If there has been a single musician who would have a song to symbolize the soundtrack of Black America through the ages, it’s Stevie Wonder. He sang us through the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. His voice was one of the most crucial of the Motown sound and he went on to become one of the most influential artists of all time. Let’s face it: he has long since earned a place on soul music’s Mount Rushmore.
And today, we honor this legacy from child star to veteran elder statesman as he completes his 70th amazing year around the sun.
Born in Saginaw, Mich., Stevland Hardaway Morris was rendered blind as a baby. Defying the odds, he learned to play piano, harmonica, and drums as a child and at age 11, he signed on with Tamla Records, a label under Berry Gordy Jr.’s growing Motown studios in Detroit.
That began a six-decade career in R&B, funk, rock, jazz, and gospel where he not only wrote timeless classic hits for himself, but also for other artists including Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan and Rufus, Aretha Franklin, Minnie Riperton and Michael Jackson.
Entire volumes could be written about Stevie’s contribution to music and culture, but instead we cherry picked these 12 essential Stevie Wonder songs to celebrate the beauty and fullness of life.
Written by Motown producers Clarence Paul and Henry Cosby, “Fingertips” is regarded as Wonder’s first major hit. It appeared on his first studio album The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie (1962.) The most familiar version of it is a live performance of the song in Chicago at the Motortown Revue in 1963. That performance went on to propel the song to the top of the Billboard Pop Singles and R&B Singles charts. The most familiar visual is this performance on local Detroit TV show “Teen Town” that same year.
As the Civil Rights movement progressed through the 60s, it began to take on theme music and Motown was at the center of it all. Along with Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” (1965), and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas “Dancin’ In The Streets” (1964), a 15-year-old Wonder made his contribution to the cultural landscape of the day with his songwriting collaboration with Sylvia Moy and Henry Cosby. The song changed minds about Wonder (word on the street is that Berry Gordy was going to drop him from the label) whose voice had changed and gone tenor and established him as one of Motown’s most bankable stars.
For decades, people have sang this song to their significant others as an ode to young (and young at heart) love. Written for Wonder’s girlfriend while he was attending the Michigan School for the Blind, it was originally entitled “Oh My Marsha,” and was the title track of his 1969 LP. It is perhaps the one entry to his catalogue that is universally remembered and internationally sung. It also was the door to his upcoming classic period where Wonder released a Spanish version ("Mi Querido Amor”) and a French version (“Ma Cherie Amor.")
As the 1970s began, Wonder transitioned into what is commonly considered his classic period, releasing several albums that ultimately put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, brought about multiple GRAMMY awards and eventually provided a Kennedy Center Honor. The song that started that was the June 1970 tune of what was his 12th studio album of the same name. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” was the first Wonder, now 20, had produced on his own, which was co-written by singer Syreeta Wright, who was also one of his backup singers (and wife for two years). It turned out to be such a classic that Barack Obama used it during his 2008 campaign and it was performed by Wonder to close the Democratic National Convention that year then played again at Obama’s election victory celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park.
Soul musicians began to experiment with funk, African, fusion and eclectic jazz sounds in the early 70s. Groups like Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament, and many others were changing the sound of Black music. Wonder was not left behind when he brought out two classic albums “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book” in 1972. The latter featured one of Wonder’s signature songs “Superstition.” Much of the music, including the opening drumbeat and the unforgettable clavinet that starts the melody, is improvised by Wonder in the studio recording.
Wonder was red hot in the early 70s, but it was a period that followed years of racial strife, riots, and several assassinations. Not one to shy away from the realities of the moment, Wonder included on his 1973 “Innervisions” album is a tune about a young man born into poverty in Mississippi hoping to find his fortune in New York, but winding up framed and imprisoned. It soon became an anthem about the systemic racism and hopelessness young Blacks often experienced, one of the first with such an honest description. In 1974, the song won two GRAMMY awards. One for Best R&B Male Performance and one for Best R&B Song.
The 1976 double LP “Songs In The Key of Life,” most will argue, does not have a single song that is not a classic. That is why most music critics insist it should be a part of every album collection. That is also why it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. While music aficionados will debate which is the best track, many will say it’s the one simply titled “As,” a seven-minute melody about love even in the face of mathematical and physical impossibility. There is a very long list of artists who have covered this song in the 44 years since its release and many music historians and fans regard it as Wonder’s best work ever.
Perhaps the Stevie Wonder song with the most historical significance was the one that helped make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Released in 1980 on the “Hotter Than July” album, the song came 12 years after King was assassinated and the late Michigan Rep. John Conyers had introduced a bill for designating the holiday. But it became a yearslong journey led by political figures and Black artists to make it happen. Finally, two presidents got behind the holiday; Jimmy Carter, who endorsed the bill in 1979, despite a resistant Congress, and Ronald Reagan, who signed it into law in 1983.
“The Original Musiquarium I” was actually a compilation of Wonder’s greatest hits, but it featured the wedding classic “Ribbon in the Sky” and a 10-minute long bassline-driven dance track featuring legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie entitled “Do I Do.” Nathan Watts, who played bass on several of Wonder’s classics including “Higher Ground” and “Sir Duke” called the 1982 track his favorite in a 2001 interview with the music website Bass Frontiers.
Now in his mid-30s, Wonder began to make more mature, mellow-sounding music that album consumers and radio stations alike became fascinated with. One of the best examples is the album “In Square Circle” which boasted the uptempo “Part Time Lover” and the romantic tune “Overjoyed.” Originally written for 1979’s “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants,” it was rerecorded for the 1985 album and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart.
By the early 90s, Wonder had cemented his legacy by creating a catalogue his fans could hold near and dear. That’s when filmmaker Spike Lee brought him in to do the soundtrack of his 1991 film “Jungle Fever,” starring Wesley Snipes. Decorated with new Stevie tunes that a younger generation would consume, it had the titular track, which explained the movie’s plot about an interacial romance between a Black man and a white woman, but it also featured a ballad that paid homage to family, love and essentially giving the important person in your life their flowers while they still have the chance to smell them.
Returning to the studio for the first time in a decade, Wonder decided to revert back to the rhythms that made him internationally famous. Following up “So What The Fuss,” which featured the original members of En Vogue plus guitar grooves by Prince, and “A Time to Love” with India Arie and Paul McCartney, Wonder released the mellow “From the Bottom of My Heart,” which reminded fans that he may have been gone, but he never actually left. Wonder received the GRAMMY for Best Pop Male Performance, the first time he had won in that category since 1976.
Photo Credit: PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images