The influence music virtuoso Stevie Wonder has had on his art form is difficult to measure. With a career spanning more than half a century and a body of work that often topped R&B and pop charts simultaneously from the 1960s to the 1980s, Wonder has penned some of the most memorable songs in the contemporary music canon. His ambitious arrangements and distinctive harmonies continue to inspire musicians of every genre, while his positive outlook and upbeat lyrics elevate audiences the world over.
Stevland Hardaway Judkins came into the world on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan to Calvin Judkins and Lula Mae Hardaway Morris. Born prematurely, Wonder spent his first days in an incubator and went blind when he was still an infant. In 1954, his mother moved her six children to Detroit and changed her name back to Hardaway Morris, which Wonder also took as his legal name.
Musically inclined, he began singing in the church choir, and mastered the piano, drums and harmonica by the age of 11. In 1961, with the help of Ronnie White of the Miracles, Wonder auditioned for Motown Records and was signed immediately. The next year, Little Stevie Wonder released two albums: A Tribute to Uncle Ray and The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. They didn't make much of an impression, but the follow-up, The 12 Year Old Genius, featuring the popular harmonica instrumental Fingertips, flew up the charts.
Finding his voice
For the next few years, Wonder took a hiatus from singing and studied piano at the Michigan School for the Blind while his voice changed. In 1964, he dropped the "Little" from his name and made a triumphant comeback with Uptight (Everything is Alright), a number one R&B hit single that he co-wrote.
With a cover of Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind and his own single A Place in the Sun, both issued in 1966, Wonder marked a shift in his career by integrating social commentary into his work.
He also started taking more control over his music, co-writing 6 of the 12 tracks on his 1968 album For Once in My Life, which reached number two on both the R&B and pop charts. In 1970, the musician received his first co-production credit for the album Signed, Sealed and Delivered, for which he also co-wrote the smash hit title track. By experimenting with new technologies and addressing social concerns, Wonder proved that he wasn't just another product of the commercial music cookie cutter.
A month before turning 21 and freed from his contract with Motown, Wonder released Where I'm Coming From in 1971. Entirely self-produced and co-written by Wonder, the album delivered a burst of artistic output, drawing on gritty funk, tender love ballads and freewheeling pop.
Using the proceeds from his trust fund, which had just become available to him, Wonder opened his own recording studio. He also established Black Bull Music, his own publishing company, and negotiated a new deal with Motown that gave Wonder the rights to his music and full artistic control over his recordings.
In 1972, he released Music of My Mind, stringing the tracks together thematically to give the album a textured sound and polished sheen. The recording also highlighted the beginning of the musician's innovative experiments with the synthesizer.
With Talking Book (1972), Wonder became a superstar at the age of 22. Featuring the funk classic Superstition and the pop ballad You Are the Sunshine of My Life, the album showcased his distinctive electronic sound. Innervisions followed in 1973, delivering a spiritual and socially conscious message, and won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year.
Three years after a serious accident, which left Wonder in a coma for several days after his car was struck by a log, the fully recovered artist released his masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. The double album won the Grammy for Album of the Year (his third).
A third act
Wonder took a hiatus from performing over the next three years. During the 1980s, he embarked on successful collaborations with Paul McCartney and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, and scored The Woman in Red (1984), winning Best Song at the Oscars for I Just Called to Say I Love You (his best-selling single of all time). Wonder's 1985 release In Square Circle went platinum, marking his return to the top of the charts.
After a long break from recording, Wonder made a comeback in 2005 with A Time to Love. In 2009, he came to Montréal to open the Festival's 30th anniversary and inaugurate the city's Place des Festivals. A torrent of rain cleared just long enough for him to play a two and a half hour set to a vast sea of adoring fans - estimated by the media to be from 150 000 to 200 000 strong.
Honouring the recent passing of his friend and collaborator Michael Jackson, Wonder played some hits by the King of Pop along with his own canon of R&B classics. The legendary artist, who was presented with the Festival's Spirit Award that year, also extended a message of peace and love to spectators, which was without doubt reciprocated.