Personalities | Stevie Wonder | Sixties | Rock

Born Steveland Judkins on 13 May 1950 and blind virtually from birth, the future Little Stevie Wonder was already singing in his local choir at the age of four. By the time he was seven he had mastered the piano, harmonica and drums.

In 1961, Ronnie White of The Miracles introduced the child prodigy to the label’s founder Berry Gordy, who signed him up immediately to a long-term contract and gave him his stage name. Over the next 20 years he grew to become an icon not just of soul music but of the whole African-American community.

The Formative Years

Early releases made much of his instrumental virtuosity (which now extended to organ and vocals) and of parallels with another blind soulful singer, Ray Charles. Wonder’s first two album releases (both in 1962) were Tribute To Uncle Ray and The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie.

In 1963, his third single was his breakthrough: an edited version of the largely instrumental ‘Fingertips’ from live album The 12-Year Old Genius. It went to No. 1 in both the pop and the R&B charts in the US, the first live single to do so. The album followed in its wake, Motown’s first chart-topping LP and the first time an artist had topped the singles and album charts concurrently.

In 1964, he had his first co-written hit, ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’, a US million-seller, which two years later would open his chart account in the UK. From now on he would write more and more of his output, and in 1968 he was able to claim co-writing credits for half of the album For Once In My Life.

The 1960s saw Stevie Wonder’s growth in all areas from child star to soul man. He dropped the ‘Little’ as early as 1964, and his vocal performances developed their trademark tone: pure, full, warm, the soulful embodiment of R&B. He found his voice in other ways too, recording in an ever broader range of musical styles. In 1966, he charted with a striking country’n’gospel arrangement of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, a hint of Wonder’s later strength as a social campaigner. 1967’s ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ blended classic Motown pop with an earthier R&B rhythm section and rootsy gospel backing vocals.

Wonder was one of the very first pop artists to embrace the emerging world of electronic keyboards, and used the hook of the new sounds to good effect on a string of hits such as 1968’s ‘Shoo Be Doo Be Doo Da Day’ (which acknowledged another of R&B’s root influences, doo-wop).

Growing Pains

With this rich input of influences and explorations, Stevie Wonder was constantly stretching, and becoming increasingly frustrated by the constraints of Motown’s hit-making machine, which still exercised control over his releases. Experimentation was not something that sat easily with a record company where the hit single was king.

1971’s album Where I’m Coming From was a milestone...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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