Stevie Wonder: The vision of a genius

Ten years have passed since the former child prodigy released an album. And he is still keeping his fans hanging on for his latest
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The Independent Online

There are only two artists in the history of pop upon whom the epithet "genius" has been bestowed, and it is a peculiar quirk of coincidence that both have been blind black soulmen who played piano.

There are only two artists in the history of pop upon whom the epithet "genius" has been bestowed, and it is a peculiar quirk of coincidence that both have been blind black soulmen who played piano.

Or maybe not such a coincidence. There's every chance that Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, was deliberately trying to establish a connection in the public mind between Ray Charles, the original genius of soul, and his new protégé, "Little" Stevie Wonder, when he titled Wonder's 1963 breakthrough album The 12 Year Old Genius.

It wasn't the first time he had tried to link the two talents: a year earlier, Stevie's debut album had been A Tribute to Uncle Ray, a collection of Charles covers which made little impact on the public consciousness, but which did enable the child prodigy to meet his hero. Ironically, until then he had not realised that Brother Ray was, like himself, black - but then, how could he?

Perhaps the even greater irony is that both these entertainers, for whom colour was essentially just a concept, would become significant figures in the emancipation struggles of the civil rights era - Charles leading by example in refusing to play to segregated audiences, and Wonder creating some of the most articulate (and popular) musical commentaries on racial inequality.

As Wonder once said, "Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn't mean he lacks vision." In such songs as "Living for the City" and "You Haven't Done Nothin'", he robustly confronted the ignorance and negligence of the Nixon administration's attitude towards the black community. Rarely, if ever, have black anger and black pride been as eloquently fused as in the string of extraordinary recordings he made between 1972 and 1980, which includes at least three albums - Talking Book, Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life - that can stand shoulder to shoulder beside the pop landmarks of Pet Sounds, Revolver and Blonde on Blonde.

Not only that, but Stevie Wonder has also extended his prodigious talents into non-musical areas, becoming a tireless figurehead for various humanitarian causes; and, perhaps most impressive of all, he was the central unifying force in the campaign to have Martin Luther King's birthday declared a national holiday.

But since the early 1980s, he has seemed a more peripheral figure on the music scene, his recordings pale reflections of his former glory, and the gaps between them seeming to yawn ever wider. His last album, Conversation Peace, was every bit as tired as its title pun. That appeared in March 1995.

Since then, he has made the occasional guest appearance, embellishing this song or that with his distinctive harmonica, but little was heard of his own projects until rumours leaked out last year of a new album, A Time 2 Love. Originally scheduled for last July, its release date has been put back several times as Stevie strove to make it meet his exacting standards. It was finally primed to appear later this month, but only yesterday his record label advised me it had been postponed yet again, to sometime in June.

Stevie Wonder was born Steveland Judkins on 13 May 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, later taking the name Morris when his mother remarried. An accidental overexposure to oxygen while he was in a hospital incubator has been most commonly cited as the cause of his blindness, though some have suggested it may have been due to retinopathy of prematurity, a condition which affects the growth of blood vessels in the eyes of prematurely born babies, eventually resulting in the detachment of the retina.

As with Ray Charles, the loss - or non-development - of one sense has been partially compensated for by the hypersensitivity of another, with the young Steveland quickly mastering keyboards, harmonica and drums. But the boy wonder's progress from gospel to secular music was hugely accelerated by performances with a friend, John Glover, as Steve & John.

In 1961 Glover's cousin, Ronnie White of The Miracles, arranged Stevie an audition with Berry Gordy. After a brief demonstration of his multi-faceted talents, he was signed to Motown and placed under the care of producer/musical director Clarence Paul, who dubbed him Wonder, reasoning that "we can't keep introducing him as the eighth wonder of the world".

It took Stevie a few years, and a couple of albums, to establish an identity for himself, finally breaking through in 1963 with the chart-topping harmonica showcase "Fingertips", a live recording that captured his natural ebullience. But further attempts to repeat the same formula failed, and Wonder's career was put on hold the following year while his voice broke.

When he returned as a young man in 1965, the ecstatic single "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" smashed into the pop scene like a bolt of lightning, announcing the arrival of a vibrant new talent mature beyond his years. The real extent of those abilities would not become clear, however, until Stevie turned 21 and promptly declared his previous contract null and void, moving to New York and using his trust fund revenues to set up his own Taurus Productions studio.

The crucial next step in Wonder's musical development came at around the same time, when his always curious ears encountered Zero Time, an entirely electronic album made by two studio engineers, Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil.

Intrigued by the manner in which their layered, symphonic pop pieces belied the synthesizer's early reputation as a cold, inhuman machine, Stevie sought the duo out, recording two albums, Where I'm Coming From and the seminal Music of My Mind, which he then used to secure not just an improved deal financially from Motown but also the creative control that was only just being grudgingly accorded the likes of Marvin Gaye.

Recorded almost entirely solo, Music of My Mind set the benchmark for use of the synthesizer in pop, Wonder using it unashamedly as a source of new timbres and textures which were then seamlessly blended into warm, engaging songs such as "Love Having You Around" and "Superwoman".

For the next few years, he continued working at a prodigious pace, but then slowed down while completing his last great work, 1976's Songs in the Key of Life. Picking up a Best Album Grammy in 1975 for Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon began his acceptance speech by thanking Stevie for not making an album that year.

Mind you, Stevie should worry: nominated 59 times, he has won an extraordinary 19 Grammys in his career, along with an Academy Award for the glutinous "I Just Called to Say I Love You", which became Motown's all-time UK best-seller. As he says, "Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there."

Stevie's character seemed to falter as the 1980s approached, however. Albums would be announced, then never materialise. As fans waited longer and longer for follow-ups, Stevie drifted further away from both the mainstream and the cutting edge.

"I was just living and sharing life," he said recently when asked about his recent decade-long hiatus. "That is something that we do in the creative process when you are working on music and songs. The issue is not why it took so long; it is how much life have you lived that encourages and inspires you to write."

And Wonder's life has shifted substantially away from aesthetic matters over the past 25 years, as he has become more politically active. As well as the Martin Luther King Day campaign, he has been involved in issues such as Aids awareness, gun control, health and hunger programmes, the fight against apartheid, and the National Campaign on Ethnic Tolerance. Not surprisingly, he supported John Kerry's presidential campaign.

More recently, he has expressed his support for his fellow Motown child prodigy Michael Jackson, offering to be a defence witness at the trial.

But despite his serious persona, Wonder has a puckish sense of humour that can often catch friends off guard. "He's very playful, and very wise," says soul singer India.Irie, with whom he has worked. "He's more silly than you would think - I'm, like, 'Stop playing!'. He and my mom are ridiculous together!"

His own relationships have been many and various, and often rooted in creative partnerships: many of the production techniques he used through the 1970s were premiered on the two albums he produced for his first wife Syreeta, with whom he wrote several songs. And Wonder is unusual among showbiz celebrities in generally concluding his relationships amicably - except for one ex-girlfriend, his former wardrobe assistant Angela McAfee, who filed a £30m palimony suit against him in 2001, claiming he had promised to support her for life, adding he had also given her herpes. Wonder refuted both charges.

Throughout everything, his religious faith has served as the backbone of Wonder's life. Accepting an honorary doctorate of music at the University of Alabama in 1996, Wonder said: "Many years ago, there were those who said, 'Well, you have three strikes against you: You're black, you're blind and you're poor.' But God said to me, 'I will make you rich in the spirit of inspiration, to inspire others as well as create music to encourage the world to a place of oneness and hope and positivity.' I believed Him and not them."

A Life in Brief

BORN 13 May 1950, Saginaw, Michigan.

FAMILY Married to second wife, Karen Millard-Morris. A son, Kieta, and a daughter, Aisha.

CAREER Signed in 1962 to the Motown label as Little Stevie Wonder. First chart success in 1963 with "Fingertips". Went on to become one of the most successful Motown artists. The 1980 album Hotter than July, dedicated to Martin Luther King, became his first platinum-selling album. Winner of 22 Grammy Awards.

HE SAYS "The two big advantages I had at birth were to have been born wise and ... in poverty."

THEY SAY "When he comes into a room, people adore him. He tries to use his music to do good." Elton John

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