Saturday, October 10, 2009

How Stevie Wonder Got His Start at Motown

By Christina Pomoni

Stevie Wonder is an acclaimed American icon and an irrefutable genius not only of R&B, but of popular music at large. Blind almost since birth, Wonder's sharp awareness of sound helped him produce energetic, colorful music full of life and ambition. Nearly all his recordings reflect his bright, cheerful positivity. Regardless if it is about racial, social, and spiritual issues or romantic uncertainty, he always finds a way to echo an underlying sense of brightness.

Born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1950, Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born premature and it was likely an excess of oxygen that worsened a visual condition known as retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) that caused his permanent blindness. However, he never allowed this as an obstacle or a handicap to his extraordinary career. His moving to Detroit in 1954 was the beginning of his exciting journey to music prominence.

His involvement in his church's choir allowed him to develop his talent in piano, harmonica and drums, which he all mastered by the age of nine. He also learned to play the bass during his early years. Eventually, in 1961, Ronnie White of The Miracles discovered Stevie while he was singing for some of his friends outside a street corner and arranged an audition with Motown's CEO Berry Gordy. Fascinated by the young musician's talent, Gordy signed Wonder to Tamla label under the name Little Stevie Wonder.

His first minor hit, 'I Call It Pretty Music, But the Old People Call It the Blues' was released in 1961, followed by Wonder's first two albums 'The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder' (1962) an orchestral jazz album highlighting his instrumental skills on piano, harmonica, and assorted percussion and 'Tribute to Uncle Ray' (1962) that featured covers of Wonder's inspiration, Ray Charles.

In 1963, Wonder released 'Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius', which featured 'Fingertips, Part 2'- the extended version of the harmonica instrumental 'Fingertips'. The track topped #1 of both the Billboard Pop Singles and R&B Singles charts, while the album became Motown's first chart-topping LP. Over the following years, Wonder studied classical piano at the Michigan School for the Blind, putting his career on hold for a while. He also dropped the 'Little' part from his name in 1964 and he released 'Uptight (Everything's Alright)' in 1965 that topped #1 Billboard Hot R&B Singles for five consecutive weeks. The magnificent journey of Stevie Wonder in music had just started.

Much like his idol, Ray Charles, Wonder had an avid enthusiasm for many different kinds of music, and did not confine himself to a sole sound or music style. He managed to master Motown's distinctive blend of soul, funk and pop by composing unique music, an idiosyncratic fusion of R&B and Tin Pan Alley chord, anchored with reggae, jazz and African grooves.

Wonder took it all and crafted it into his own artistic expression alongside his elastic voice with the unequaled melodic facility. Besides, his groundbreaking use of synthesizers during the '70s altered the setting of R&B. By employing a broad range of contrasting textures and voices, Wonder became an essential one-band man and brought R&B into the album age by producing his records as unified, unfailing statements with masterpieces that often took time to make their point.

1971 was a turning point in Wonder's career as his contract with Motown expired. He released his first self-produced album, 'Where I'm Coming From', which also marked his debut ion writing or co-writing every sing of the LP. Freed from the dictates of Motown and owner of his publishing company, Black Bull Music, Wonder began following a more personal and distinctive muse. Since then, he has been consistent in his output, even with some excesses of sentimentality, which however have not lessened the respect in which he's long been held.

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