When Miracle Ronnie White (of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) brought Steveland Morris over to the Motown offices in Detroit in 1961, Berry Gordy at first was not impressed. After Morris sang the Miracles’ “Lonely Guy” and performed on piano, harmonica and bongo, Gordy signed signed the 11-year-old boy to his label. According to Nelson George’s Where Did Our Love Go?, “Berry, in one of his more inspired name changes, decided [Morris] would hereafter be called Little Stevie Wonder.” The “little” was the traditional honorific indicating that the kid was a prodigy.
His first hit was “Fingertips–Pt. 2,” a one-of-a-kind, chaotic live cut recorded at Chicago’s Regal Theater during a Motown Revue show in 1962. The title alludes to his blindness. The performance showed both the good humor and the infectious musicality that became his trademarks. After a break from recording while his voice changed, he resumed his career with “Uptight” in 1965.
When he turned 21, Wonder renegotiated his contract with Motown to secure the kind of artistic freedom that Marvin Gaye had used to produce the groundbreaking “What’s Going On” album. Wonder’s great 1970’s albums followed in due course, with titles that used his blindness as a metaphor for the insights reflected in his music: “Music of My Mind,” “Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” and “Fulfillingness’ First Finale.” The classic double album “Songs in the Key of Life” summed up his accomplishments.
Among the decade’s highlights are many lovely, positive, and haunting songs. To pick just a few of the superb lesser-known tracks from the succession of albums beginning with “Where I’m Coming From,” consider “If You Really Loved Me,” “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer,” “‘Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” “Happier Than the Morning Sun,” “Blame It On the Sun,” “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” “They Won’t Go When I Go,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” “As,” and “Another Star.”
Today Wonder turns 58. Though his creative fire seems to have dimmed, he remains an inspiring live performer. In the video above, Wonder performs “Overjoyed,” one of the highlights of 1985’s “In Square Circle.” In the video below, Wonder supports Aretha Franklin on “Until You Come Back to Me,” a song that Wonder originally recorded in the sixties. Franklin’s terrific version of the song became a big hit for her in 1973. Wonder’s recording of the song was not released until 1977. Together Wonder and Franklin bring something special to the song, even as Aretha blows the lyrics at the end and gives Stevie the giggles.
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