Stevie Wonder Biography
Born Stevland Judkins Morris, May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, MI; son of Lulu Mae
Morris; married Syreeta Wright (a singer), 1971 (divorced, 1972); children (with
women other than Wright): Aisha, Keita, Mumtaz, and Kwame. Addresses:
Record company--Motown Records, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, 20th Floor,
New York, NY 10019; 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036.
In the course of following Stevie Wonder on his relentless travels, journalists
come to realize just how beloved an entertainer he is. "It dawned on me," wrote
Giles Smith in the New Yorker, "that a substantial part of Stevie Wonder's public
life consists of the voices of complete strangers telling him they love him." Rolling
Stone's David Ritz had a similar epiphany. "Following Stevie Wonder around
New York is exhilarating work," he wrote. "I get the feeling that he loves being
Stevie Wonder. He loves the attention, the adulation, the chance to perform."
What's more, Ritz remarked, Wonder's "optimism is infectious." Such optimism
may spring from a deep spiritual wellspring, but it is also sustained by decades
spent creating indelible, meaningful pop music.
It is estimated that Wonder--born Stevland Judkins Morris in Saginaw,
Michigan--was blinded by a surfeit of oxygen in his incubator shortly after his
premature birth. "I vaguely remember light and what my mother looks like," he
ventured in a 1986 Life interview, "but I could be dreaming." His father left the
family early on, and he and his five siblings were raised by their mother; she
moved the clan to Detroit, where they struggled mightily to survive. Though he
has groused good-naturedly in adulthood at the limitations his sightlessness has
placed on him, Wonder told Ritz that as a child he soothed his mother's tears by
telling her that he "wasn't sad." He recalled, "I believed God had something for
me to do." Along with his siblings, he paid musical tribute to the Almighty in the
Whitestone Baptist Church Choir, along with his vocal prowess demonstrating a
gift for piano, harmonica, and drums by age 11.
Thanks to the intercession of a friend, Stevland was brought to the attention of
Berry Gordy, president of Detroit-based Motown Records, and Gordy's producer
Brian Holland. Gordy placed the exceptional youngster's career in the hands of
his associate Clarence Paul, whom he designated as Stevie's mentor. Paul told
Rolling Stone's Ritz that Gordy had instructed him, "Your job is to bring out his
genius. This boy can give us hits." Handed the show business moniker "Little
Stevie Wonder," the prodigious adolescent--signed to the Motown offshoot label
Tamla--did indeed yield hits.
Wonder's fourth single, "Fingertips, Pt. 2," appeared in 1963 and became the first
live performance of a song to reach the top of the U.S. pop chart. Also that year,
Wonder became the first recording artist to reach the Number One position on
the Billboard Hot 100, R&B singles, and album charts simultaneously. Unable to
attend a regular Detroit school while becoming a pop sensation, Wonder was sent
to the Michigan School for the Blind at Motown's expense.
"Motown meant discipline to me," Wonder recalled to Ritz. "The attitude was 'Do
it over. Do it differently. Do it until it can't be done any better.'" Under such
demanding circumstances the young performer grew up fast. In 1964 he put aside
the "Little" label and let fans focus on the Wonder; over the next few years he
churned out pop-soul smashes like "Uptight," "Nothing's Too Good for My Baby,"
"I Was Made to Love Her," and "For Once in My Life." By 1968 his label had
amassed enough chart-toppers to fill his first Greatest Hits album.
In 1969 Wonder met President Richard Nixon at the White House, where he
received a Distinguished Service Award from the President's Committee on
Employment of Handicapped People. Meanwhile, he continued to pile up hits as
"My Cherie Amour" sold over a million copies and "Signed Sealed Delivered (I'm
Yours)" vaulted up the charts. 1970 saw Wonder marry Syreeta Wright, a Motown
employee and aspiring singer; the two wrote together, and Wonder produced
several successful records for her. The marriage was short-lived, however; they
divorced in 1972. By all accounts, they remain friends.
Wright has said that Wonder's music was her chief rival. "He would wake up and
go straight to the keyboard," she recalled to Smith of the New Yorker. "I knew
and understood that his passion was music. That was really his No. 1 wife."
Wonder fathered children by three other women over the next couple of decades,
though he did not remarry. "I was at the birth of two of my children," he confided
in Life. "I felt them being born--it was amazing." In a 1995 Rolling Stone
interview, the 44-year-old artist did express a yearning for matrimony, calling it
"the space where we're most relaxed and able to give and receive maximum love.
I'm not there yet--but soon. It's one of my goals."
When Wonder turned 21 in 1971 he was due the money he had earned as a minor
(this arrangement had been stipulated in a previous agreement). But Motown
only paid him one million of the $30 million he'd earned during that time. After
considerable legal wrangling he managed to attain a unique degree of artistic and
financial autonomy. "At 21, Stevie was interested in being treated well and in
controlling his life and in presenting his music, and all those things were
extraordinary things for a young man to ask at that point," explained Johanan
Vigoda, Wonder's longtime attorney, to Smith of the New Yorker. "It wasn't the
freedom to be dissolute or undisciplined. He wanted to be free so that he could
bring the best of himself to the table."
What Wonder brought to the table--with the establishment of his own music
publishing company and near-total creative freedom--was an increasingly
sophisticated body of work that managed to fuse the high spirits of classic soul,
the down-and-dirty syncopations of funk, exquisite melodies, and his own
introspective and increasingly politicized lyrical sensibility. From a sonic
standpoint, too, he was a trailblazer, demonstrating the versatility of the
synthesizer when it was still something of a novelty instrument in the R&B world.
Wonder's momentum was almost stopped permanently by a 1973 automobile
accident that nearly claimed his life and left him with deep facial scars. If
anything, however, this event provoked him to redouble his efforts. Virtually all
of Wonder's work during the early to mid-1970s is essential pop, most notably his
albums Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and the epic
Songs in the Key of Life. His songs from this period, including the percolating
funk-rock workouts "Superstition" and "Higher Ground," the effervescent
"Boogie on Reggae Woman," the jubilant paean to classic jazz "Sir Duke," the
grittily nostalgic "I Wish," and the breezy chartbuster "You Are the Sunshine of
My Life," left most of Wonder's competition in the dust both artistically and
commercially. "What artist in his right mind," mused singer-songwriter and soul
icon Marvin Gaye in the presence of Rolling Stone's Ritz, "wouldn't be
intimidated by Stevie Wonder?"
1979 saw the release of Wonder's musically beguiling Journey Through the Secret
Life of Plants, the theme of which many listeners found a little eccentric, to say
the least. "It was a consideration of the physical and spiritual relationships
between human beings and plants," Wonder explained to Ritz, quipping that
"some called it shrubbish." Though he increasingly failed to match his creative
and sales peaks of the preceding decades, Wonder was still a giant presence in the
world of pop. His Hotter Than July, with its reggae-driven hit "Master Blaster
(Jammin')," indicated his continuing creative restlessness. And "That Girl," the
unstoppable love song "I Just Called to Say I Love You"--which won an Academy
Award for best song and stands as Motown's top-selling single internationally --
and his duet with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney on the anti-racism anthem "Ebony
and Ivory" all burned up the charts.
Over the years Wonder also became progressively more involved in politics,
lobbying for gun control, against drunk driving and the apartheid system
enforced by South Africa's white minority, and on behalf of a national holiday in
recognition of civil rights martyr Martin Luther King, Jr. He played a number of
benefits and made public service announcements, often winning honors for his
advocacy. The slogan underneath his picture on a poster for Mothers Against
Drunk Driving read: "Before I ride with a drunk, I'll drive myself." He also
contributed his labor to the Charge Against Hunger campaign organized by
By the late 1980s, Wonder had become less prolific than he had been in the past,
but he was still phenomenally successful. He snagged a Grammy for 1986's In
Square Circle and in 1989 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He
won plaudits for his work on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's 1991 film Jungle
Fever, allegedly composing the material for it in the space of three weeks.
"Movies are always a good challenge," he told Neil Strauss of the New York
Times, "because it's taking what's happening visually and, even though I'm not
able to see it, getting a sense of the movie and finding a new way to work with it."
His work for Jungle Fever had preempted a collection of songs he'd been crafting
while living in the African nation of Ghana; the resulting disc would not hit stores
for several years.
In 1992--by which time multimillion-dollar deals had become commonplace--
Wonder signed a unique lifetime pact with Motown. "This is a guy you don't ever
want to see recording for anyone else," company president Jheryl Busby told the
New Yorker's Smith in 1995. "I worked hard to make Stevie see that we had his
interests at heart. Stevie is what I call the crown jewel, the epitome. I wasn't
looking at Stevie as an aging superstar but as an icon who could pull us into the
future." Wonder himself seemed to share this sense of his eternal newness: "I'm
going to be 45," he reflected to Ritz in Rolling Stone, "but I'm still feeling new and
amazed by the world I live in. I was in the Hard Rock Cafe in Tokyo last week,
and they started playing my records, and I started crying, crying like a little kid,
thinking how God has blessed me with all these songs."
When Conversation Peace--the album on which Wonder had been working for
nearly eight years--was released in 1995, it garnered a range of reactions. Vibe
deemed it "a decidedly mixed bag, leapfrogging back and forth between divine
inspiration and inoffensive professionalism"; reviewer Tom Sinclair took
particular exception to the "cloying sentimentality" of some of the songs, as did
other critics. Entertainment Weekly praised the album's sound, but noted that
"the song selection here, while frisky, is thin, making this comeback small
Wonder." Time's Christopher John Farley, however, while allowing that the
recording "isn't a slam dunk," called it "another winner for Wonder." Regardless
of their respective verdicts, most reviewers concurred that Wonder's versatility,
passion, and chops remained intact.
Wonder proved the validity of these observations during his 1995 concert tour.
"Running 2 1/4 hours, it was an outstanding show-- full of pure, old-fashioned
R&B," declared Los Angeles Times writer Dennis Hunt of Wonder's performance
at the Universal Amphitheatre. Pondering the performer's endurance and the
disappearance of most of his contemporaries from the scene, Hunt observed,
"Some may point to exquisite taste as the key to Wonder's success, but the real
secret is his ability to stay current, to be fluent in the R&B style of the moment."
Not surprisingly, critics were virtually unanimous about Wonder's 1995 live
double CD, Natural Wonder, which Rolling Stone called "an important and
Wonder expressed the desire to do an album of "all praise"--that is, gospel--in his
interview with Ritz. But regardless of the genre he pursues, his music will
undoubtedly always reflect his undeniably compassionate spirituality. While he
has inspired a new generation of artists--including rockers the Red Hot Chili
Peppers, who made their bid for mainstream popularity with a version of "Higher
Ground," Lenny Kravitz, Michael Franti of Spearhead, and virtually every
aspiring young soul artist--he nonetheless expressed his determination to keep
growing. "You're influenced all the time," he asserted to New York Times writer
Strauss, "and the day that you cannot be influenced by anything good is the day
that you really have let your art die."
by Simon Glickman
Stevie Wonder's Career
Signed to Motown Records, 1963; billed as "Little Stevie Wonder"; founded Black
Bull Music publishing company, 1971; sponsored Stevie Wonder Home for Blind
and Retarded Children, 1976; founded Wondirection Records, 1982; contributed
songs to The Woman in Red film soundtrack, 1984; appeared on AIDS benefit
single "That's What Friends Are For," 1986; contributed songs to Jungle Fever
film soundtrack, 1991; activist for and contributor to various political and social
causes, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the establishment of a national
holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., the anti-apartheid movement, AIDS
awareness, and Charge Against Hunger program.
Stevie Wonder's Awards
15 Grammy awards, including those for best male vocalist in both pop and R&B
categories, best pop song, and best album; Distinguished Service Award,
President's Committee on Employment of Handicapped People, 1969; Academy
Award for best song, 1985, for "I Just Called to Say I Love You"; inducted into
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1989; Whitney M. Young Award, Los Angeles Urban
League, 1990; Carousel of Hope Award, Children's Diabetes Foundation, 1990;
Honorary Global Founder's Award, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 1990;
Essence magazine award, 1995.
On Motown, unless otherwise noted Little Stevie Wonder: The Twelve-
Year-Old Genius, 1963.
Recorded Live (includes "Fingertips, Pt. 2"), 1963.
Uptight (includes "Uptight"), 1966.
Down to Earth, 1967.
I Was Made to Love Her (includes "I Was Made to Love Her"), 1967.
Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits, 1968.
For Once in My Life (includes "For Once in My Life"), 1969.
My Cherie Amour (includes "My Cherie Amour"), 1969.
Stevie Wonder Live, 1970.
Signed Sealed and Delivered (includes "Signed Sealed Delivered [I'm
Where I'm Coming From, 1971.
Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, 1972.
Music of My Mind, 1972.
Talking Book (includes "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and
Innervisions (includes "Higher Ground"), 1973.
Fulfillingness' First Finale (includes "Boogie on Reggae Woman"), 1974.
Songs in the Key of Life (includes "Sir Duke" and "I Wish"), 1976.
Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, 1979.
Hotter Than July (includes "Master Blaster [Jammin']"), 1980.
Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium (includes "That Girl"), 1982.
In Square Circle, 1985.
Jungle Fever (soundtrack), 1992.
Conversation Peace, 1995.
Natural Wonder, 1995.
With others Paul McCartney, "Ebony and Ivory," Tug of War, Columbia,
Chaka Khan, "I Feel for You," I Feel for You, Warner Bros., 1984.
The Woman in Red (soundtrack; includes "I Just Called to Say I Love
Dionne Warwick, "That's What Friends Are For," 1986.
(With Lenny Kravitz) "Deuce," Kiss My Ass, 1995.
"Stubborn Kind of Fellow," Inner City Blues: The Music of Marvin Gaye,
Quincy Jones, Q's Jook Joint, Qwest/Warner Bros., 1995.
Also contributed songs to albums by Rufus, Minnie Riperton, and other
April 16, 2004: Wonder received the Johnny Mercer Award from the National
Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame. Source: Associated Press,
http://customwire.ap.org, April 16, 2004.
May 11, 2004: Wonder's album, Time 2 Love, was released. Source:
Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_7/index.jsp, May 10,
December 8, 2004: Wonder won the Century Award at the Billboard Music
Awards. Source: Billboard.com,
5, December 9, 2004.
May 13, 2005: Wonder and his wife, Karen Millard Morris, welcomed the birth
of their son, Mandla Kadjaly Carl Stevland Morris. He has six children from
previous relationships. Source: Entertainment Weekly, June 10, 2005, p. 28;
CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/06/06/showbuzz/index.html#1, July
12, 2005; Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com, July 26, 2005.
February 8, 2006: Wonder won two Grammy Awards: R&B Performance by a
Duo or Group With Vocals for So Amazing with Beyonce Knowles and Male Pop
Vocal Performance for From the Bottom of My Heart. Source: New York Times,
www.nytimes.com, February 9, 2006.
September 6, 2006: Wonder was named as a Kennedy Center honoree.
Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com, September 6, 2006.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard,
Periodicals Entertainment Weekly, March 31, 1995, p. 61.
Jet, May 8, 1995, pp. 56-58; May 22, 1995.
Life, October 1986, pp. 67-74.
Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1995, p. F1.
New Yorker, March 13, 1995, pp. 78-87.
New York Times, January 25, 1995, p. C15.
Rolling Stone, July 13, 1995, pp. 82-85, 126; January 25, 1996, p.
Time, September 4, 1995, p. 76; April 10, 1995, p. 88.
Vibe, March 1995, pp. 97-98.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Motown Records
publicity materials, 1995.