ay 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s very first promotional single. “I Call It Pretty Music, But the Old People Call It the Blues” was an inauspicious beginning. It was an A-side only, released on Motown’s Tamla label, with “audition copy” printed on the face of the 45 disc. The promo got little radio play, and when it was released for sale a few months later, it barely made a dent in the market. But the boy behind the music — Little Stevie Wonder — would become one of the most loved and most important musicians of the twentieth century. Now is a great time to reflect on this man’s genius, while he’s still with us.
Here’s our essential guide to 50 years of Stevie Wonder’s music, featuring his top releases and fun facts from each decade of his brilliant career.
For even more information, check out these great sites: unofficial UK fan site, the Stevie Wonder page at Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews, and unofficial French fan site.
1950s, Life Before Motown
Stevie Wonder was born six weeks premature, in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Put in an incubator, he lost his sight before ever leaving the hospital as a result of receiving too much oxygen. His birth name was Stevland Judkins, but when his parents split up and he moved to Detroit with his mother and siblings, his last name was changed to Morris. Little Stevie learned to play the harmonica, drums, piano, and had a decent enough singing voice that family friends convinced Berry Gordy to sign him to Motown on the Tamla music label.
1960s, Initial Success, the Singles
Little Stevie Wonder released his first two albums in 1962, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie and Tribute to Uncle Ray, as well as several singles. It was an indication perhaps of the prolific artist he would become. But he wasn’t an immediate star. Neither album was a big seller. The record label initially struggled to market the young boy, trying out different labels including “genius” and “eighth wonder of the world” to describe the spectacular talents of a young blind boy who played multiple instruments and could sing rhythm and blues.
“Fingertips – Part 2” – 1963
1963, Wonder’s star potential first shined bright. On May 21st, Motown released the single “Fingertips – Part 1 & 2.” It was a live recording of an instrumental track from Wonder’s first album. In this version, Wonder transformed the song into an energetic, fun sing-a-long. The boy had charisma — who else could turn an instrumental into a sing-a-long? “Part 2” was the hit. In it, he added lyrics and a largely improvised encore section. Wonder leads the crowd, calling out “Everybody say ‘yeah’!” and later “clap your hands just a little bit louder!” with Wonder alternately between exciting harmonica solos and soulful vocals. “Fingerprints – Part 2” was a sensation. It hit number one on both the R&B and pop charts in the summer of 1963.
But then things went quiet. His next few releases didn’t perform well. Motown continued to struggle to promote his music and the songs weren’t that great.
“Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” – 1965
Finally in 1965, he had a second hit, and then it was no turning back. Written by Sylvia Moy, Henry Cosby, and Wonder (who would create many of his 1960s hits together), “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” is a fantastic song. It features a memorable horn line, driving beat, and Wonder’s energetic singing. It tells the story of a “poor man’s son from across the railroad tracks” who falls in love with one who was “born and raised in a great big old house full of butlers and maids.” And she loves him just as much as he loves her. It’s an old theme handled beautifully.
“Hey Love” – 1967
Simple, sentimental, and lovely, “Hey Love” relies upon the soul and charisma of Wonder’s maturing voice. He connects with the listener, and the lyrics sound so true. It’s a slow, almost plodding song built over just a couple of piano chords. But it has a lasting popularity that suggests the power that exists in simplicity. It’s the last song on his sixth album, Down to Earth. The song was later sampled effectively by De La Soul on their second album, De La Soul Is Dead.
“I Was Made to Love Her” – 1967
Another hit from 1967 is the powerful mid-tempo groove, “I Was Made to Love Her.” Listen all the way to the end, and you’ll hear just before the fade out “you know Stevie ain’t gonna leave her.” Over the years, Wonder would again occasionally insert his own name into songs as an apparent ad lib, adding a little humor and personal touch.
In 1968, Wonder graduated with honors from the Michigan School for the Blind. The following year, he received the Distinguished Service Award from President Richard Nixon. Even greater achievements were just around the corner.
Continue to the next page for Stevie Wonder in the 1970s.