When Stevie Wonder first signed for Motown Records in 1961, label boss Berry Gordy placed the school boy under the tutelage of his producer, Brian Holland, telling him, ‘Your job is to bring out his genius. This boy can give us hits.’
But even Gordy, whose ear for spotting talent had already unearthed the likes of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, probably couldn’t have fathomed the influence that this blind, uneducated kid from the mean streets of Detroit would have on the world of music.
Stevie’s journey had begun 11 years earlier in 1950 in the industrial town of Saginaw in the northern state of Michigan. Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins, he arrived six weeks premature. He was placed in an incubator in which a surfeit of oxygen was pumped, causing the retinas of his still underdeveloped eyes to detach. Although left blind for life, he was lucky to survive – a baby girl in the incubator next to him was given the same amount of oxygen and died.
When Stevie was four, his mother left her abusive husband and took her six young children to Detroit. A year later, with Stevie showing musical promise already, his mother bought him a harmonica, which he quickly mastered, soon picking up the piano and drums as well. It was while playing the harmonica for friends on the street that Ronnie White, a neighbour and member of Smokey Robinson’s The Miracles, overheard him and brought him to the attention of Gordy, who persuaded his mother into signing into a contract, telling her, ‘Stevie can either sign this contract, or he can spend the rest of his life selling pencils.’
Gordy renamed him ‘Little Stevie Wonder’, and marketed him as a junior version of fellow blind R&B singer Ray Charles, to the extent of releasing an entire album of Ray Charles covers. But it wasn’t until the release of his fourth single in 1963, the exuberant live recording ‘Fingertips, Pt2’, that Gordy’s predictions about the hit-making potential of young Stevie started to come to fruition.
Although his first years at Motown were a slog, Stevie never underestimated the schooling in the record industry of that early time. ‘Motown meant discipline to me,’ Stevie recalled. ‘The attitude was: do it over. Do it differently. Do it until it can’t be done any better.’ Under such demanding circumstances, the young performer grew up fast. In 1964 he dumped the ‘Little’ label and began churning out pop-soul smashes such as ‘Uptight’ and ‘For Once in My Life’, while also helping pen label-mates’ hits, such as Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tears of a Clown’.
Stevie turned 21 in 1971 and his contract stipulated he was due all the money he’d earned as a minor, which amounted to US$30 million. Gordy thought differently, and offered him a mere US$1 million. Inevitably, a huge legal dispute ensued and, while he didn’t receive all the royalties he was entitled to, Stevie managed to wrest an almost unheard-of degree of musical autonomy from the notoriously controlling Motown machine.
He set about establishing his own music publishing company, and, with the gift of total creative freedom, steered his music away from the bubblegum pop sound of his ’60s records. Strongly influenced by the political lyrical sensibility of label mate Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie released Music of My Mind in 1972, the first of a quintet of albums that are generally regarded as Stevie’s ‘classic period’. In them he managed to fuse the feelgood factor of soul, the dirty edges of funk, exquisite harmonies and incisive commentary on the plight of black people in America. He also enlisted the creative powers of electronic wizards Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, who acted as his sonic architects by developing new textures and sounds through the synthesiser, which, until then, was still seen as a novelty instrument.
Despite ever-growing critical acclaim, the fast life and addictions to various substances were catching up with Stevie, but it took another near-fatal experience to bring him to his senses. In August 1973, just three days after releasing the classic Innervisions, he was asleep in the back seat of a car being driven by his friend, when a lumber truck travelling in front of them braked suddenly, causing a log to fly through the car’s front window and smash into his forehead. He lay in a coma for four days and, although he eventually recovered, he permanently lost his sense of smell.
Ironically, Innervisions contains a number of songs predicting a rebirth and second chance for him, none more blatant than ‘Higher Ground’, leading many to falsely conclude it was written after his car crash. As Stevie himself said in an interview at the time, ‘I wrote “Higher Ground” even before the accident. But something must have been telling me that something was going to happen. This is like my second chance for life, to do something or to do more, and to value the fact that I am alive.’
Taking his recovery as a sign from God, he continued his prodigious musical output, culminating in 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life. With memorable numbers such as ‘I Wish’, ‘As’ and ‘Sir Duke’, the double album is seen as Stevie’s artistic watermark, and the likes of Michael Jackson, Barack Obama and George Michael have deemed it their favourite album of all time.
After the New Age experimentation of 1979’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, Stevie’s sound returned to the mainstream in the ’80s, yet still espoused his belief in political change, such as the Paul McCartney-collaborated anti-racist anthem ‘Ebony and Ivory’, or ‘Happy Birthday’, a plea for Martin Luther King’s birthday to be recognised as a national holiday in the US. And, although his musical output has declined over the past two decades, he’s still tirelessly performing, and the man with the shades and braids regularly turns up to rouse the people at global events such as Olympic ceremonies, Super Bowl finals and presidential inauguration parties.
Check out any list of the top popular musicians of the 20th century and Stevie’s name is lingering around the upper echelons with your John Lennons, Bob Dylans and Elvis Presleys.
So did the blind kid from the wrong side of the tracks live up to Berry Gordy’s instructions to his friend Brian Holland to help fulfil his genius? The 22 Grammys, 30 US top 10 hits and more than 100 million album sales to his name may give you a clue, but get on down to Yas Island and judge for yourself.
Stevie Wonder plays Yas Arena in Abu Dhabi on Friday, March 18. Doors open at 7pm. Tickets are Dhs250-Dhs650 from www.timeouttickets.com.
Think you don’t know any Stevie Wonder hits? His songs have been prodigiously plundered for covers and samples for years. Here are the most famous ones.
Mary J Blige and George Michael
The former Wham frontman teamed up with the so-called empress of soul to re-record this classic cut from Songs in the Key of Life. The cover was passable, but we liked the video, in which multiple Georges and Marys danced awkwardly in a nightclub.
Red Hot Chilli Peppers
For their fourth album, Mother’s Milk, the Californian funk-rockers visited this Innervisions track, upped the tempo to a frenetic pace, added some slap bass and metal power chords and reaffirmed Stevie’s street cred to a new generation.
The octopus-haired rapper topped charts across the world by sampling Stevie’s ‘Pastime Paradise’ and dropping some rhymes on top about homies blasting each other in the ’hood. Fame is a fickle beast, though, and Coolio’s star soon faded, reducing him to appearing on British reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother.
Wild Wild West
Stevie did himself no favours by not only allowing the Fresh Prince to sample ‘I Wish’ for the theme song to his abysmal cowboy caper, but actually appearing in the video. We just hope he was handed an obscene amount of money for this travesty.