From ‘I Was Made to Love Her’ through to ‘A Time for Love’, Stevie Wonder’s lyrical oeuvre is as unreliable as any at giving up personal detail. So Ribowsky’s biography is – in the absence of candid testimony from the man himself – a timely, welcome and diligently researched profile of the singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist as he turns 60.
Ribowsky is terrific on Stevie’s early years on the breadline, and the pace scarcely lets up as he arrives at Motown. Big-name contributors offer lively anecdotes about how Wonder overcame his blindness through the sort of instinct and nerve that made him an instant smash at the label, while Ribowsky’s accounts of the frenetic, skirt-chasing revue tours pulsate with energy and life.
Strangely, it’s in that mid-period rush of genius (there’s no other word for it), from Music of My Mind to Songs in the Key of Life, that Ribowsky stumbles, as he leans on just a couple of (admittedly significant) interviewees and leaves their agendas largely unchallenged. The account of the wilderness years – often the most interesting in an artist’s life – also seem a little suppositional and rushed.
There’s some repetition and a few curious errors (‘carryover funk that Curtis Mayfield took to the Shaft soundtrack’?), yet Signed, Sealed, and Delivered remains a fluid and lively read, critical and celebratory of both the art and life of its protagonist when it needs to be. Happy birthday, indeed.