It's almost impossible to single out the defining moment in a career as rich and varied as Stevie Wonder's. Starting out as the beloved and exasperating mascot of "Hitsville U.S.A." (a.k.a. Motown), Wonder matured with his generation and towered over the music of the 1970s with a series of barrier-transcending albums as brilliant and penetrating as anything in the history of rock or soul. By the time he spearheaded the successful drive to have Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday declared a national holiday, Wonder had surpassed the status of musical superstar and established himself, for better and sometimes worse, as a national icon.
There's simply too much there to boil down to a defining moment, but there's no question about the one that made the rest possible. It was 1963 and the youthful fireball was part of an all-star Motown revue at the Regal Theater in the heart of Chicago's South Side. Already a popular live performer but without a hit record, the then "Little" Stevie Wonder was bringing his set to a close with a call-and-response rave-up modeled loosely on Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." As the MC called for a final round of applause and Mary Wells' back-up band took the stage, Stevie was preparing to embark on the path to the soul pantheon. Creeping back out of the wings, he picked up right where he'd left off, lifting the audience to new heights of good-humored ecstasy. If the recording engineer hadn't picked up the new band's frantic scramble to rescue the situation-you can hear bass player Larry Moses shouting "what key? what key?"-it would be tempting to pass the whole thing off as a bit of pre-packaged show-biz shtick invented by the same Motown PR crew that had previously floated an (utterly unfounded) rumor that Stevie was Brother Ray's illegitimate son. Once Berry Gordy heard the recording, chaos and all, Motown rushed "Fingertips, Part 2" to its network of D.J.s. It wasn't long before Stevie became the first artist to hold down the number one slots on the Hot 100, R&B and Album charts (for Little Stevie Wonder/ The 12 Year Old Genius/ Recorded Live).
Never mind that Stevie was 13 at the time. It was just another example of the mix of myth and reality, careful commercial calculation and untrammeled creativity that continues to define the work of the man born on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan with the name of Steveland Morris. Born prematurely and blinded by an excess of oxygen in his incubator, Stevie faced an outlook that was bleak, even by the standards of black America in the final years before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision put an end to legal segregation. Moving Stevie and his siblings-there would eventually be four brothers and one sister-to Detroit's east side ghetto, Stevie's mother Lula Hardaway was fiercely committed to her son's well-being, but had a hard time making ends meet. Although he often accompanied his brothers on their escapades in the outside world, Stevie spent a lot of time listening to the radio and took every opportunity to explore whatever musical instrument crossed his path: a neighbor's piano, a toy harmonica given to him by a relative, a set of cardboard drums. By the time he was ten, Stevie and a neighborhood friend were performing on street corners and doorsteps in the ghetto. Alerted to the child prodigy by Ronnie White of the Miracles, Gordy auditioned Wonder. While it's difficult to disentangle the actual story from the later mythic versions-if everyone who claims to have been there had actually been present, Gordy would have had to rent Tiger Stadium for the event-, it didn't take long for Motown to offer Stevie a contract.
Negotiating a deal with the Board of Education which put Stevie's education under the supervision of dedicated tutorTed Hull and the Michigan School for the Blind, Motown set about the difficult task of figuring out what to do with a talent that, tempting allusions to Ray Charles aside, was really one of a kind. While Stevie supplemented his formal education with a series of de facto grad studies in music with Hitsville's legendary house band, Funk Brothers-he was especially closer to drummer Benny Benjamin-, Motown churned out a series of uninspired and uninspiring singles, most of which failed to crack the charts at all. "Fingertips, Part 2" affirmed Gordy's belief that Stevie had a real future, but it took almost three years for Stevie to return to the charts with "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" in early 1966. For the rest of the decade, Stevie moved effortlessly between blazing funk, meditative social commentary, and heart-wrenching ballads with a string of hits topped by "Blowin' in the Wind" (1966); "I Was Made to Love Her" and "I'm Wondering" (1967); "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day" and "For Once in My Life" (1968); "My Cherie Amour" (1969); and "Signed Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" and "Heaven Help Us All" (1970).
While Stevie was clearly established as a major star, no one, especially Berry Gordy, was prepared for what happened next. Taking advantage of the fact that he had the legal right to disavow contracts signed for him while he was a minor, Wonder stunned Motown by declaring himself a free agent immediately after his 21st birthday. Taking his time to think things through and hiring ace agent Johanen Vigoda to negotiate his deal, Wonder eventually re-signed with Gordy. The new contract gave him a degree of financial and creative independence rivaled only by Ray Charles' deal with ABC.
What followed was a truly magnificent outpouring of music, personal, political and spiritual in more or less equal measures. Aware of the shift from singles to albums which had followed on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Wonder kicked off his greatest period with Music of My Mind and Talking Book (both 1972). Innervisions (1973), organized around the blues realities of "Living for the City" and the gospel aspirations of "Higher Ground" immediately moved to a fully-deserved place near the top of list of the greatest soul albums of all time, in 1973. Recovering from a near-fatal car accident while on tour in August, 1973, Wonder re-emerged with a heightened sense of his spiritual mission. Kicked into high gear by the number one single "You Haven't Done Nothing," Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974) lived up to the high standards of Innervisions and the two album plus EP masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life (1976) surpassed them all with a dizzying soundscape highlighted by "Sir Duke," "I Wish" and "As," an amazing montage of love ballad and funk sermon. Paul Simon summed up Wonder's stature best when he began his 1975 Grammy acceptance speech by thanking Stevie for "not making an album this year."
Songs in the Key of Life remains the high water mark of Wonder's career, but he continued to make excellent music, ranging from the new age explorations of Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (1979) and the reggae-tinged fire of Hotter than July (1980) to the greatly underrated mid-90s album Conversation Peace (1995). Even the relatively aimless 80s productions The Woman in Red soundtrack (1984), In Square Circle (1985) and Characters (1987) include stellar cuts like "Skeletons" and "Part-Time Lover." Increasingly, Wonder devoted his time and energy to charitable causes; politicians sought his advice and approval; and the time between albums grew longer and longer. It had been years since he had engaged in the kind of open call and response with his audience that fueled the fires of "Fingertips, Part 2" and "Uptight" and soul music afficionados sometimes wondered if something had been lost as Stevie ascended the staircase to the pantheon. It shouldn't surprise anyone if Mr. Wonder proves them wrong.
By Craig Werner
[Editor's Note: We're honored that this biography was written specifically for SoulTracks by noted soul music writer and historian, Craig Werner. Professor Werner is the writer of a number of important books on Soul Music and society, including "Higher Ground," a biography of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield, which was recently re-published in paperback form. It is an important historical resource for every Soul Music lover. ]