The Kennedy Center

Stevie Wonder


Stevie Wonder
(singer and songwriter; born May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan)

Stevie Wonder has been an integral part of the world of music for the past four decades, as a singer, songwriter, musician and producer. The boy wonder burst onto the music scene when he was just ten years old, and his mission ever since has been to bring joy into people's lives. "He has been pop music's unquenchable optimist for nearly a generation," said The New York Times in 1986. "His skills at writing sinuous melodies and gently uplifting harmonies, and his cheerful yet determined eclecticism - from funk to ballads, bossa nova to quasi-showtunes - have made Mr. Wonder a one-man Tin Pan Alley through two decades of rock."

Since his prodigious beginnings, Wonder has grown into an artist who combines musical innovation with political activism. The magic of his music is matched by his passionate commitment to political causes and charities. As much a teacher and leader as a supreme entertainer, he was an early and outspoken critic of apartheid in South Africa and has also been deeply involved in the global war against famine. "I love touching people with love songs," explains Wonder, "but I also want to reach people's consciences and trigger some emotion on matters other than the heart."

Blind since birth, Wonder sang like a seasoned veteran even as a toddler, and at age 7 he had mastered the harmonica and drums. At 11, he had a contract with Motown that led to the birth of "Little Stevie Wonder." Wonder and his label hit the jackpot in 1963 with "Fingertips-Pt. 2." In two years he became one of Motown's finest artists, recording a series of brilliant singles for a solid nine years. By the end of the '60s, he was not only hitting the charts with his own records - including "Uptight," "Castles in the Sand," and "My Cherie Amour" - but also by writing for many other Motown artists, including "It's a Shame" for the Spinners and co-writing "The Tears of a Clown" with Smokey Robinson.

Wonder's creative spirit soon felt constricted by Motown's strict production and publishing contracts. When his record contract expired in 1971, Wonder recorded two full albums by himself and used them as a bargaining tool during contract negotiations with Motown. The record label gave him total artistic control of his albums, as well as the rights to his own songs.

In that first decade of his artistic emancipation which began in 1972, the singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist released seven classic albums: Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, Songs in the Key of Life, The Secret Life of Plants, and Hotter Than July. The hit singles that emerged from this period include "Superwoman," "Superstition," and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." Music of My Mind, especially, helped usher in a new era in which soul and R&B albums became not just a collections of singles anymore, but a cohesive artistic statement, in which artists could extend their music beyond the confines of a three-minute hit single. Wonder's lyrics began to address social and racial issues as eloquently and incisively as any other artist or social activist.

And social activism became increasingly important to his career and his life. He lobbied the federal government to create the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday; he performed in concerts to protest nuclear weapons and promote peace; and he recorded songs that urged racial harmony ("Ebony and Ivory," with Paul McCartney), opposed drunk driving ("Don't Drive Drunk'), advocated stiffer handgun control laws ("My Love Is With You"), and fought world hunger ("We Are the World").

During the past decade, Wonder put together the soundtrack for Spike Lee's Jungle Fever and he released the critically acclaimed Conversation Peace.

His work has earned him 17 Grammy Awards and an Oscar for "I Just Called To Say I Love You" from the 1984 film The Woman in Red. He has sold more than 70 million LPs and ranks alongside The Beatles and Elvis Presley in having the most Top Ten records.

Stevie Wonder is a true American phenomenon.

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