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Summary Article: Stevie Wonder (1950–)
from African American Almanac
Singer, Pianist, Composer

Stevland Hardaway Morris Judkins was born on May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan. Raised in Detroit, he first sang in the church choir. But the music that attracted him most was the sounds of Johnny Ace and B. B. King, which he heard on late-night radio programs. Blind from birth, he learned to play piano, harmonica, and bongos by the age of eight. Through the connections of Miracles member Ronnie White, he auditioned for Berry Gordy Jr., who immediately signed the thirteen-year-old prodigy and gave him the stage name of “Little Stevie Wonder.” After releasing his first singles “Thank You (For Loving Me All the Way)” and “Contract of Love,” Wonder scored a number-one hit with “Fingertips Part 2” in 1963. In the following year Wonder hit the charts with the song “Hey Harmonica Man.”

With the success of his recording career, Wonder began to tour more frequently. Motown's arrangement to assign Wonder a tutor from the Michigan School for the Blind allowed him to continue his education while on the road. In 1964 he performed in London with the Motown Revue, a package featuring Martha and the Van-dellas, the Supremes, and the Temptations. Wonder's subsequent recording of the punchy R&B single “Uptight (Everything's All Right)” became a smash hit in 1966. Wonder's growing commercial success at Motown brought him greater artistic freedom in the studio. In collaboration with Clarence Paul, Wonder produced a long succession of hits, including Bob Dylan's “Blowing in the Wind” (1966), “I Was Made to Love Her” (1967), and “For Once in My Life” (1968).

After recording the album Signed, Sealed & Delivered (1970), Wonder moved to New York, where he founded Tarus Production Company and Black Bull Publishing Company, both of which were licensed under Motown. With complete control over his musical career, Wonder began to write lyrics containing social and political issues. Through the use of over-dubbing, he played most of the instruments on his recordings, including the guitar, bass, horns, percussion, and brilliant chromatic harmonica solos. His three creative albums, Music from My Mind, Talking Book, and Inversions (1972), all feature Wonder's tasteful synthesizer accompaniment.

Wonder's Journey through the Secret Life of Plants (1979) was an exploratory musical soundtrack for a film documentary. Wonder's soundtrack for the film Woman in Red (1984) won him an Academy Award for best song for “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” A year later, Wonder participated in the recording of “We Are the World” for USA for Africa, the famine relief project. Wonder's album Square Circle (1985) produced the hit singles “Part Time Lover” and “Overjoyed.” He released Characters (1987), followed by Conversation Piece (1995), which contains songs like “Greenhouse” and “Legal Drug Dealer” that address social issues.

Wonder has contributed to the works of other artists such as Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues and Quincy Jones's Q's Jook Joint. His list of awards and honors, as lengthy as his list of recordings, includes induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1989), an Essence Award, Kennedy Center Honors (2000), and a lifetime achievement award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York (2002). Wonder has received more than twenty-two Grammys, including a Grammy for lifetime achievement (2005). After a ten year period Wonder released the album A Time to Love, with Prince, EnVogue, and India Arie singing on the title track (2005). In 2008 the Library of Congress announced Wonder as the recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. As popular music's genius composer and singer, Wonder has remained at the forefront of musical change. His colorful harmonic arrangements have drawn upon jazz, soul, pop, reggae, and rap-derived new jack rhythms. Wonder's gift to pop music is his ability to create serious music dealing with social and political issues while at the same time revealing the more deeply mysterious nature of the human experience.

Copyright © 2012 by Visible Ink Press®

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