This Sunday, 2nd August, marks 52 years since Stevie Wonder’s television debut. In 1963, Stevie Wonder made his network television debut at just 12 years old, performing “Fingertips” on American Bandstand. Now at 65 years old, the multi-talented musician continues to inspire people around the world; we’re celebrating his career by looking back on his life and success with Motown.
Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born on May 13th 1950 in Michigan, USA. Born six weeks premature, he suffered medical complications resulting in the loss of his sight. However, this never held him back, beginning to learn several instruments at a young age, including piano, the drums and harmonica. He began singing with a childhood friend, performing on street corners, and at parties and dances.
The Child Wonder
In 1961, Stevie performed his original composition “Lonely Boy” to Ronnie White from the Miracles. White saw potential and encouraged him to audition for Motown, where CEO Berry Gordy quickly snapped him up, signing him to Motown’s Tamla Records as Little Stevie Wonder.
Little Stevie Wonder’s first official single was released in the summer of 1962, a Berry Gordy song titled “I Call it Pretty Music, But the Old People Call it the Blues”. The debut track almost reached the Billboard 100, sitting at position 101 for a week before dropping off.
Towards the end of 1962, at the age of 12, Wonder joined the Motortown Revue touring theatres across America. His 20-minute performance was recorded in Chicago and released in May 1963 as the album “Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius”. This revealed Stevie Wonder’s first hit with single “Fingertips”, reaching number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. At 13 years old, Wonder became the youngest artist ever to reach the top spot.
Building a Career
The mid 60’s saw further success for Stevie Wonder with “Hey Harmonica Man” reaching #5 in the R&B chart in 1964. The last song released with “Little” in his name was “Castles in the Sand”, which reached #52 in the Billboard charts also in 1964. Stevie Wonder began working in Motown’s song writing department at this time, composing songs both for himself and other Motown artists, including Smokey Robinson and the Miracles number one hit “Tears of a Clown”.
Between 1968 and 1970, Stevie Wonder had several successful hits including “I Was Made to Love Her”, “For Once in My Life” and perhaps one of Wonder’s most famous tracks “Signed, Sealed Delivered, I’m Yours”.
After Wonder’s original Motown contract expired when he turned 21, he negotiated a better contract with Berry Gordy beginning in 1972. He began to experiment with albums that flowed together and lyrics dealing with social and political themes.
Reaching the Top
His success continued with album “Talking Book” which featured the no.1 hits “Superstition” and “You are the Sunshine of my life”. These tracks went on to win three Grammy Awards between them. His Grammy success continued with album “Innervisions” winning Album of the Year and 2 other awards in 1973.
The following year, Stevie Wonder released one of his most successful albums “Songs in the Key of Life”, regarded by many as one of the most accomplished albums in pop music history. The album debuted straight to number 1 in the Billboard charts, holding the spot for 14 (non-consecutive) weeks. The album included many recognisable songs including “I wish”, “Sir Duke” and “Isn’t She Lovely?”; famously written about his daughter Aisha. Wonder’s Grammy success also continued, with the album winning Album of the Year and two other awards. The album has been credited in the Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Stevie Wonder reached the peak of his fame in the 1980’s with multiple charity participations, artist collaborations and television appearances. He also made his mark in the political field, helping to organise a rally in Washington in 1981 in support of making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. Wonder was a key figure in establishing the public holiday in America, headlining a large celebration concert on the first MLK day on the 20th January 1986.
Throughout the 1980’s Wonder’s career boomed, including several songs for movie soundtracks including “Stay Gold” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (which was a number 1 hit in the UK as well as in the US). He has since featured in many other artist’s tracks, playing harmonica and singing, including Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand.
In recent years, he has performed at Michael Jackson’s memorial service, Etta James’ funeral and at Whitney Houston’s memorial service. On the 16th October 2011, Stevie Wonder performed his single “Happy Birthday” at the dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Stevie Wonder: The Legacy
Stevie Wonder has undoubtedly inspired many artists around the world, creating a wealth of timeless music over his 50 year career so far. With more than 30 U.S top ten hits and 25 Grammy Awards, Wonder has created a music legacy. To honour his success, he has also been awarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award, an Academy Award for Best Song and been added to the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame.