When Ronnie White (of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) brought Steveland Morris over to the Motown offices in Detroit in 1961, Berry Gordy was at first unimpressed. After Morris sang the Miracles’ “Lonely Guy” and performed on piano, harmonica and bongo, Gordy 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 boy was a prodigy. The “Wonder,” well, that spoke for itself.
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 enjoyed in producing the groundbreaking What’s Going On album. Wonder’s great 1970’s albums followed in due course, with titles that alluded to his blindness as a metaphor for the music: Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. The classic double album Songs in the Key of Life served as a kind of summation.
Among the decade’s highlights are many lovely, affirmative 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.”
In the video above, Wonder performs “Until You Come Back To Me” with Aretha Franklin. What a beautiful, perfectly characteristic song from the Wonder songbook, even if Aretha is a little vague on the lyrics at this point. In the video below, Stevie gives a playful extended performance of “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” one of my favorites. Great line: “I don’t want to bore you with it, but I love you.” Leading the audience in this performance, he adds for good measure: “There’s nothing wrong in celebrating love, in celebrating life, in celebrating God.”
Today Wonder turns 63. He remains an engaging live performer even if his creative fires have dimmed a little, and even if his optimistic spirit is out of tune with the times. (First posted in 2005.)
JOHN adds: Some years ago, I was in Bermuda for a convention. I took a taxi ride; the driver was erudite–like lots of taxi drivers in Bermuda–expounding on the local flora. After we had chatted for a while, he volunteered that his son-in-law was a famous entertainer. I cringed a bit, thinking that he was probably an occasional guest on Love Boat, or something of that sort. Certainly someone I had never heard of. So I asked, reluctantly, “What’s his name?” Stevie Wonder, was the answer. Famous, indeed.