Born 13 May 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, Wonder was blind shortly after birth. Brought up in Detroit he learned to play a variety of instruments as a child as well as sing in the church choir. As early as 11 years of age his talent came to the notice of Ronnie White of The Miracles who alerted Berry Gordy at Motown and Gordy duly signed him and renamed him Little Stevie Wonder. His early records were fairly inauspicious but in August 1963 he had a sudden double success in the US when a single, 'Fingertips Pt.2', and a boldly-titled album, The 12 Year Old Genius (Recorded Live), both reached No. 1 in their respective charts. Unfortunately it wasn't a presentiment of further immediate success and after an album of mostly covers "With A Song in My Heart" flopped he dropped the 'little' from his name and set about writing his way into music history.
Stevie Wonder burst into pop consciousness here in January 1966 with 'Uptight (Everything's Alright)', which made the Top 20, and although his US hit cover of Dylan's 'Blowin In The Wind' didn't catch on he was soon in the UK Top 20 again with 'A Place In The Sun'. Six months later he had a No. 5 hit with 'I Was Made To Love Her' and after a somewhat premature Greatest Hits compilation album charted in the autumn of 1968 he enjoyed an 18-month run of five Top 20 UK singles - 'For Once In My Life' (No. 3), 'I Don't Know Why (I Love You)'/'My Cherie Amour' (No. 14), 'Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday' (No. 2), 'Never Had A Dream Come True' (No. 6) and 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)' (No. 15). Also in that period his My Cherie Amour album charted and he somehow found time to write the music for hit singles, such as the Smokey Robinson classic 'Tears Of A Clown', for some of his fellow Motown artists!
In September he married Syreeta Wright and there followed a quiet spell while he let his Motown contract expire and then renegotiated it on terms that gave him almost total artistic control over the music he would release and a much greater degree of business independence. He re-signed in March 1972 and two months later released Music Of My Mind, an album that fully reflected his newly-gained artistic licence and demonstrated his ability to experiment and fuse different styles of music in an adventurous way whilst still retaining a keen commercial sensibility. It was a skill that Wonder further developed and honed to spectacular effect. The following year indeed marked the beginning of his 'classic seventies' period of four albums that not only established Wonder as a major artist but changed the face of pop/soul music and influenced its future in unprecedented ways. The memorable 'Superstition', a No. 11 single here and a No. 1 in the US, was followed by the superb Talking Book album, the opening track of which was the follow-up single, 'You Are The Sunshine Of My Life', which settled at No. 7 on the UK Top 10. Another album of strong material that further reflected his complex and varied artistic sensibilities, Talking Book, did much to introduce Wonder to a wider rock audience, a move that gained more momentum when around its release he toured with The Rolling Stones and played to huge, appreciative audiences.
When Innervisions was released in August of 1973 Stevie Wonder had clearly attained a new creative level that saw him able to write about complex social and personal issues in a more expansive, spiritual and mature way with the confidence that his audience would follow him on his adventure of discovery and fulfilment. The album's tour de force is arguably the seven-minute 'Living For The City', a searing, heroic statement about the injustices of inner city survival, and tracks like 'Too High' and 'Jesus Children of America' tackled subjects that most black artists had hitherto chosen to avoid. The album was not without its fair share of hit singles either - an edited version of 'Living For The City' and 'He's Misstra Know It All' both made the UK Top 20, while 'Higher Ground' got to No. 29. Only 'Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing' inexplicably failed to make an impression. And in the US it performed even better. It was a No. 4 album with two Top 10 singles. It won four Grammy awards the following year, including Album of the Year. As an artistic statement it was very warmly received by the media who recognised that with his total hands-on approach - he wrote the music, lyrics, played most of the instruments himself, arranged it all and was credited as producer (alongside Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil (Tonto's Expanding Headband) he'd delivered a more meaningful, thoughtful work that deserved to be taken seriously. Then, as everything seemed to be going so well, fate struck. Whilst on tour in North Carolina to promote Innervisions, days after its release Wonder was involved in a near-fatal car accident. The car he was travelling in collided with a logging truck and a tree trunk smashed through the car windscreen and hit him head-on. With severe head injuries he spent several days in a coma and temporarily lost his sense of smell and taste. Fortunately he made a full recovery but it took a while. It wasn't until the following March that he reappeared - a concert at Madison Square Garden where he was rapturously greeted. He later remarked that the accident had brought the spiritual side of his nature to the fore and certainly much of his music from then on often attained a new level of soulfulness and compassion.
His next album, Fulfillingness' First Finale, came out in August 1974. It was a No. 1 album in the US and No. 5 here, and as if to emphasise the fact that as far as UK audiences were concerned he'd evolved into a conceptual album artist and not just a Motown hit machine, there was only one Top 20 single from it - the minor 'Boogie On Reggae Woman'. In the US though he was still having hit singles as well as album recognition - Fulfillingness' First Finale dominated the Grammys, including the Album of the Year award yet again. His prolific and immensely fruitful 1970s period continued with arguably his most ambitious and accomplished statement yet - the expansive double LP, Songs in the Key Of Life. Released in October 1976 it again provided evidence of Wonder's development as a concerned, compassionate songwriter and consummate musician fully in control, prepared to take risks and able to remain highly commercial at the same time. It featured a mix of social and personal subject matter including the memorable 'Isn't She Lovely' written for his new daughter Aisha. There followed a three-year gap in recording before he launched another run of chart success throughout the 1980s - four Top 10 albums selling more than ever Hotter Than July, Original Musiquarium 1(compilation), the soundtrack to the film The Woman In Red, and In Square Circle, and yet more hit singles - 'Master Blaster', 'I Ain't Gonna Stand For It', 'Lately', 'Happy Birthday', 'Do I Do', 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' (UK No. 1), and 'Part-Time Lover'. His status as a major artist and in-demand celebrity was assured.
Since then he has continued to work and record at a level that leaves his peers in his wake, and his many high-profile artistic collaborations, charity work, political involvement and TV appearances have consistently kept him in the public consciousness. He also continues to write and produce for other artists and remains active as a performer, appearing here at Glastonbury in 2010 and last June at the concert to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Perhaps one of the most significant tokens of esteem bestowed upon him is the number of times his songs have been covered and his music sampled by successive generations of musicians, white and black, who realise that Stevie Wonder recognised no limits to the way his music could develop. He drew on multiple genres, created innovative, commercial music that blurred the boundaries of rock, pop, soul and jazz, and appeals to white and black audiences with equal fervour. A true pioneer.
Stevie’s eleventh studio album came out in August 1969, and includes the big hit single as its title track along with ‘Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday’, as well as Wonder's takes on the 1967 hit ‘Light My Fire’ by The Doors, ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ from The King and I as well as the Mack Gordon standard At Last that was such a big hit for Etta James.
One month before he turned 21, Stevie Wonder released Where I'm Coming From, the most distinctive record of his young career, and one that looked forward -- in its breadth of material as well as its futuristic production aesthetic -- to his many successes later in the '70s. There's a fabulous song here for nearly every type of fan; the soothing love ballad ("Think of Me as Your Soldier"), a gritty, apocalyptic funk extravanganza ("Do Yourself a Favor"), a kinetic, refreshing nod to the pop charts (the Top Ten hit "If You Really Love Me"), and an agonizing piece of heartache soul ("Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" (slightly reworked for "Superwoman" on his next album Music of My Mind).
The set closers "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" and "Sunshine in Their Eyes" are bravura performances, Stevie summoning his purest register to convey heartbreak and hopefulness, respectively, in equal measure. For all the great material included, there was little chance of these songs hanging together as a proper album, and Berry Gordy's misgivings about releasing a record like this on a Motown label were, temporarily, well-placed. Still, Where I'm Coming From was a frequently astonishing album from Motown's new genius of the recording studio.
Words - John Bush
Stevie Wonder was beginning to rebel against the Motown hit factory mentality in the early '70s. While he certainly hadn't lost his commercial touch, Wonder was anxious to address social concerns, experiment with electronics, and not be restricted by radio and marketplace considerations. Still, he gave the label another definitive smash with the title track, while sneaking in a cover of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" and penning more intriguing tunes like "I Can't Let My Heaven Walk Away" and "Never Had a Dream Come True.
Words - Ron Wynn.
With a new contract from Motown in his hand, Stevie Wonder released Music of My Mind, his first truly unified record and, with the exception of a single part on two songs, the work of a one-man-band. Everything he had learned about musicianship, engineering, and production during his long apprenticeship in the Snakepit at Motown Studios came together here (from the liner notes: "The sounds themselves come from inside his mind. The man is his own instrument. The instrument is an orchestra.")
Music of My Mind was also the first to bear the fruits of his increased focus on Moog and Arp synthesizers, though the songs never sound synthetic, due in great part to Stevie's reliance on a parade of real instruments -- organic drumwork, harmonica, organs and pianos -- as well as his mastery of traditional song structure and his immense musical personality. The intro of the vibrant, tender "I Love Every Little Thing About You" is a perfect example, humanized with a series of lightly breathed syllables for background rhythm. And when the synthesizers do appear, it's always in the perfect context: the standout "Superwoman" really benefits from its high-frequency harmonics, and "Seems So Long" wouldn't sound quite as affectionate without the warm electronics gurgling in the background.
After releasing two "head" records during 1970-71, Stevie Wonder expanded his compositional palate with 1972's Talking Book to include societal ills as well as tender love songs, and so recorded the first smash album of his career. What had been hinted at on the intriguing project Music of My Mind was here focused into a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances -- altogether the most realistic vision of musical personality ever put to wax, beginning with a disarmingly simple love song, "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" (but of course, it's only the composition that's simple).
Stevie's not always singing a tender ballad here -- in fact, he flits from contentment to mistrust to promise to heartbreak within the course of the first four songs -- but he never fails to render each song in the most vivid colors. In stark contrast to his early songs, which were clever but often relied on the Motown template of romantic metaphor, with Talking Book it became clear Stevie Wonder was beginning to speak his mind and use personal history for material (just as Marvin Gaye had with the social protest of 1971's What's Going On). The lyrics became less convoluted, while the emotional power gained in intensity. "You and I" and the glorious closer "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" subtly illustrate that the conception of love can be stronger than the reality, while "Tuesday Heartbreak" speaks simply but powerfully: "I wanna be with you when the nighttime comes / I wanna be with you till the daytime comes."
Ironically, the biggest hit from Talking Book wasn't a love song at all; the funk landmark "Superstition" urges empowerment instead of hopelessness, set to a grooving beat that made it one of the biggest hits of his career. It's followed by "Big Brother," the first of his directly critical songs, excoriating politicians who posture to the underclass in order to gain the only thing they really need: votes. With Talking Book, Stevie also found a proper balance between making an album entirely by himself and benefiting from the talents of others. His wife Syreeta and her sister Yvonne Wright contributed three great lyrics, and Ray Parker, Jr. came by to record a guitar solo that brings together the lengthy jam "Maybe Your Baby."
Two more guitar heroes, Jeff Beck and Buzzy Feton, appeared on "Lookin' for Another Pure Love," Beck's solo especially giving voice to the excruciating process of moving on from a broken relationship. Like no other Stevie Wonder LP before it, Talking Book is all of a piece, the first unified statement of his career. It's certainly an exercise in indulgence but, imitating life, it veers breathtakingly from love to heartbreak and back with barely a pause.
Words - John Bush.
When Stevie Wonder applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early '70s, he produced one of his greatest, most important works, a rich panoply of songs addressing drugs, spirituality, political ethics, the unnecessary perils of urban life, and what looked to be the failure of the '60s dream -- all set within a collection of charts as funky and catchy as any he'd written before.
Two of the highlights, "Living for the City" and "Too High," make an especially deep impression thanks to Stevie's narrative talents; on the first, an eight-minute mini-epic, he brings a hard-scrabble Mississippi black youth to the city and illustrates, via a brilliant dramatic interlude, what lies in wait for innocents. (He also uses his variety of voice impersonations to stunning effect.) "Too High" is just as stunning, a cautionary tale about drugs driven by a dizzying chorus of scat vocals and a springing bassline. "Higher Ground," a funky follow-up to the previous album's big hit ("Superstition"), and "Jesus Children of America" both introduced Wonder's interest in Eastern religion. It's a tribute to his genius that he could broach topics like reincarnation and transcendental meditation in a pop context with minimal interference to the rest of the album.
Wonder also made no secret of the fact that "He's Misstra Know-It-All" was directed at Tricky Dick, aka Richard Milhouse Nixon, then making headlines (and destroying America's faith in the highest office) with the biggest political scandal of the century. Putting all these differing themes and topics into perspective was the front cover, a striking piece by Efram Wolff portraying Stevie Wonder as the blind visionary, an artist seeing far better than those around him what was going on in the early '70s, and using his astonishing musical gifts to make this commentary one of the most effective and entertaining ever heard.
Words - John Bush.
After the righteous anger and occasional despair of the socially motivated Innervisions, Stevie Wonder returned with a relationship record: Fulfillingness' First Finale. The cover pictures his life as an enormous wheel, part of which he's looking ahead to and part of which he's already completed (the latter with accompanying images of Little Stevie, JFK and MLK, the Motor Town Revue bus, a child with balloons, his familiar Taurus logo, and multiple Grammy awards).
The songs and arrangements are the warmest since Talking Book, and Stevie positively caresses his vocals on this set, encompassing the vagaries of love, from dreaming of it ("Creepin'") to being bashful of it ("Too Shy to Say") to knowing when it's over ("It Ain't No Use"). The two big singles are "Boogie on Reggae Woman," with a deep electronic groove balancing organic congas and gospel piano, and "You Haven't Done Nothin'," an acidic dismissal of President Nixon and the Watergate controversy (he'd already written "He's Misstra Know-It-All" on the same topic).
As before, Fulfillingness' First Finale is mostly the work of a single man; Stevie invited over just a bare few musicians, and most of those were background vocalists (though of the finest caliber: Minnie Riperton, Paul Anka, Deniece Williams, and the Jackson 5). Also as before, the appearances are perfectly chosen; "Too Shy to Say" can only benefit from the acoustic bass of Motown institution James Jamerson and the heavenly steel guitar of Sneaky Pete Kleinow, while the Jackson 5 provide some righteous amens to Stevie's preaching on "You Haven't Done Nothin'." It's also very refreshing to hear more songs devoted to the many and varied stages of romance, among them "It Ain't No Use," "Too Shy to Say," "Please Don't Go."
Stevie’s eighteenth released by Motown Records on 18 September 1976, is among the greatest albums of all time. Ranked number 56 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums it is the pinnacle of his "classic period", and was recorded at the Record Plant in Hollywood, Sausalito Music Factory, and The Hit Factory in New York City. It was originally a double LP with a four-song bonus EP and is ambitious in the extreme.
130 people worked on the album, but in no way is Stevie Wonder smothered by the experience. His talent and supreme craftsmanship is there in every groove. Among the people who worked on it are such legendary figures as Herbie Hancock, who played Fender Rhodes on "As", George Benson played electric guitar on "Another Star", and Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams added backing vocals on "Ordinary Pain". Mike Sembello played guitar in several tracks and also co-wrote "Saturn" with Wonder.
It’s full of socially aware songs like, "Village Ghetto Land" and "Black Man" (co-written with Gary Byrd) "Pastime Paradise" and the beautiful "Have a Talk with God" (co-written with Calvin Hardaway). It became the second best-selling album of 1977 in the US, selling ten million copies in the US alone having topped the chart. It was the highest selling R&B/Soul album on the Billboard Year-End chart that same year. It also made No.2 in the UK.
Stevie’s twentieth studio album came out in 1985 and it includes the monster hit, "Part-Time Lover", along with "Go Home" and the gorgeous "Overjoyed" (which was left off Wonder's 1979 album Journey through the Secret Life of Plants and re-recorded for this album). The album won Stevie yet another Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance at the 28th Grammy Awards (his fourth award in the category, and his thirteenth Grammy overall). In Square Circle broke into the Top 5 on the Pop Albums chart and spent twelve weeks at No.1 on the Top R&B Albums chart.
In many ways Stevie Wonder’s music benefits from being heard live more than many other artists. It is such joyous, uplifting, music that it can take on a whole new dimension when heard through in concert. Natural Wonder was released in 1995 and recorded in Osaka, Japan and is an edited version of a televised concert Wonder performed with the Tokyo Philharmonic. Do not feel short-changed in any way. This is the cream of Stevie brought to life in a wholly different and exciting way. Outstanding moments include the stunning, ‘Ribbon in the Sky’, one of the absolute pinnacles of Stevie’s career – his piano playing on this is sublime. There’s also the gorgeous ‘Loves in need of love today’ and ‘If It’s Magic’. If you have never ‘got’ Stevie Wonder, and you are definitely in the minority, then play this. It is a natural wonder.