During his first three years in show business, Wonder was presented as an R&B screamer in the Ray Charles mold; much was made of the fact that both were blind. In 1964 he appeared on the screen inMuscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach. Uptight (Number Three, 1966) included “I Was Made to Love Her” (Number Two, 1967), “For Once in My Life” (Number Two, 1968), and “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” (Number Nine, 1968). The Wonder style broadened to include Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (Number Nine, 1966), the optimistic “A Place in the Sun” (Number Nine, 1968), and an instrumental version of Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie.” In 1969 he hit the upper reaches of the charts with the ballads “My Cherie Amour” (Number 4) and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” (Number 7).
As his adolescence came to an end, Wonder took charge of his career. By the time of Signed Sealed & Delivered (Number 25, 1970), he was virtually self-sufficient in the studio, serving as his own producer and arranger, playing most of the instruments himself, and writing material with his wife, Syreeta Wright. In this phase, he scored three more hit singles: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” (Number Three, 1970), “Heaven Help Us All” (Number Nine, 1970), and “If You Really Love Me” (Number Eight, 1971).
When he reached his 21st birthday in 1971, he negotiated a new contract with Motown that made him the label’s first artist to win complete artistic control (also at 21 he was due the money he had made as a minor; despite earning over $30 million, he received only $1 million). While his singles upheld the company tradition of hook-happy radio fare, they distinguished themselves with such socially conscious subjects as ghetto hardship and political disenfranchisement, especially in evidence in “Living for the City” (Number Eight, 1973). His albums, beginning with Music of My Mind (Number 21, 1972), on which he played most of the instruments, were devoted to his more exotic musical ideas (which incorporated gospel, rock & roll, jazz, and African and Latin rhythms). To his panoply of instruments, he added synthesizers; played with rare invention and funk, they became the signature of his sound.
Wonder’s 1972 tour of the United States with the Rolling Stones helped make Number 1 hits of two singles released within the next year &Number 8212; “Superstition” (written for Jeff Beck) and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” &Number 8212; from Talking Book (Number Three, 1972). The period was difficult personally for Wonder: In 1972 his marriage to Wright ended after only a year (later, with companion Yolanda Simmons, he had two children, as well as a third child by vocalist Melody McCulley). In 1973 he was in a serious car crash that left him in a coma for four days.
In the four years and three albums following Talking Book, Wonder made three more Number 1 singles (“You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” “I Wish,” and “Sir Duke”), sold millions of each, and received 15 Grammy Awards. Innervisions (Number Four, 1973) also included “Higher Ground” (Number Four, 1973), whileFulfillingness’ First Finale (Number One, 1974) yielded “Boogie On Reggae Woman” (Number Three, 1974).
His songs were covered widely, and he was an acknowledged influence on musicians from Jeff Beck to George Benson to Bob Marley. Working with B.B. King, the Jacksons, the Supremes, Minnie Ripperton, Rufus, and Syreeta Wright, he established himself as a major songwriter and producer. Songs in the Key of Life (Number One, 1976) (a double album released after he had signed a $13-million contract with Motown) was a tour de force and topped the charts for 14 weeks.
Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Number Four, 1979) three years in the making, was ostensibly the soundtrack to an unreleased film of the same name. Predominantly instrumental, it failed to catch on in a big way at the time but can be seen as a precursor to New Age music. Hotter Than July (Number Three, 1980) returned to the street-dancing spirit of earlier periods (updated in contemporary idioms such as reggae and rap). It yielded “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” (Number Five, 1980) and Wonder’s plea for an international holiday in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., “Happy Birthday.” In 1982 fans still waiting for an album of new material were placated with hit singles: “That Girl” (Number 4), “Do I Do” (Number 13), “Ebony and Ivory”(Number 1) &Number 8212; a duet with Paul McCartney &Number 8212; and the greatest-hits package Musiquarium (Number Four, 1982).
The Eighties saw Wonder drastically curtailing studio work but continuing to tour (by the end of the decade becoming Motown’s first artist to play the Eastern bloc). In 1982, with Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne, he played the “Peace Sunday” antinuclear rally at the Rose Bowl. In 1984 Detroit gave him the key to the city (he later considered a run for mayor of Detroit), and he played harmonica on Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Participating in the recording of USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” in 1985, he won that year’s Oscar for Best Song for “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” (Number One, 1984) off The Woman in Red (Number Four, 1984) soundtrack. Dedicating the award to Nelson Mandela, he angered South African radio stations, which then banned all his music.
“Part-Time Lover” (Number One, 1985) became the first single simultaneously to top the pop, R&B, Adult Contemporary, and dance/disco charts; its parent album, In Square Circle, reached Number 5 and won the Grammy for Best R&B Male Vocal Performance. Singing with Elton John and Gladys Knight on Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For” (Number One, 1986) gained Wonder another hit, but, deemed relatively lightweight, neither Characters (Number 17, 1987) nor the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (Number 24, 1991) were greeted with the almost universal acclaim his ’70s work had generated.
In 1988 duets with Michael Jackson (“Get It”) and Julio Iglesias (“My Love”) kept Wonder’s name before the public. And, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and earning a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, Stevie Wonder continued to enjoy an ultimately unassailable critical reputation even while his recording output was slender. In 1995, four years after receiving the Nelson Mandela Courage Award, he released Conversation Peace, an intended epic he’d been working on since the late ’80s. Critics greeted the 74-minute long work with mixed reviews but were heartened by his return to recording after an eight-year absence. In 1999 Wonder performed at the halftime show for Super Bowl XXXIII and was among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. He also made a rare hour-long appearance on Donny & Marie, where he performed a number of his hits, mostly accompanying himself on keyboards. To close out the decade and the century, November 1999 saw the release of Wonder’s four-disc greatest hits box set At the Close of the Century, a chronological journey of Wonder’s biggest songs from the 1960s to 1990s.
In 2005, Wonder released his first album in over a decade A Time to Love. Paul McCartney and India.Arie sang on the title track, and on “So What the Fuss” Wonder is joined by his daughter, Aisha Morris, as well as Prince and En Vogue A Time to Love received mostly glowing reviews from critics, who complimented the album as a return to Wonder’s storied Seventies catalog. The single “From the Bottom of My Heart” earned Wonder a Best Male Pop Vocal Performance Grammy at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards, where Wonder also duet with Alicia Keys on his “Higher Ground.”
Wonder also performed at 2005’s all-star Live 8 concert in Philadelphia, and in early-2005 played a medley of his hits during the pre-game celebrations for Super Bowl XL in Detroit. In 2006, Wonder served as a mentor on American Idol, with each of the show’s 12 contestants later performing one of Wonder’s hits in front of a television audience of millions. Wonder also embarked on the A Wonder Summer’s Night tour in 2007, his first trek in 10 years, with a European leg following the next year.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, then-candidate Barack Obama named Wonder as his musical hero, and Wonder was only too eager to return the compliment by performing at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” became almost an unofficial campaign anthem for Obama. In January 2009, Wonder also performed at both the We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial and one of the ten inaugural balls. A month later, Obama awarded Wonder with the Gershwin Award for Lifetime Achievement at a special ceremony at the White House.
Wonder made several more high-profile appearances in 2009, first teaming with the Jonas Brothers for a rendition of his “Superstition” on stage at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards. At the public memorial service for Michael Jackson at Los Angeles’ Staples Center in July 2009, Wonder sang both “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and “They Won’t Go When I Go” in tribute.
Wonder’s extensive humanitarian work has concentrated on AIDS awareness, antiapartheid efforts, crusades against drunk driving and drug abuse, and fund-raising for blind and mentally disabled children and the homeless.
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