As Stevie Wonder heads for Australia on a tour inspired by his mother’s death, John Walsh profiles the master blaster
IT takes a person of unusual candour to confess, late in his career, that his mother helped him to write one of his most successful songs. Earlier this year, on an early- morning television show, Stevie Wonder explained how he was at home one day in 1969 ( aged 19) when inspiration struck. As was his habit, he began with a melody line in search of a lyric. ‘‘ And she was downstairs,’’ he recalled, ‘‘ and she said, ‘ You should write, like, about something, ‘‘ Ooh baby, I’m yours. I’m signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours’’ kind of thing like that.’ ’’
Wonder used the line, had a monster hit with it in 1970, and still reaps the dividends. He’s still a mummy’s boy. It was her death in 2006 that prompted him to go back on the road on a world tour that will bring the Motown superman to Australia, to play several concerts next month.
Wonder has been part of the musical landscape for 45 years in a variety of incarnations: as infant phenomenon, teen sensation, crooner, multiinstrumentalist, corn- row- haired sage, producer, arranger, duettist and spokesman on black rights. He has also become perhaps the most famous blind person in the world.
Websites are devoted to jokes about his disability. People unfamiliar with his heyday in the 1960s and ’ 70s know him as the famous blind black guy. Now the jokes take on a new dimension: politics. In March 2002, The Washington Post reported from a presidential gala at the Ford Theatre, where George W. ush sat in the front row and gave Wonder a cheery wave when he appeared on stage. The story of the President waving at a blind man delighted the nation. Did Wonder mind? Evidently not. Six years later, he appeared beside another presidential figure and made a little joke about blindness. At a Los Angeles rally in support of Barack Obama last February, Michelle Obama took Wonder’s arm to escort him on stage, but they both publicly stumbled on the stairs. ‘‘ I was so busy looking at the next first lady,’’ Wonder told the crowd, ‘‘ that I lost my way.’’
Announcing a European tour — his first in a decade — earlier this year, Wonder said of Obama: ‘‘ He’s a combination of JFK and Martin Luther King. With that he can’t lose.’’ But only a cynic would speculate that the rise of Obama lies behind Wonder’s return to touring.
He says he was inspired by a dream after his mother’s death. His impulse, it seems, is gratitude. ‘‘ I want to thank everyone for the contribution you’ve made over my life,’’ he told the press conference. ‘‘ Had it not been for you, I would never have had the chance to get the support for my music.’’
Wonder was born Steveland Hardaway Judkins in May 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Because he was premature, the blood vessels at the back of his eyes hadn’t yet reached the front and their aborted growth caused the retinas to detach.
The family moved to Detroit when he was four. He started playing the piano at seven, taught himself the harmonica, drums and bass, and sang in the church choir. At 11, he was introduced to Ronnie White of the Miracles who, a little stunned by his talent, brought him to Berry Gordy, the Motown mogul, who signed him up instantly. Stevie’s surname proved a problem until Clarence Paul, a songwriter, suggested ‘‘ Wonder’’, reasoning that ‘‘ we can’t keep introducing him as ‘ the eighth wonder of the world’ ’’.
Paul became his producer all through his teens. Wonder’s early records had terrible titles such as I Call It Pretty Music, but the Old People Call It the Blues , and didn’t trouble the charts. But he got a chance to display his multi- instrumental brilliance in the company’s Motortown Revue. In 1963, part of a live recording of the revue was cut as a single. It was Fingerprints Part 2, featuring Little Stevie Wonder on vocals, bongos and harmonica, with a juvenile Marvin Gaye playing drums. The hyperactive blind kid was an instant smash hit: the song went to No 1 in the pop and rhythm- and- blues charts.
The Motown bosses held their breath while their protege’s voice broke. The maturer 15- yearold who resumed recording in 1965 had a proper Motown delivery, but it was too deep for anyone to call him Little any more. He became a classic product of the Gordy factory: the label’s executives chose what songs he’d sing, and alternated undemanding new soul songs with cover versions of pop standards. His Uptight ( Everything’s Alright) was a hit worldwide. He covered Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind and began writing his own songs: Smokey Robinson’s Tears of a Clown was one of his triumphs.
He hit his stride from 1965 to 1970: I Was Made to Love Her , For Once in My Life , My Cherie Amour , Yester- Me, Yester- You, Yesterday, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours were all hits. But Wonder was tiring of Motown’s stranglehold over its talents and Gordy’s determination to keep absolute control. So Wonder did something astonishing. He allowed his contract to expire and left Motown on his 21st birthday. There followed his most creative period, when he paid for the recording of two albums, on which he played all the instruments, and brought a new seriousness to his lyrics.
Little Stevie had grown up. His songs now dealt with race issues and spiritual growth. He started a publishing company, Black Bull Music, and went back to Motown to offer Gordy a deal: they could release the records provided Wonder kept control over his output and the publishing rights. He got his way. Music of My Mind came out in March 1972, a concept album rather than a collection of songs, and the first of five albums ( all of them now regarded as classics) in five years: the others were Talking Book , Innervisions , Fulfill- ingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life .
Talking Book brought the world the irresistibly funky Superstition . Wonder performed it on Sesame Street , a brilliant storm of noise with its chunking guitars and snarling horns, and Wonder singing through his huge trademark grin, waggling his head from side to side in ecstasy. He was on the biggest roll of his life. He had become the most important exponent ( and innovator) of black music. He married Syreeta, his fellow Motown star, who had sung backing vocals on Signed, Sealed . He was asked to open for the Rolling Stones on their world- conquering 1972 tour. A series of singles topped the charts: You are the Sunshine of My Life , Higher Ground , Living for the City, Golden Lady, All in Love is Fair .
Innervisions and Fulfillingness won best album Grammys in consecutive years, 1974 and 1975, and Songs in the Key of Life picked up another in 1977. He was unstoppable. Nobody, it seemed, could mix rhythm and blues, soul, funk and schmaltzy pop in one album the way Wonder could. ( And the music endured: Innervisions recently came in at No 23 in Rolling Stone ’ s 500 greatest albums of all time, and Songs at No 56.)
After that string of successes, things were never quite the same. Three years went by without a musical squeak while Wonder worked on a mostly instrumental soundtrack to a documentary called The Secret Life of Plants . The title was deadly, the music spiritless and the reviews bordered on the homicidal. Though he recovered with some popular singles from his next album, the platinum- selling Hotter than July, some of the old passion had clearly evaporated. Ironically, the most successful single of his career emerged during this creative trough: I Just Called to Say I Love You was on the soundtrack he wrote for the movie The Woman in Red .
To watch the video of the legendary Wonder singing this dull ballad, with a telephone receiver clamped to his ear, was painful: no wonder the song was derided by Jack Black in the film High Fidelity. Equally galling was his duet with Paul McCartney on Ebony and Ivory, a cloyingly simplistic plea for blacks and whites to live in peace ( like piano keys, yeah?).
Wonder went on making records through the ’ 80s and ’ 90s, but his public appearances tended to be those of a beloved eminence grise of music and black rights. In the early ’ 80s, he campaigned to have King’s birthday, January 15, celebrated as an annual public holiday; president Ronald Reagan said yes, and the first Martin Luther King Day, in 1986, was marked with a concert ( starring Wonder). He has collaborated with scores of artists, from Bruce Springsteen to Andrea Bocelli, played harmonica on scores of soundtracks and accompanied Aretha Franklin singing The StarSpangled Banner at the Super Bowl in 2006.
He has become a monument, a titanic figure in popular music for four decades. A large, ebullient, charismatic man of 58, he is routinely cited as a leading influence by Sting, Michael Jackson, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Jamiroquai and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
His return to public performance will be an occasion for celebration and dancing in the streets, as his fans recall precisely what they used to do to the mellow backdrop of Talking Book and Innervisions .