Stevie Wonder is widely regarded as a musical genius and one of the greatest artists of all time. He is a transcendent singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist who has created timeless classics that have been sampled and covered by a wide range of artists from R&B to rock and pop to hip-hop.
Born Steveland Hardaway Judkins on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, Stevie was born six weeks premature, and in part due to excess oxygen in his incubator, he developed a condition called retinopathy of prematurity where his retinas detached from his eyes and caused his blindness. After he and his mother Lula Mae Hardaway moved to Detroit when he was four, Stevie started getting into music, singing in the church choir and learning how to play the drums, piano, and harmonica. He also took on the surname Morris in place of Judkins after his mother remarried.
In 1961, Stevie sang for Ronald White of The Miracles, and White arranged a meeting with Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy for Stevie and his mother. At 11 years old, Stevie signed to Motown’s subsidiary label Tamla Records and was given the moniker “Little Stevie Wonder” by producer Clarence Paul, who worked with Stevie on many of his early songs. Stevie released his first album, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, in 1962 and had his first number one hit single the following year with “Fingertips Pt. 2,” making him the youngest solo artist to top the Billboard Hot 100 at 13 years old.
Stevie’s subsequent releases during the mid-1960s weren’t as successful to the point where Motown considered dropping him from the label as he was studying classical piano at the Michigan School for the Blind, but he connected with songwriter Sylvia Moy and songwriter/producer Henry “Hank” Cosby to create hits such as “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “I Was Made to Love Her,” and “My Cherie Amour.” During this time, Stevie also wrote and co-wrote songs for other artists on Motown, including the Smokey Robinson & The Miracles hit single “Tears of a Clown.”
The 1970s saw Stevie Wonder ascending to the peak of his creative mountain. He married fellow singer-songwriter Syreeta Wright in 1970 and they worked together on a number of projects. Stevie also began his marriage with synthesizers around this time after hearing music from the electronic group Tonto’s Expanding Headband, leading him to begin working with the group’s members, Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, on four of his albums from 1972 to 1974. This period also began Stevie’s fight for creative control as he wanted to make more socially conscious music—a fight his labelmate Marvin Gaye was also having with Motown around the release of his classic 1971 album What’s Going On.
On his 21st birthday, Stevie let his recording contract expire and used funds from his trust to create Wonderland Studios in Los Angeles, where he would create his subsequent albums. Wonder re-signed with Motown in a historic deal that gave him a $13 million advance, full creative control of his music and a more lucrative royalty payment at 20 percent. He stressed that he returned to Motown not only because they gave him his start but also because he wanted to continue supporting a Black-owned record label.
1972 marked the beginning of Stevie’s “classic period” as he released both Music of My Mind (March) and Talking Book (October) that year, Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974), and the magnum opus double album Songs in the Key of Life (1976). The latter three albums all won the Album of the Year Grammy Award among other achievements, and associate producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff also won Grammys for their engineering on the Talking Book and Innervisions albums. In the middle of this successful run, Stevie was involved in a car accident in North Carolina on August 6, 1973 that had him in a coma for four days but he was back to performing within three months.
The 1980s saw Stevie achieve more success on the pop spectrum. His number one single “I Just Called to Say I Love You” won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Song from The Woman in Red soundtrack. The song was an international hit as it topped the pop charts in several countries, including the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. His collaboration with Paul McCartney, “Ebony and Ivory,” was also a number one hit, as well as “Part-Time Lover” from his 1985 album In Square Circle. His song “Happy Birthday” from 1980’s Hotter Than July helped Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday become a national holiday and the chorus has become a popular alternative to the traditional “Happy Birthday” tune. He was also involved in two major charity singles: 1985’s “We Are the World” for famine relief in Africa, and 1986’s “That’s What Friends Are For” in response to the AIDS epidemic.
Stevie’s album output slowed down in the 1990s as he only released the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever in 1991, Conversation Peace in 1995, and A Time to Love in 2005. Since then, he has continued to tour around the world, made guest appearances on several projects and released some singles through his own label, So What the Fuss Records. He is said to have at least two projects in development: The Gospel Inspired by Lula and Through the Eyes of Wonder.
Stevie Wonder is one of the most accomplished artists in the history of music. He has sold more than 100 million records, charted multiple number one singles and albums on the R&B and pop charts internationally, won 25 Grammy Awards and received the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. He was recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the greatest singers and artists of all time and they featured several of his works on their lists of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Wonder received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2014, and he is a multi-time hall of famer with his inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, and the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2019.