Saturday, October 29, 2011

FOCUS ON: STEVIE WONDER


Stevie Wonder is certainly one of the most influential musical artists in history who not only revolutionized the sound of soul but altered people's perception of what could be done to music in general. He is daring, bold and fearless, who is willing to try almost anything and throw in any idea that inspires or moves him which is what makes his music so special and unique.

While preparing to write this, I was listening to his music and I was amazed by the wide range and the beautifully, complex textures to his songs. Stevie Wonder's brilliance as a song writer and musician can be quite shocking considering that he has never been able to actually see the world around him but he has the ability to vividly and accurately capture everything.. He is truly a living legend and an important part of our musical history.

He was born Stevland Judkins in Saginaw, Michigan in 1950. He was six weeks premature and because the blood vessels at the back of his eyes had not yet reached the front, his retinas became detached and Stevie was left blind.

When Stevie was four, his parents separated and his mother moved him and his five siblings to Detroit. She went back to her maiden name and changed Stevie's surname to "Morris". Stevie learned to play a variety of instruments including the piano, bass and harmonica.and performed in his church's choir.

He was discovered by Gerald White, the brother of The Miracles singer, Ronnie, who first saw Stevie perform at a friend's house. Gerald later brought Ronnie to see Stevie, then Ronnie brought the eleven year old to Motown to audition for Berry Gordy. He was signed to the Tamla label in 1961 and Clarence Paul, one of Stevie's first producers, is the one who came up with his new stage name, "Wonder" and he became professionally known as "Little Stevie Wonder".

Little Stevie recorded two albums in 1962 with little success but at thirteen, he had his first hit single, "Fingertips (Pt. 2)" which was taken from a live recording. The song went to number one on the pop and r&b charts in 1963 and a new star was born. He later appeared, as himself, in the films, "Muscle Beach Party" and the sequel, "Bikini Beach in 1964.

As he matured, Stevie decided to drop the "Little" from his name and continued to have several hit songs including "Uptight (Every thing's Alright)", "I Was Made To Love Her" and "For Once In My Life". During this time, he developed as a song writer in which he wrote not only for himself but for other Motown artists.

By the time he was twenty-one, Stevie was so frustrated by his lack of artistic control at Motown that he allowed his recording contract to expire in 1971. He recorded two independently produced albums as well as wrote and produced for other artists to use as a bargaining tool during contract negotiations with the label. This ploy worked and Motown gave Wonder full creative control, rights to his songs and a higher royalty rate.

Motown released the first of Stevie's self produced albums, "Music Of My Mind" in 1972. It was different from the typical Motown album as Wonder played all the instruments and it dealt with social and political issues with the songs connected together thematically. Later in the year, "Talking Book" was released which featured the smash hits, "Superstition" and "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" with both songs topping the pop charts. The album won Stevie his first three Grammy Awards for Best Male Pop, Best Male R&B and Best R&B Song.

In 1973, Wonder released "Intervisions" which had two top ten hits, "Higher Ground" and "Living For The City" and the album won him three more Grammys including Album Of The Year.  Later that year, Stevie was in a near fatal car accident that left him in a coma for four days. He recovered and was able to triumphantly return to the stage to perform during a comeback concert at Madison Square Garden in March of 1974.

"Songs In The Key Of Life", released in 1976, was an ambitious and accomplished work that would become Wonder's best-selling and most critically acclaimed album of his career. It was a two-LP collection with a four song bonus EP that features his classic songs, "I Wish", "Sir Duke" and "Isn't She Lovely" which was written about the birth of his daughter, Aisha. The record would go on to sell over ten million copies in the U.S. alone and won four Grammy Awards including his third award for Album Of The Year.

After taking some time off, he returned in 1979 with a mostly instrumental soundtrack album for the film, "The Secret Life Of Plants" and writing and producing a hit song for Jermaine Jackson, "Let's Get Serious" before releasing "Hotter Than July" in 1980. The album, inspired by his love of reggae music and meeting Bob Marley, became a huge hit with the singles, "Master Blaster (Jammin)", "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It", "Lately" and "Happy Birthday" (which was written in honor of Martin Luther King and used to encourage the passage of a national holiday in his honor) helping the album become a million seller.


During this period, Stevie Wonder contributed vocals to two big charity singles, "We Are The World" (1985) and "That's What Friends Are For" (1986), made guest appearances on recordings for a wide variety of different artists such as The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, The Eurythmics, and Paul McCartney, either singing, playing the harmonica or both and he won an Academy Award for the number one song on the pop and r&b charts, "I Just Called To Say I Love You" from the film, "The Woman In Red" in 1985.

In the 1990's, Stevie continued to work but at a much slower pace as he released only one studio album, "Conversation Piece" (1995) during the decade but recorded material for the soundtrack of two Spike Lee films, "Jungle Fever" and "Bamboozled" and continued to make occasional guest appearances on the music for other artists. "A Time To Love" was released in 2005 and has been the last studio album for Mr. Wonder to date but he continues to make live performances around the world.

Stevie Wonder has had thirty top-ten U.S. hits with ten reaching number one, twenty number one r&b hit songs, won twenty-two Grammy Awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award,  was inducted in to The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and has sold over one hundred million records.

Stevie Wonder married fellow Motown artist, Syreeta Wright in 1970. She co-wrote many songs with him on his albums and he worked on her first two solo recordings but the marriage ended in 1972. He has been married to Kai Milla Morris, a designer, since 2001 and they have two sons, Kailand and Mandla. He has a total of seven children from previous relationships.

Here is a sample of some of Mr. Wonder's greatest hits from throughout his career:

"For Once In My Life" - Stevie Wonder (1968)

"My Cherie Amour" - Stevie Wonder (1969)

"Signed, Sealed, Deliered (I'm Yours)" - Stevie Wonder (1970)

"If You Really Love Me" - Stevie Wonder (1971)

"Living For The City" - Stevie Wonder (1973)

"You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" - Stevie Wonder (1973)

"Don't You Worry 'bout A Thing" - Stevie Wonder (1974)

"All I Do" - Stevie Wonder (1980)

This is early footage of Stevie performing "Uptight (Everything's Alright):


This is the music video for "Part-Time Lover" that features Luther Vandross on background:

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