Steveland “Stevie Wonder” Morris is an indisputable icon of American music, but in many ways is best understood as a part of a separate tradition — that of the musical prodigy. Like Mozart, Mendelssohn, Earl Scruggs, and Alex Chilton before him, Wonder composed and performed songs as a young child that inextricably transformed the contemporary landscape. For those of us vested with a more normative skill set, the surpassing strangeness of this state of affairs can be difficult to grasp. By the time he was 12 years old, Wonder was an ascendant star and popular live draw. By 18 he had already experienced a full career’s worth of professional and creative triumphs and setbacks. By the 1970s, a decade he dominated with a masterful run of classic albums, Wonder had fully wed his extraordinary intuitive genius with the hard-won lessons of a calloused music business veteran. By age 30 he was largely spent as a creative force.
Arriving under hardscrabble circumstances in 1950, Wonder was born several weeks premature and blind from birth. Nevertheless, by the time his mother relocated the family to Detroit when he was 4, Wonder had already begun to develop his uncanny musical gifts for piano, harmonica, and drums. A natural showman and sonorous vocalist, Wonder gained sufficient notoriety as a street performer that he quickly attracted the attention of executives from the local Motown juggernaut. What followed was a series of events resembling nothing so much as Harry Potter arriving at Hogwarts — the gifted wunderkind encountered skeptically by veteran wizards including Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. Label head Berry Gordy was the Dumbledore figure — sufficiently intrigued to take a chance, but worried what complications might follow.
Complications indeed ensued. Labor laws constrained Wonder’s ability to write and record as a minor, and within Motown, arguments raged over how best to market the prodigy. The consequences of this confusion yielded results both ridiculous and sublime. Wonder’s first charting single was 1963’s antic, live-recorded “Fingertips Part 1 & 2,” an infectious piece of harmonica-driven R&B pitched someplace between Booker G’s “Green Onions” and the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” The single made Little Stevie, as he was then billed, a minted commodity but also created a paradox. How to sell a teenaged genius whose voice and style were certain to mature?
Still unsure of his youthful charge, Gordy shipped Little Stevie out to Motown West in Los Angeles, where he was conscripted into ludicrous fare such as Stevie At The Beach, a transparent and cynical attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys. Provided an untenable creative context, Wonder did his level best to breathe life into these product records, but his frustration was growing acute. Only 1966’s undeniable “Up-Tight Everything’s Alright” hinted at a solution, or at least a détente between a rapidly growing artist and a label bent on maximizing every last dollar.
In an era where success and failure in the industry revolved around the relative ephemera of the 7″ rather then the overarching statements of the LP, tensions between labels and artists became a constant. At Motown, highly tenured Marvin Gaye had already adopted a dissident attitude — releasing the bracing, topical LP What’s Going On over the objection of Gordy, who allegedly referred to the future classic as “The worst thing I ever heard.” That record’s immediate critical and commercial success chastened, or at least reoriented Gordy, who subsequently got religion on Wonder’s more auteur impulses. What followed was his golden period — a collection of timeless records beginning with 1971’s unsubtly titled Where I’m Coming From and running through 1976’s double-LP masterpiece Songs In The Key Of Life.
Equal parts innovative and back-to-basics, these records found Wonder picking and choosing his favorite elements of the soul, funk, folk, and psychedelic music of the period, and repurposing them into a wholly unique and profoundly gratifying vision. The highlights from this era read like a veritable songbook of American standards: the sultry come-on of “Love Having You Around,” the demolition guitar funk of “Superstition,” and the verité nightmare of “Living In The City” all resound as deeply in the public consciousness today as they did upon their initial release. By the time Wonder was opening for the Rolling Stones on their infamous 1972 tour, he had arguably eclipsed that band as avatars of post-racial popular song. Between enormous AM radio hits like “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and the validation of P-Funk hero George Clinton naming Stevie “Secretary Of Fine Arts” on Parliament’s indispensable 1975 track “Chocolate City,” Wonder had successfully navigated Berry Gordy’s long-dreamed-of middle path between African-American pride and mainstream acceptance.
As the great Sly Stone receded further and further into a haze of drugs and disillusion, Wonder increasingly stood alone in the mid-’70s as a serious ambassador of African-American anxieties to both black and white audiences. Sly’s 1971 masterpiece There’s A Riot Going On is one greatest records ever made — a crushingly cynical and all too true account of poverty’s despair and the bleak future of urban communities going forward. But crucially, it failed to speak to a diverse audience and ultimately has been relegated to the province of a devoted cult. Meanwhile, Wonder’s more panoramic and approachable vision continues to attract a new and diverse fan base, one that seems to expand with each passing year. Without Stevie, it could be stipulated, there is no Prince, no De La Soul, no Neptunes, no Kanye, and no Kendrick Lamar.
Genius knows no expiration date, so it is entirely possible that we might not have heard the last master blast from the great man himself. In the meantime, there is also the truth that a man’s legacy is his truest testament. Arguably no living artist has left a legacy greater than Stevie Wonder.
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