own material – without any co-writers. “I can’t say that I’m always writing in my head but I do spend a lot of time in my head writing or coming up with ideas,” Wonder advises. Stylistically, his basic rhythm and blues and pop background takes on a variety of other tones as Stevie Wonder proves capable of assimilating such genres as funk and reggae. Thematically, his lyrics move between romantic love and universal love, social justice and hard-nosed street smarts. Stevie Wonder also starts his own publishing company, Black Bull Music (Stevie is born a Taurus, under the astrological sign of the bull). He also studies music theory at the University of Southern California. Advances in technology, especially in synthesisers and electronic keyboards, allow Stevie Wonder to play most of the instruments on his recordings with the aid of some judicious multi-tracked overdubs. In live performance, such one-man band displays are less practical. In the 1960s Wonder often toured as part of a Motown revue with a single band supporting each performer on the bill. In the 1970s he creates Wonderlove, his own backing group. The membership is rather amorphous but some of the names who serve time in Wonderlove over the years are: Ben Bridges (guitar), Nathan Watts (bass), Dennis Davis (drums), Minnie Riperton (backing vocals), Lynda Laurence (backing vocals). Stevie Wonder also relies on the likes of Milton Hardaway (his brother) who acts as his ‘walker’, guiding him around. Milton also administers Stevie’s fan club. Greg Upshaw helps choose the singer’s apparel.
Stevie Wonder’s marriage to Syreeta Wright ends in divorce in 1972. The couple were married for only eighteen months. The two of them remain friends. Stevie plays a key role in relaunching Syreeta’s recording career in 1974.
‘Music Of My Mind’ (1972) (US no. 21) is the first album from the mature phase of Stevie Wonder’s career. It is released in March, around the same time that his marriage to Syreeta Wright ends. This is the first of four consecutive albums on which Stevie Wonder works with Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. The duo recorded an album in 1971 as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. They are pioneers in electronic music, bringing their skills in synthesiser programming to their work with Stevie Wonder. Synthesisers are popularised by Wonder. The best known song from the album is ‘Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)’ (US no. 33). As the title implies, this is a merger of two songs, the thoughtful, keyboard-based ‘Superwoman’ and the harder, more acidic ‘Where Were You When I Needed You’. This album is also home to ‘Love Having You Around’.
On 3 June 1972 British rock band The Rolling Stones begin a tour of America with Stevie Wonder as their support act. Although this may seem a bit beneath an artist of Wonder’s stature, it does expose his music to a rock audience who may not have taken much interest in a performer better known for rhythm and blues or pop. It seems a successful strategy because Wonder’s record sales significantly increase. “We had fun when I did The Stones’ tour. It was cool,” Stevie Wonder recalls.
‘Talking Book’ (1972) (US no. 3, UK no. 16) is described as ‘a magnificently realised masterpiece’ and is the album that makes Stevie Wonder ‘a superstar.’ It is notable for the ‘gutsy, driving funk’ of ‘Superstition’ (US no. 1, UK no. 11). The song was originally written for British guitar great Jeff Beck. Although Beck records it, Motown rush releases Stevie Wonder’s version and it becomes his second no. 1 pop single on 27 January 1973. The lyrics deliver a warning: “Very superstitious / Writing’s on the wall / Very superstitious / Ladders ‘bout to fall / 13 month old baby / Broke the looking glass / Seven years of bad luck / The good things in your past / When you believe in things that you don’t understand / Then you suffer / Superstition ain’t the way.” The ‘guitar riff’ on ‘Superstition’ is actually played on a Hohner D6 Clavinet keyboard. ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ (US no. 1, UK no. 7) is Stevie Wonder’s greatest individual song. It has an utterly timeless classic melody and is a ‘mellow jazzy ballad [that goes on] to become a pop standard.’ In a disorienting move, the opening lines are sung by vocalists other than Stevie Wonder. Jim Gilstrap begins, “You are the sunshine of my life / That’s why I’ll always be around.” Lani Groves responds, “You are the apple of my eye / Forever you’ll stay in my heart.” Stevie Wonder then sings the remainder of the song, seeming like a beneficent creator spirit beaming down on his Adam and Eve. ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ follows the example of ‘Superstition’ and also ascends to the top of the singles chart, in this case on 19 May 1973. ‘Talking Book’ also finds room for some social concern in the form of ‘Big Brother’ as well as such tracks as ‘You’ve Got It Bad, Girl’ and ‘I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)’.
‘Innervisions’ (1973) (US no. 4, UK no. 8), released in August, is Stevie Wonder’s best album. The highlight of this set is ‘Living For The City’ (US no. 8, UK no. 15), a tough, no-nonsense portrait of (black) struggle. “A boy is born in hard-time Mississippi” to parents who have it tough – “His father works some days for fifteen hours / And you can bet he barely makes a dollar / His mother goes to scrub the floors for many / And you’d best believe she hardly earns a penny.” In short, they are, “Living just enough, just enough for the city.” The song contains an extraordinary audio drama wherein an innocent youth, new to the city, is duped into holding drugs and is sentenced to prison. Harsh as that may be, ‘Higher Ground’ (US no. 4, UK no. 29) offers a more uplifting spiritual message, made palatable to the secular world by its squelchy, rubbery funk. Other notable efforts are the anti-drug song ‘Too High’ and the hits ‘He’s Misstra Know It All’ (UK no. 10) and ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’ (US no. 16). ‘Innervisions’ is a consistent album from an artist at the height of his powers and is ‘the peak of his 1972-1973 run of albums.’
On 6 August 1973, three days after the release date of ‘Innervisions’, the vehicle in which Stevie Wonder is travelling collides with a truck bearing a load of timber. A log strikes Wonder in the face, putting him in a coma for four days and destroying his sense of smell.
‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’ (1974) (US no. 1, UK no. 5) sees Stevie Wonder return to action. ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’ (US no. 3, UK no. 12) is a slippery dance number in which Wonder successfully absorbs the loping beats of reggae, the musical style pioneered in Jamaica. ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’’ (US no. 1, UK no. 30) is a show of righteous anger towards the empty promises made to the African-American community by the administration of Richard Nixon, the U.S. President at the time. It also tops the charts on 2 November 1974.
Around this time, Stevie Wonder becomes romantically involved with Yolanda Simmons, a secretary at his publishing company. Although the couple never marry, Yolanda Simmons becomes the mother of Wonder’s first two children: a daughter named Aisha (born 2 February 1975) and a son named Keita (born 1977). Both children have the surname Morris, as will all Stevie’s children since his name legally remains Steveland Morris.
In 1975 Stevie Wonder visits Jamaica and plays music with Bob Marley, the figurehead of the reggae movement.
‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ (1976) (US no. 1, UK no. 2) is a bountiful double album with four extra tracks on a bonus EP for a grand total of twenty-one songs. Stevie Wonder produces this set on his own, having parted company with his synthesiser gurus Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. There is no shortage of electronic keyboards though as the instruments are now much more commonplace in rock’s musical landscape. ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ is home to a pair of no. 1 singles. ‘I Wish’ (US no. 1, UK no. 5) tops the charts on 22 January 1977. This is a nostalgic funky workout, “Looking back on when I was a little nappy-headed boy,” that finds the singer energetically proclaiming, “I wish those days could / Come back once more / I wish those days / Never had to go.” More offbeat is ‘Sir Duke’ (US no. 1, UK no. 2), a tribute to Duke Ellington, the swing music big band leader from the 1940s. The horn section dominates as a sunny Stevie Wonder points out that the beauty of this music, which he conveys convincingly, is that, “You can feel it all over.” The big band leader provides a further example to Wonder, as Stevie reveals in an interview, “When people ask me…what is my most favourite song, I quote Duke Ellington…and I say, ‘I haven’t written it yet.’” ‘Sir Duke’ is a U.S. no. 1 single for three weeks, 21 May 1977 to 4 June 1977. ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ celebrates the birth of Aisha, Stevie Wonder’s first child, and includes audio of the baby girl herself. Other notable tracks from ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ include ‘As’ (US no. 36), ‘Another Star’ (US no. 32, UK no. 29) and ‘Pastime Paradise’.
‘Looking Back’ (1977) (US no. 34) includes Stevie Wonder’s previously unreleased version of his 1967 song ‘Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)’ amongst his better known hits.
‘Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’ (1979) (US no. 4, UK no. 8) is the double album soundtrack to the nature documentary ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ (1978). It is mostly atmospheric instrumentals. The album’s most cohesive moment is ‘Send One Your Love’ (US no. 4, UK no. 52), a well-constructed, classy pop song.
‘Hotter Than July’ (1980) (US no. 3, UK no. 2) is an album of strong songs that helps solidify Stevie Wonder’s stocks. ‘Master Blaster (Jammin’)’ (US no. 5, UK no. 2) is a reggae song, a tribute to reggae superstar Bob Marley. “Marley’s hot on the box,” advises the lyric. This song also provides the album with its title: “Everyone’s feeling pretty / It’s hotter than July.” The album includes another tribute song. ‘Happy Birthday’ (UK no. 2) celebrates the African-American civil rights campaigner, the Reverend Martin Luther King. It is part of a successful campaign to have King’s birthday declared a national holiday in the U.S.A. ‘I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It’ (US no. 11, UK no. 10) is a tightly-wound riposte to a cheating woman. ‘Lately’ (US no. 64, UK no. 3) is a sleek piano ballad.
‘Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium’ (1982) (US no. 4, UK no. 8) is a double album collecting the hits from the mature phase of the singer’s career. The project includes four new songs: ‘Front Line’ (UK no. 94), ‘Ribbon In The Sky’ (US no. 54, UK no. 45), ‘Do I Do’ (US no. 13, UK no. 10) and, the best of them, the thudding ‘That Girl’ (US no. 4, UK no. 39).
Stevie Wonder duets with former Beatle Paul McCartney on the single ‘Ebony And Ivory’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1). It becomes a British no. 1 single on 8 May 1982 but performs even better in the U.S. where it tops the chart for seven weeks (15 May 1982 – 26 June 1982) with its plea for racial harmony. Wonder says of McCartney, “He’s nice.” Note: ‘Ebony And Ivory’ is written by Paul McCartney and appears on his album ‘Tug Of War’ (1982).
By this time, Stevie Wonder’s relationship with Yolanda Simmons is over. With new girlfriend Melody McCulley, he has a third child: a son named Mumtaz (born 1983). Wonder’s relationship with Melody McCulley fades away. Stevie Wonder goes on to father two more children: a son named Kwame (born 6 August 1988) and a daughter named Sophia. However the mother(s) are not publicly revealed.
Another film soundtrack, ‘The Woman In Red’ (1984) (US no. 4, UK no. 2), provides Stevie Wonder with another chart-topper, the ballad ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1). This song also wins an Oscar from the film community.
‘In Square Circle’ (1985) (US no. 5, UK no. 5) is best known for the bouncy ‘Part-Time Lover’ (US no. 1, UK no. 3). This is Stevie Wonder’s last release on Tamla as he migrates to the main Motown label with his next album.
Stevie Wonder is involved with two charity singles in the mid-1980s. 1985’s ‘We Are The World’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) is credited to USA For Africa and aims to alleviate famine in Africa. Wonder rubs shoulders on this tune with an all-star cast including the song’s authors, African-American pop stars Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson. 1986’s ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ (US no. 1, UK no. 16) is a benefit recording to fight the disease known as AIDS. A more intimate work, it combines Stevie Wonder with three other singers: Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and Elton John.
‘Characters’ (1987) (US no. 1, UK no. 16) is Stevie Wonder’s next album. It is home to the single ‘Skeletons’ (US no. 19, UK no. 54). Wonder returns to film soundtracks for ‘Jungle Fever’ (1991) (US no. 24, UK no. 33). March’s ‘Conversation Peace’ (1995) (US no. 16, UK no. 8) is followed in November by a live album, ‘Natural Wonder’ (1995).
In 2001 Stevie Wonder is sued for palimony by Angela McAfee, his former wardrobe assistant. She also claims that during their five-year relationship Wonder gave her genital herpes. Wonder countersues. The judge urges them both to go away and settle out of court – which is presumably what happens.
On 1 September 2001 Stevie Wonder marries his second wife, Karen ‘Kai’ Millard. She is a fashion designer whom Wonder met at a New York club/restaurant. ‘Kai’ gives the singer two sons, his sixth and seventh children, Kailand (born 2001) and Mandla (born 13 May 2005). The younger child is born on his father’s 55th birthday.
Stevie Wonder’s ex-wife, Syreeta Wright, dies on 6 July 2004 as a result of a heart attack brought on by her battle with breast cancer.
‘A Time To Love’ (2005) (US no. 5, UK no. 24) is Stevie Wonder’s first new studio album in a decade.
Stevie Wonder’s mother, Lula Hardaway, dies in 2006.
In 2008 Stevie Wonder, a lifelong Democrat, campaigns on behalf of the party’s candidate, Barack Obama, who goes on to become the first black President of the U.S.A.
Stevie Wonder and Kai Millard Morris separate in September 2009.
A traffic accident cost Stevie Wonder his sense of smell in 1973. However, Stevie Wonder had been blind almost from birth. While losing another of his senses was undoubtedly traumatic, he had already shown that he was made of stern stuff. “I am not a normal man,” he rightly noted. Stevie Wonder was part of Motown’s golden decade in the 1960s but went on to even greater works in the 1970s. His subsequent efforts were more uneven, but his reputation was already secured. Stevie Wonder overcame great adversity and displayed a positive spirit that was evident in his music. Stevie Wonder was ‘an indisputable genius not only of rhythm and blues but popular music in general’ who ‘re-wrote the rules of the Motown hit factory.’
- lyricsfreak.com as at 27 August 2014
- ‘Essential Stevie Wonder’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Motown Record Company, L.P., 1987) p. 3, 4, 5, 6
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 3 September 2014
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 36, 78, 79, 201, 210, 214, 217, 234, 341, 266, 269, 270, 340, 341
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 23 June 2014
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Motown’ by Joe McEwen, Jim Miller, ‘Stevie Wonder’ by John Rockwell (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 282, 290, 293, 296, 298
- brainyquote.com as at 3 September 2014
- wikipedia.org as at 23 June 2014
- ‘The Howard Stern Show’ (U.S. radio program, Sirius Satellite Radio) – Stevie Wonder interview conducted by Howard Stern (2006)
- allmusic.com, ‘Stevie Wonder’ by Steve Huey as at 3 September 2014
- ‘Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life’ by Zeth Lundy (Bloomsbury Publishing U.S.A., 2007) p. 7 via books.google.com
- answers.com as at 4 September 2014
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 55, 148
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 76
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 246, 247
- ‘Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium 1, Volume 2’ (1982) – Anonymous sleeve notes (Motown Record Company, 1984 reissue) p. 3, 4
- tvguide.com/celebrities/stevie-wonder/bio/197115 as at 8 September 2014
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 40, 44, 48, 62
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 232
- edition.cnn.com 2013/06/07
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 145
Song lyrics copyright Jobete Music / Black Bull Music with the exception of ‘For Once In My Life’ (Jobete Music)
Last revised 21 September 2014