Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Stevie Wonder was born Stevland Hardway Judkinds (later Morris) in 1950, 6 weeks premature and shortly thereafter became permanently blind. “I think I’m very fortunate — I’m very happy to be blind, because I can really observe people by themselves.” 17 year-old Stevie told KRLA Beat in 1967, the words of a man much wiser than his age might have indicated.
But then again, Wonder had always been ahead of his time. A child prodigy, he had taught himself to play piano by the age of seven, soon after adding the organ, harmonica, and drums to his list of skills. At 11-years old, he sang for Ronnie White of the Miracles, who then brought the young musician to the attention of Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records. He was quickly signed and promoted as “the eighth wonder of the world” and “little boy wonder.” Shortly thereafter, mentor and producer Clarence Paul gave him the name that would last – Stevie Wonder. The “little” nickname, however, would hang on for some time: “Now, just a minute, “This ‘Little’ stuff has got to stop,” 16-year old Wonder once teased back to Shelly Berger (head of Motown’s West Coast office), “I’ve been six feet tall for two years.”
Wonder’s first major hit came as a bit of a surprise, when a live recording from an early Motortown Review (a concert tour of several Motown artists in the early sixties) performance of “Fingertips” was released as a single. Because of its length, the performance was split into two parts (“Fingertips Pt 1 & Pt 2”) when released, and it was the second part, with its spontaneous and exuberant energy, that hit the top of the charts. Wonder had actually left the stage during the performance, before suddenly returning to complete the song (Pt. 2), much to the surprise of the band, which was already in the midst of changing position for the next artist Mary Wells performance (Mary Wells). Bass player Larry Moses can even be heard in the track shouting out “What key? What key?”. “Fingertips Pt. 2” hit the number one slot on both the pop and rhythm and blues charts.
The next few years would not see the same level of chart success, as his voice changed and there seemed to be some uncertainty in determining the next course for his career. However, in 1966, Stevie Wonder (minus the “little”) re-emerged as a brilliant and formidable force with his single “Uptight (Everything is Alright)” which hit number three on the charts and kicked off a string of hits – “I Was Made to Love Her (1967), “For Once in My Life” (1968) and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” (1970). These tracks would help Motown records, and Wonder, make the transition into the next decade.
This late sixties period was important for Wonder’s development as both a songwriter and a producer. “ I like hard work,” Wonder said in 1967 “— like, writing; actually, after I did fail and come back down (briefly after ‘Fingertips’) — I had a chance to write more, and this is what I really dig. I came up with ‘Uptight’, and I’m very thankful to God because I came up with the basic idea for it myself.” This time also showcased the eclecticism and genre-crossing abilities which would characterize Wonder’s next several decades. From sentimental ballads (“My Cherie Amor”) and theme songs from recent films (“Alfie” “Romeo and Juliet”) to a cover of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Wonder’s recorded and live output began to expand outside the expectations of the Motown sound.
The start of the 1970s brought about a shift towards greater creative control than was typically afforded to Motown artists. Gordy had created such a successful record label, putting out hit after hit, throughout the sixties through the quality control standards and practices he required of all his artists. This included a strict allocation of skills and talent from composition to production. Songwriters wrote songs, artists performed them and producers managed the whole recording process. But for a young, creative, multi-talented artist like Wonder, those rigid roles and expectations began to feel limiting. His 1971 album, Where I’m Coming From, was already notable in that all the tracks were written by Wonder (many of which were also co-written with his wife at the time, Syreeta Wright), but after his 21st birthday (at which point his initial Motown contract expired), Wonder really began to challenge the system.
At first initially refusing to resign with the label, Wonder began writing and recording enough material to make up two albums. Eventually released on Motown (under a new, renegotiated contract which provided greater autonomy, publishing rights and a higher royalty rate), these tracks made up his two 1972 albums, Music of My Mind, and Talking Book. In these albums, Wonder played most of the instruments and even sang his own backup vocals. They also introduced two new individuals who would play a continued role in Wonder’s music for the next few years. Credited as associate producer, Moog programming and engineer, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff were two relatively unknown names at the time, who had impressed Wonder through their creation of and work with the TONTO synthesizer.
TONTO stands for “The Original New Timbral Orchestra” and it was the first and largest, multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer. It was invented by Margouleff and Cecil in 1968, and the duo, recording under the name TONTO’s Expanding Head Band, created their 1971 album Zero Time using only sounds made through the instrument. The album caught Wonder’s attention and he was determined to learn more. “The reason that I got into [TONTO] was that I had ideas in my head and I wanted those ideas to be heard” Wonder. With Margouleff and Cecil’s help, the TONTO would become a key element in Wonder’s work for the next several years.
It wasn’t just the new sounds of the TONTO synthesizer that were changing Wonder’s work – his songwriting was exploring new topics and themes. This became especially clear with his second 1972 album, Talking Book. It is often credited with kicking off what is considered Wonder’s “classic period.” Reflecting on the album several decades later, he explained:
“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to say anything except where I wanted to just express various many things that I felt—the political point of view that I have, the social point of view that I have, the passions, emotion and love that I felt, compassion, the fun of love that I felt, the whole thing in the beginning with a joyful love and then the pain of love”
The album also contained several hit singles including “Your are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition”. With “Superstition”, Stevie Wonder proved his comfort and skill with funk music and is widely noted for his innovative, rhythmic playing on the clavinet. Both singles topped the charts, providing him with his first number one hits since “Fingertips”, almost a decade earlier.
Music of My Mind and Talking Book were recorded at Hendrix’s Electric Lady studios (where they had brought TONTO to be housed and set up for Wonder’s ease of use). However, for Innervisions (1973) the trio and TONTO would make their way to LA Record Plant.
Innervisions built on Wonder’s comfort expanding outside of the relatively simple, romantic themes that had characterized his sixties output, branching into topics of drug use (“Too High”), systemic inequality and racism (“Living for the City”) and politics (“He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is likely a critique of then president, Richard Nixon). “Living for the City” even includes extra-musical sounds of sirens, cars and dialogue, coming to a climax in the dramatic interlude before the fifth verse. Reflecting on the track, Wonder explained:
“I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”
The song marks a new level of social critique and consciousness in Wonder’s work, which he would maintain throughout his career. As recently as summer 2020, with “Can’t Put It In the Hands of Fate”, Stevie Wonder has been releasing songs that directly engage with the contemporary social issues of the time.
Innervisions won several Grammys including Album of the Year and Best R&B Song (“Living for the City”). Three days after its release, a serious car accident put Wonder in a coma for several days. Despite a long recovery, his next album Fulfillingness’ First Finale came out the following year. It steps away from the TONTO, likely due to an ongoing legal dispute between Wonder, Margouleff and Cecil.
In 1976, Wonder released the album many would consider his great masterpiece – Songs in the Key of Life. Not only did the massive, double-album hit number one immediately following its release, it stayed in the top position for 14 weeks. It also earned Wonder his third Album of the Year Grammy. Wonder told Q magazine in 1995, “Of all the albums, Songs in the Key of Life I’m most happy about. Just the time, being alive then. To be a father and then… letting go and letting God give me the energy and strength I needed.”
The album also marks Wonder’s emergence as, not only a capable, independent producer (he is the sole producer listed on the album), but also an extremely talented one. He won the Grammy award for Best Producer of the Year for the album. The album’s legacy has not faded with time; Rolling Stone named Songs in the Key of Life number four on its September 2020 list of the “Top 500 Albums of All Time.”
While 1976 is often cited as the end of his “classic period” Wonder has gone on to release several classic tracks over the course of the next four decades. His largely instrumental 1979 album, Through The Life Of Plants, also served as the soundtrack to a documentary of the same name. Hotter Than July (1980) proved to be extremely commercially successful, in addition to containing now-classic tracks like “Birthday” – a song that was written as part of a successful effort to name Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday. The eighties also saw the release of two sentimental, but hugely successful ballads: “Ebony and Ivory” (with Paul McCartney) in 1982, and “I Just Called To Say I Loved You,” in 1983. His other two eighties albums, In Square Circle (1985) and Characters (1986), went platinum and contained a top ten hit, a number one hit, and earned him a Grammy.
In more recent years, Wonder has released several singles collaborating with a wide range of artists, from Prince to Ariana Grande. He has won numerous awards and recognitions including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Civil Rights Museum, and was named one of the United Nations Messengers of Peace. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented Wonder with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Stevie Wonder’s legacy remains as one of the most visionary artists of the past 50 years. Reflecting on Wonder’s output, Slate’s Jack Hamilton wrote “Most Americans follow up their 21st birthdays with a hangover; Stevie Wonder opted for arguably the greatest sustained run of creativity in the history of popular music. Wonder’s “classic period”—the polite phrase for when Stevie spent five years ferociously dunking on the entire history of popular music with the releases of Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life […] We’ve never heard anything like it since, and barring another reincarnation, we never will again.”
To this day, Stevie Wonder is still releasing important and relevant tracks, and proving that he has just as much creativity and imagination as ever. While the classic period is understood to be an especially notable period in popular music, and specifically Stevie Wonder’s, history, it ultimately kicked off a lifetime of fantastic music making, meaningful collaborations. and creative projects. “Little Stevie Wonder” may have impressed music executives and audiences with his energy and charisma, but he was also able to use that drive to make the challenging transition into a successful, mature adult artist. For over five decades, Wonder has maintained that exuberant spirit for innovative creativity and imagination in his music, proving himself as one of the most important and influential artists of all time.