I have often wondered what it must be like to be him: to think his thoughts, to play his chords, to speak his words, to be revered and idolized everywhere you go. He is the musical equivalent of Muhammad Ali, as beloved for his wizardry in his high-profile profession as he is for the manner in which he used that profession to affect sociopolitical change. Stevie Wonder is probably the only celebrity I know that everyone I know absolutely adores. At the very least, he is tangible proof of God’s existence –- for those of you who still need it –- and though his story may seem phenomenal at the basic core, look deeper and you will find more miracles just beneath the surface.
Like my mom, Steveland Morris was born a Taurus, on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. He was blinded shortly after birth after receiving excessive oxygen in his incubator. Notice already how God is beginning to work: My Lord is notorious for using the seemingly unqualified to carry out his plans. Remember that Moses had a speech impediment, a criminal record, and an African wife (and don’t think folks wasn’t mad at that), yet he was chosen to lead the Israelites out of bondage. Even though baby Steveland was born blind, poor and in Saginaw (no disrespect, but for some reason, we like our geniuses to come from places like Brooklyn), it was he that was chosen to lead us out of bondage as well.
Lula Mae Hardaway didn’t have much to give her six children. But what she had, she gave freely. Young Steveland had been given a radio and from that would stem his gift. He spent a significant portion of his childhood banging spoons and forks on pots and pans to the rhythms of records by Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Elvis Presley and countless others. At 5, he started playing the harmonica; at 7, he was moving keys like Bob James © Andre 3000; by the next year, he had moved on to the drums. Once the family moved to Detroit in 1957, he was shepherded into a local church choir and quickly became a regional sensation. Simultaneously, he was, well, being a kid, filled with the same rambunctious hyperactivity that he would later document in his 1976 smash, “I Wish.”
By the age that most of us were struggling with long division, little Stevie was mesmerizing folks with the mastery of his instruments as well as his strained, unique tenor. A childhood friend of his introduced him to Ronnie White -- a member of Smokey Robinson’s Miracles -- and White, in turn, introduced Stevie to Motown boss Berry Gordy, who signed him immediately. He was 11 years old.
In an age where we tend to have to wait five (+?) years in between D’Angelo albums, it may be hard to understand that ‘60s Motown turned out LPs like rabbits. The same musicians were hired round the clock and in addition to the burgeoning roster of talented songwriters, there were also infinite outside covers and remakes of previously existing songs to be done as well. Little Stevie Wonder was cast in the mold of one of his own heroes, Ray Charles. His second album, released in 1962, was a full LP of tributes to Brother Ray. Over the next eight years, Little Stevie turned out 17 more albums, none classic but some armed with classic songs. ‘60s Motown wasn’t interested in making great albums as much as making great singles, then constructing an album around them. From this period came hits like party starters like “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, “For Once In My Life”, “My Cherie Amour,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”
Inspired by both label mate Marvin Gaye’s 1971 opus What’s Going On and his own dissatisfaction with the consistency of his albums, “no longer Little” Stevie took a stand against the label that had given him everything he had. On his 21st, birthday, his contract with Motown ended and he was finally given the reins to a $1 million trust fund that had been established in his name. Gordy took it for granted that Stevie would re-sign with them. Instead, Stevie took the money and used it to record not one but two albums –- all with his own production, arrangements, vocals and a strange new instrument called a Moog synthesizer –- both of which he would use as negotiation tools in his dealings with Motown. The two albums, Where I’m Coming From and Music of My Mind, were released in winter 1971/spring 1972 and served notice that a major talent had arrived.
By the early 70s, the aforementioned system at Motown had broken down anyhow, correlating with the label’s still controversial move to Los Angeles. Consequently, Gordy gave Stevie unprecedented freedom from this point, enabling him to oversee his own creative endeavors in a fashion that no other Motown artist had ever been allowed to before. So he marched right back into the studio (did he ever leave?) and made an album that would forever change his career.
I won’t ramble on too long about Talking Book (mostly because that will take away from the time that I have to ramble on about Innervisions) but if you haven’t heard this album, you should go buy it immediately. The album’s two #1 singles, “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” (the latter is currently on my cell voice mail) established the standard of Stevie Wonder’s excellence until this very day. A subsequent gig as an opening act for the Rolling Stones (who had once opened for him, ironically) helped break him to a wider audience. Both singles won him Grammys, but many more were soon to come.
Next time: The golden years, the '80s and a date with Stevie in Detroit.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
6.17.05 @ 8:32a
Nobody doesn't like Stevie Wonder! He's a national treasure. Thanks for reminding us.
6.17.05 @ 10:15a
Eddie Murphy to Stevie Wonder: "Wanna impress me? Take the [steering] wheel for a while!"
no, seriously, Stevie has always been a favorite of mine.
6.17.05 @ 10:55a
You know, I've always been able to appreciate Stevie Wonder as an artist. His contribution to music is undeniable. But I've never really cared for most of his songs. The one big exception is "Sir Duke" - that one has always put the dance in my pants.
6.17.05 @ 11:30a
Gotta love Stevie, at least pre-80s. "I Just Called" makes me puke.
6.17.05 @ 12:15p
Yeah, I deal with that next time around. But after the run he had in the 70s, his 80s run is understandable.
6.17.05 @ 12:28p
It happened to a lot of artists in the 80s. Then his 90s stuff, with Babyface and etc, not so great either. But it doesn't tarnish his classic stuff from the 70s.
6.17.05 @ 1:10p
Did you guys see this?
"Singer pays for funerals of 5 kids
Music legend Stevie Wonder was so touched after learning of the deaths of five Philadelphia children in a fire that he offered to pay for their funeral services............."
6.17.05 @ 2:19p
Huh, wow. Had not heard that.
Now I remember having a Stevie Wonder song in my head and then hearing it in a restaurant last week, but I can't remember which one it was. Wasn't Superstition (one of my faves) or Ma Cherie Amour (not a fave.) Think I'll go try to find a list somewhere.
6.17.05 @ 2:40p
70s Stevie defined a sound that is truly untouchable. What I'd like to see is him becoming more like Quincy Jones - discovering and cultivating talent and forming that into yet another sound.
Tips for pulling Bob James into the mix, Jason. What about Ramsey Lewis? I would think much of his 60s/70s stuff would have had influence as well.
6.18.05 @ 9:29a
Nobody's gonna bring me down, til I reach my highest ground.
Higher Ground to I Just Called was worse than watching Lionel Ritchie go from Brick House to Penny Lover, but at least they threw down some serious soul when they could. I don't see that so often these days for whatever reason, hip-hop and modern R&B seem totally soulless to me.
I'm with Trace, it'd be nice to See Stevie pitch in like Quincy and bring back some guts - drums, bass, keys, even a moog - to all this sampled, sequenced stuff.