411 Music Hall Of Fame Class of 2010: Stevie Wonder
STEVIE WONDER’S MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born on May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan. He was born premature and was blinded virtually from birth due to a possible hospital mishap. His family moved to Detroit in 1954, just as the music scene there was starting to formulate. He spent years learning music in the church, building himself musically and learning to play drums, piano, bass, and the harmonica. Soon he was discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles and brought to Motown Records, where he first performed under his new stage name, Little Stevie Wonder. He released A Tribute To Uncle Ray (in honor of his idol, Ray Charles) and The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie, both in 1962. Neither were successful, but they did display Little Stevie’s potential as a musician. However, in 1963, Stevie made history with the live album, The 12-Year Old Genius, with the help of of his first hit, “Fingertips (Part 1)”, making it Motown’s first chart-topping album.
Because of the lack of success for his follow-up singles, and the changes in his voice due to puberty, Little Stevie temporarily put his career on hold to focus on studying classic piano at the Michigan School For The Blind. A reinvigorated Stevie returned in 1964 (now without the “Little” in his stage name) and released the self-penned hits “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby”, as well as his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing In the Wind”. Stevie started gaining some control over his projects, including on albums like 1968’s For Once In My Life and 1969’s My Cherie Amour, in which he had a hand in writing some of the material, including the title cuts from both albums. 1970’s Signed, Sealed & Delivered was the first effort that he co-produced, with the help of Syreeta Wright (who he would also have a short-lived marriage with). Not only did the album contain more hits (his rendition of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”, as well as the title cut), but he would also make attempts at bucking Motown’s established system with more socially conscious material. During this period, he wrote some hit songs for his labelmates, like “Tears Of A Clown” for Smokey & the Miracles, and “It’s a Shame” for the Spinners.
In 1971, one month before his 21’s birthday, he released the ambitious Where I’m Coming From, an album that hinted at his future career direction. Not only did the album focus mostly on his synthesizer work, but it was also his very first self-produced release, written entirely by both him and Syreeta. However, Motown labelhead Berry Gordy wasn’t pleased with it, as it veered away from Motown’s usual sound, and refused to push it. At that point, Stevie let his original contract expire, and concentrated on studying music theory and building his own studio. Then he would negotiate a new, multi-million dollar contract with Motown, demanding a bigger royalty rate, more creative freedom, and retain the rights to his music via his newly established publishing company, Black Bull Music. From there, Stevie was allowed the creative freedom to make the kind of music that he wanted, without the constraints of the Motown ‘hit-factory’ mentality in the way.
The result: Music Of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillinfness’ First Finale (1974), and Songs In the Key Of Life (1976).With these five influential albums, Stevie played a huge role in the experimental phase of 70’s Black Music. By pushing the limits of the synthesizer, he crafted a sound that was his own, a sound that was far away from anything Motown has ever released before. He wrote and performed some of the most memorable songs of his career through these five albums, and racked up many Top 10 hits and awards for his work. To many, these five albums showcase Stevie Wonder in his creative prime.
Since the 2-disc affair that was Songs In the Key Of Life took so much of his time and energy to create, he took three years off, returning with Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants (1979), a 2-disc soundtrack to an unreleased documentary, consisting of mostly instrumentals. Fans supported the album since he had been gone for a while…and were left wondering what they had just bought. With the exception of the hit single, “Send One Your Love”, this album flew over everybody’s heads. However, as the 80’s came around, Stevie recovered with Hotter than July (1980), which featured the Bob Marley homage “Master Blaster”, “All I Do”, “Rocket Love”, “Lately”, and “Happy Birthday”. The latter was a part of Stevie Wonder’s campaign to give the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King a national holiday, a fight which he eventually won. To many, this album was the TRUE follow-up to Songs In the Key Of Life.
From there, Stevie would release several albums that, while not as creatively challenging as his early-to-mid 70’s work, still kept him in the limelight with the occasional hit. This included soundtracks like The Woman In Red (which featured the hit, “I Just Called To Say i Love You”) and the Spike Lee joint Jungle Fever, to albums like In Square Circle (which featured “Part Time Lover”) and Characters (which featured “Skeletons”) and 2005’s A Time For Love (which featured “What’s the Fuss”). He even participated in charity songs like “That’s What Friends Are For” (with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Elton John) and in the USA For Africa project (“We Are The World”).
Stevie Wonder’s efforts, particularly his 70’s output, have had a massive impact on pop, R&B and Hip-Hop and has started many careers. His songs have been sampled and covered by many artists, and his work is one of the driving forces behind the resurgence of Soul (a.k.a. the “Neo-Soul” movement) in the late 90’s and the 2000’s.
Why Stevie Wonder Was Selected:
There are so many reasons why Stevie deserves a spot in the Hall Of Fame, it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s start with the fact that he was a multi-instrumentalist from the get-go, learning to play harmonica, drums, piano and bass at a very young age, way before getting that deal with Motown. Then there’s the fact that he was among Motown’s youngest stars, not only making hits under the name “Little Stevie Wonder” (and of course, lopping off the “Little” as he got older), but also doing behind the scenes instrumental work under the name Eivets Rednow (his stage name spelled backwards), and being a hit songwriter, writing not only for himself, but for various labelmates.
To me, the dealbreaker was how he changed the way things were done at Motown. He had so many ideas and has proven himself as a musician numerous times, but he felt that he needed more room to grow as an artist. He also felt that he was limited by Motown’s standards, both in its sound and in its operating procedures. So he allowed his contract to expire, and then demanded more creative freedom, a bigger budget (around $2-3 million), a higher royalty rate, and rights to his own songs. Berry Gordy was unsure about it, since he didn’t want to change all the things that worked for Motown for years (and 2-3 million was BIG MONEY at the time). However, with all the changes in the musical landscape during the late 60’s and early 70’s, what worked for Motown in years past was no longer enough. Berry eventually gave in to Stevie’s demands…which allowed him to create some of the most innovative music to ever come out of Motown, if not that whole era.
Through his newfound creative freedom, Stevie Wonder created music that was unlike anything Motown ever released. Whereas most Motown albums before then were just a collection of singles, Stevie made albums that flowed from beginning to end. The time constraints were also thrown out the window (as songs like the two-part “Superwoman/Where Were You…” showed). He also showed that there is a place for the synthesizer in the music world and often pushed its limits (at the time, people actually thought that the electric clavinet he played in “Superstition” was a guitar!) All the experimentation and all the great music he produced influenced many generations of artists to take his route. All this, because he dared to stand up to his record exec and demanded the freedom to do it.
And he didn’t let being blinded since birth stop him from accomplishing any of this.