Stevie Wonder: the most talented Motowner of them all

Of all of the super-talented, hardworking musicians who walked through the doors of Motown’s headquarters in the 1960s, an argument could be made that the most talented — and the one who took his music far beyond most others — was Stevie Wonder.

His real name is Stevland Hardaway Morris (né Judkins), and he was born in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Wonder lost the use of his eyes soon after he was born, and when he was three, his mother divorced his father and moved the family to Detroit. As Wonder grew up, he began playing musical instruments and singing. He formed a partnership with a friend that they called Stevie and John, and they would perform just about anywhere for anyone. One of the people in their audience was Ronnie White, a member of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

White recognized Wonder’s talent and took him and his mother to Motown for an audition. Motown founder Berry Gordy signed Wonder to a recording contract. This was in 1961, and Wonder was 11 years old.

Wonder recorded two albums and several singles, but none of them broke through the charts. In 1962 he joined the Motown Revue, a touring show that took Motown groups all over the country. Because of his age, Gordy arranged for a tutor to travel with Wonder. In May 1963, Motown recorded a 20-minute performance that Wonder gave in Chicago and was produced as an album. One of the songs on that album, “Fingertips,” was released as a single, and it was a monumental success, topping both the pop and R&B charts at the same time. Wonder was the youngest performer ever to have a number one single record.

Known to that point as Little Stevie Wonder, he dropped the “Little” moniker and emerged as one of Motown’s best musicians, singers, and songwriters. Wonder could play the piano, harmonica, organ, and even drums with seeming ease. Not only did he play well, but his playing showed that he had quickly conquered a variety of musical genres, such as rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz.

His string of hit records was superb and memorable: “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),”I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Cherie Amour,” and “For Once in My Life. He also co-wrote, with Smokey Robinson, “The Tears of a Clown.”

Wonder was just 20 years old in 1970 when Marvin Gaye produced his concept album “What’s Going On,” and — influenced by what Gaye had done — Wonder spent the next years producing his own concept albums such as Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), and Songs in the Key of Life (1976). They in turn netted Wonder a string of single hits such as “Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Higher Ground,” “Living for the City,” “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “I Wish,” and “Sir Duke.” They also brought Wonder a string of Grammy nominations and awards.

Wonder had to overcome personal setbacks to achieve these musical monuments. The chief one was a serious car accident in 1973 while on tour in North Carolina that put him in a coma for several days. Wonder emerged from that trauma with a renewed spirit and determination.

Wonder has continued to this day to explore musical ideas and genres. His overwhelming talent and vast musical understanding allows him to enter a musical genre or to combine them and stretch them into something new and exciting. His stamp on the popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries is unmatched by any other Motown performer.

See these previous posts about Motown:

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On?

Please, Mr. Postman

Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family

Martha and the Vandellas: Heat Waves, Quicksand, and but always Dancing in the Street

Temptations: soulful voices, close harmonies, and choreography that made you want to dance

Smokey Robinson, Motown’s founding brother

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Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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