Stevie Wonder is an icon born and bred in Michigan’s Motown scene.
“I always think of whatever I do is a gift I was given from the most high. I just am very thankful that I was chosen to have these melodies in my spirit that inspires and encourages people.” — Stevie Wonder, musician
The musical legend began by singing in church at the age of 4, going on to learn how to play the piano, drums and harmonica. He was signed to Motown in 1961 and would put out 10 studio albums by the time he was 18.
His music has been inspiring and encouraging people for more than 60 years.
Today, he has secured his place as one of music’s most influential and successful artists in music history by every measure.
CultureShift’s Ann Delisi hosted a three-part tribute special to Wonder that traces his career from the youth choir to stadium performances.
Hear all three parts below.
Part One: The Early Years
Click on the player to hear the first part of Ann Delisi’s Stevie Wonder tribute.
Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Mich., and raised in Detroit, Wonder was born premature, which contributed to his blindness.
“A handicap is only a handicap if you make it so. I’m not blind anyway — I can see 20/20 in the dark.”
“We had gone to various faith healers, various doctors, on and on,” Wonder recalls. “And I remember one time I said, you know, Mom, maybe God doesn’t mean for me to see. Maybe God meant for me to be something else.”
Wonder did not let his vision impairment define him, and neither did his family, although it did affect how he interpreted sounds, smells and interacted with others.
“A handicap is only a handicap if you make it so, and the handicap today is a lack of communications,” Wonder said. “I’m not blind anyway — I can see 20/20 in the dark.”
Part Two: Rising Star
Click on the player to hear the second part of Ann Delisi’s Stevie Wonder tribute.
At age 19, Wonder released the album, “My Cherie Amour.” In addition to the title track, the album included the hit songs, “Yesterme, Yesteryou, Yesterday,” and his rendition of The Doors’ “Light My Fire.”
“If you have a goal, don’t give up, you’ve got to keep on pushing.”
He credits his education at a school for the blind in Lansing, Mich. for his early success.
“If you have a goal, don’t give up, you’ve got to keep on pushing,” Wonder recalled. “Stay in school — I did, so you better. No, really, it’s very important.”
By the time he was 20, he had written songs for other Motown artists, including Smokey Robinson’s “Tears Of A Clown.”
When Robinson heard the melody, he immediately thought of a circus and wrote lyrics inspired by the Italian opera “Pagliacci,” about a tragic clown loved by the public but desperately lonely in his personal life. Although the track wasn’t originally released as a single in the U.S., its success internationally would lead Berry Gordy to release it later to acclaim.
“To this day, it’s still the biggest single that I’ve ever been attached to in my life,” Robinson would later recall.
Part Three: Classics Period
Click on the player to hear the third part of Ann Delisi’s Stevie Wonder tribute.
In his 20’s, Wonder would enter his classics period, when he released some of his most creative and socially-conscious music he ever created.
“I’m very thankful to be alive.”
During this time, he won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year three out of four years he was nominated, released “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” and toured with the Rolling Stones to avoid being labeled an R&B artist.
Wonder’s classics period included releasing the 1972 album “Talking Book,” which featured “Superstition,” which featured the distinctive sound of a hohner clavinet and became his first number one song since “Fingertips.”
The following year, Wonder recorded “Innervisions,” one of his best-known albums, which included “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” “All in Love is Fair,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” and “Higher Ground,” in which he played all of the instruments. On the song “Living for the City,” Wonder would address racism, and clocking in at almost seven minutes it’s almost like an audio film. It is considered one of the best songs ever recorded and won two Grammy awards — Best Rhythm and Blues song and Best Male R&B Performance.
During this time, Wonder got in a serious car accident in August of 1973, which left him in a four-day coma. His recovery was slow and long and his thinking about life changed after that.
“I’ve always had feelings about God, and getting my head bumped around definitely made me come to sense about it,” Wonder would recall. “Obviously, I’m very thankful to be alive.”