EMMA Lifetime Achievement Award 2003
Composer, arranger, singer, producer, keyboardist and probably the most recognisable harmonica player in the world, ask anyone and they could name you at least one Stevie Wonder song.
Stevie Wonder was born Steveland Judkins on 13 May 1951. Placed in an incubator immediately after his birth, he was given too much oxygen, causing Steveland to suffer permanent blindness. Despite this, he began to learn the piano at the age of seven and had mastered drums and harmonica by the age of nine.
Initially ‘discovered’ by a member of the Miracles, Stevie was introduced to Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and at the age of 12 he had signed his first record deal. Taking the stage name “Little Stevie Wonder,” his first album Twelve Year Old Genius generated the No. 1 hit Fingertips (Part 2). Recorded in concert, it became the first live single in music history to reach Number One.
Stevie co-wrote almost all of his singles from 1967 onwards and began to collaborate on releases by other Motown artists. He co-wrote the Smokey Robinson and The Miracles hit The Tears of a Clown and wrote and produced the (Detroit) Spinners’ It’s a Shame.
In 1971, when Wonder turned 21, his contract with Motown expired and he took time off from his recording career to explore other directions. He built his own recording studio and enrolled in the University of Southern California to study formal Music Theory and to improve his compositional skills. Unhappy with Motown’s control over his career, Wonder recorded two complete albums at his new studio – Where I’m Coming From and Music of My Mind – which he used as bargaining tools when renegotiating with Berry Gordy.
Stevie became the first Motown artist to break Gordy’s legendary grip on performers, winning a higher royalty rate and more importantly, full artistic freedom and publishing rights. From 1972 through 1976, Wonder had hit after hit, including classics such as Superstition, and You Are the Sunshine of My Life.
In 1973, Stevie released Innervisions, which is now widely considered to be his finest work. The album proved to be not just a musical progression with unforgettable songs such as Living for the City but it also contained political and social messages that were previously rare in this style of music.
A near-fatal car crash in 1973 led him to re-evaluate his goals in life and he began to concentrate on humanitarian causes. Stevie lobbied the US federal government to create the Martin Luther King national holiday in 1982. Stevie played the Peace Sunday Concert to protest against nuclear weapons and recorded songs that urged racial harmony, Ebony and Ivory with Paul McCartney and fought world hunger, We Are the World. Wonder’s anti-apartheid work was recently acknowledged when he was invited to meet former South African president Nelson Mandela, who reportedly said, “Stevie Wonder is my son, and I speak to him with great affection.”
Wonder’s long career has been remarkable, not just for his musical genius, but his continual persistence in overcoming obstacles that have stood in his way. He once told a journalist, “My music actually speaks closer to me than anything I could ever do. If you listen to the songs I’ve written, or to the songs of others I record, you will hear how I feel. I guess it’s the deepest me. Sometimes I feel that the people who listen to my music, or the fans that I have, are closer to me than some of the people who are my close acquaintances or friends. And that’s why it’s so important to me to give you all that I’m feeling."
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