Each week of Black History Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul with profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into Stevie Wonder’s incredible legacy — from his music career, which spans nearly three quarters of a century, to his activism efforts.
By Nora Onanian, Web Services Coordinator
While first given the stage name “Little” Stevie Wonder, Stevland Hardaway (Judkins) Morris is anything but little. Today, roughly six decades into his music career, Stevie Wonder remains one of the most influential soul singers of all time and he is still the youngest artist to have ever topped the Billboard charts.
THE RISE OF LITTLE STEVIE WONDER
Wonder was born in Saginaw, Michigan on May 13th, 1950 to Lula Mae Hardaway and Calvin Judkins. He was born at six weeks premature, and was exposed to excess oxygen in his hospital incubator, which led to a condition where his retinas detached and he became blind.
When Wonder was four, his mother and father divorced and he and his four siblings moved to Detroit. It was at this age that he first learned the piano, and by the age of 8, he was a soloist for the choir at the family’s church in Detroit, the Whitestone Baptist Church.
In 1961, when Wonder was 11, he sang an original song called “Lonely Boy” to Ronnie White of the Miracles. White took Wonder to audition for Motown Records where CEO Berry Gordy recognized the immense talent of this young musical prodigy and signed him to a record deal, making him one of the youngest individual artists to ever do so. Berry Gordy packaged him with the stage name “Little Stevie Wonder.”
Right away, he began working on two albums with producer and songwriter Clarence Paul. While he had one single that almost made the Billboard charts — “I Call it Pretty Music, But the Old People Call it Blues” —, the first two albums had little commercial success. But a single released off of a subsequent live album, “Fingertips,” shot Wonder to fast fame. It topped the Billboard charts when he was just 13, and he remains the youngest artist to ever have a number one song today.
DROPPING THE “LITTLE” & OTHER POINTS OF INFLUENCE
In the early 1960s, Wonder’s voice had changed with his age, and Motown considered dropping him, but ultimately decided to give him another chance. He went on to release several hits leading up to the ’70s, including “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “For Once In My Life,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).” The latter song was the first that Wonder self-produced.
The ‘60s were a time of triumph and tragedy for the Black community. Victories like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were celebrated, all while the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. struck people with anguish. Although they were factors of his music across his six decade career, it was especially important and appreciated that Stevie Wonder’s music reflected the social climate and spoke of various facets of the Black experience, from love to loss, during this pivotal time in American History.
Wrapping up the decade, in 1969 Wonder performed a drum solo at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Never-before-seen footage of this performance opens up the 2021 documentary Summer of Soul, directed by Questlove.
In 1970, he married his first wife, a songwriter and former Motown secretary, Syreeta Wright. A set of five albums released over the next five years is referred to as his Classic Period. 1972’s album Talking Book features Wonder’s most popular hit of all time, “Superstition.” During this time span, he was a forerunner of embracing new technologies such as sampling, drum machines and synthesizers. He helped in shifting attitudes about the use of electronic music and expanded the sound of R&B music. Additionally, the ’70s saw him win his first five Grammys.
The 1980s leaned towards a commercial albums period for Wonder, and a time of many collaborations, from Dionne Warwick to Paul McCartney, Elton John and Michael Jackson. Over the next few decades, he significantly slowed down his stream of releases, but he has had many notable performances including singing at the closing ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics and at the Super Bowl XXXIII halftime show. His last full album is 2005’s A Time to Love.
While most noted for his musical contributions, Wonder is also a recognized activist and philanthropist.
In 1983, he spearheaded a campaign which helped make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal U.S. holiday. Wonder produced timeless musical tributes to icons like Dr. King (“Happy Birthday”), as well as reggae great and fellow-activist Bob Marley (“Master Blaster”), on his 1980 Hotter Than July album. Wonder’s chorus of “Happy Birthday” has become a transformative addition to children and adult birthday celebrations.
He made a stance against apartheid in South Africa, earning a nod from the UN. A spokesman for Black rights, in Boston, he addressed students during the busing desegregation movement. Wonder has also brought attention and funds to address humanitarian issues such as AIDS, cancer, food and housing insecurity, and domestic abuse, among others. Inspired by his own vision impairment, he has been a fierce advocate — and role model — for people with disabilities. In 2009, he was designated as a Messenger of Peace by the UN with a focus on helping this community in particular, and has since made strides in helping disabled people access employment and education opportunities.
WHO INFLUENCED STEVIE WONDER
Stevie Wonder has been open about the many artists that have influenced him over his career. Ray Charles was an inspiration early on in Wonder’s musical journey. The first album Wonder recorded was titled Tribute to Uncle Ray and largely featured covers of Charles’ work. Other artists that are cited as inspiring to him include Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and King Curtis.
Noted as the most influential person to Stevie Wonder was Marvin Gaye. Speaking at Gaye’s funeral, Wonder said “Marvin was the person who encouraged me that the music I have within me, I must feel free to let [it] come out.” It was Gaye who supported Stevie Wonder most in his transition to gaining complete creative control over his music at the age of 21. And he also had the chance to collaborate with Gaye, writing the song “You Are the One for Me” for the singer.
WHO HAS STEVIE WONDER INFLUENCED
Wonder collaborated with, mentored and inspired countless musicians. In 1983, Rolling Stone Record Guide Magazine said that Wonder’s albums “pioneered stylistic approaches that helped determine the shape of pop music for the next decade.” While highlighting his prolificness, many might say this statement underestimates just how long Stevie Wonder’s impact has been felt. Some contemporary artists that exemplify his presence include Beyoncé, Drake, Frank Ocean, Janelle Monae and Lauryn Hill.
AWARDS WON AND OTHER HONORS
Over his career, Stevie Wonder has won 25 Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award. He is tied for seventh most number of Grammy wins of all time for an individual artist, surpassing his contemporaries in the soul genre like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, who are tied with 18 Grammy wins each. His first Grammys win was in 1973 — Best Rhythm & Blues Song for “Superstition” — and his latest was awarded alongside Tony Bennet for their work on “For Once In My Life” (earned in the category of Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals).
For his music, he has also won an Academy Award: Best Original Song, for “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” which appeared in the 1984 film The Woman in Red. Wonder has been inducted into several halls of fame including the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. Other slightly less notable music awards are too many to be named and continue to be awarded today.
For his activism specifically, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, bestowed by President Barack Obama. He earned an icon award from the NAACP, was named a Messenger of Peace Award by the UN and collected a lifetime achievement award from the National Civil Rights Museum, among other honors.
“FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE” (1968)
A stark contrast to the sound of more high-strung Wonder songs like “Superstition” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” “For Once In My Life” is tender, both in its sound and message. The love song was originally written in 1965 by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden for a publishing company out of Motown Records. “For Once In My Life” went on to be covered by at least seven major artists other than Stevie Wonder, but Wonder’s version continuously outshines the others, and it’s easy to see why.
While it’s slow compared to some of the aforementioned Wonder songs, his version of “For Once In My Life” is actually an uptempo version of the track, which was originally written as a slow ballad. Background vocals from the Originals and the Andantes amplify the power and conviction Wonder holds through his vocals. The song is noted for being exemplary of the playing style of James Lee Jamerson (the bassist behind most of Motown Records’ biggest hits who went uncredited). Through the love song, no two bars of music Jamerson plays are alike, but rather his bass-playing is largely improvisational to compliment Wonder’s singing. The Funk Brothers’ instrumentation also plays a significant role in making the song the hit that it is. And Wonder’s harmonica solo simply can’t go unnoticed.
Despite Motown founder Berry Gordy’s distaste of the song (he went as far as shelving it for over a year before its eventual release in October 1968), it was highly successful on the charts. It peaked at number two on both Billboard’s Pop Singles and R&B Singles. Today, it stands as a dazzling example of how wonder stood out from other Motown artists in a captivating way. In this track particularly, he traded the usual smooth and elegant Motown sound for something that brings in his love for jazz and funk, as well as the emotional brevity of his time singing gospel music. And all things said, it certainly doesn’t lack soul.
If there exists a list of iconic, instantly-recognizable song intros, “Superstition” would have to be ranked highly, if not number one. It’s presumable that many young children begged their parents to let them take bass lessons after hearing the funky, irresistibly catchy riff that begins about ten seconds into the song.
That’s not the only ingredient to how “Superstition” struck gold — the clavinet (a cousin of the clavichord, a stringed keyboard instrument) and drums are constantly evolving. The instrumentation’s syncopation — a musical technique, which has roots in African music, where rhythmic stresses or accents are placed in spots they wouldn’t normally occur — makes the song remain fresh throughout the whole listening experience (and for many more listens after your initial one).
Additionally, “Superstition” incorporates elements of rock music, which were partly the influence of Jeff Beck of English rock band the Yardbirds fame. Beck had long been an admirer of Wonder’s. And Wonder — though playing virtually all of the album's other instrument parts — liked the idea of welcoming Beck as a guest guitarist for the album he was working on, Talking Book. When the mutually eager duo went into the studio, Beck became more of a collaborator than just a guest guitarist, as he came up with the opening drum beat of “Superstition,” and the first session featured improvisation that ultimately ended up making it onto the official recording. The rock-influence of “Superstition” helped Stevie Wonder extend his appeal to a white audience.
Not only is the audience’s appeal wide for this song, it continues to draw in new fans and new uses today. 41 years after the song’s 1972 release, Stevie Wonder, and the hit track, were the stars of two Super Bowl XLVII commercials with Bud Light. The commercials got playful with the message of the song’s lyrics and the, sometimes silly, things football fans believe will help their team win — from sitting in a certain chair to wearing a lucky jersey, even though it is beyond faded. In the ads, Wonder is cast as a man with mystical powers who ensures fans’ belief in his mojo (the “Superstition” they each hold onto) works out to their benefit on game day.
Rolling Stone magazine keeps ranking “Superstition” higher and higher as they reissue their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list — it jumped from spot 73 in 2010 to spot 12 in 2021. It’s just proof that “Superstition,” and Wonder’s music in general, only gets better with age.
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more.
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