How does talent reach “genius”? It was clear from his childhood that Stevie Wonder had talent. But from improbable leaps to improbable bounds, Wonder moved from kid sensation to pop star to legitimate, unassailable musical genius. Fifty years ago this month, Wonder entered his “Classic Period,” a run of five albums that expanded the horizons of not only his career, but also of musicians that followed. We may not know exactly how the transition to genius occurs, but in this case, we know when.
Born premature in 1950, Stevland Hardaway Morris was quickly moved into an incubator. Due to heavy amounts of oxygen exposure, young Stevland suffered from retinopathy and lost his sight. This was no impediment to his burgeoning musical talent, as he began to sing and play multiple instruments in his youth. At age 11, he had a chance to sing a song he had written, “Lonely Boy,” for Ronnie White, a member of Motown’s The Miracles. White took the young man (and his mother) to Motown to audition, and the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, signed Stevland. Producer Clarence Paul gave him the stage name of Little Stevie Wonder.
Wonder’s first album and single hit stores in 1962, and he joined Motown package tours (featuring a number of the label’s artists) that year. His first big hit was a live recording from one of those shows, 1963’s “Fingertips.” It was #1 by the time he was 13, making him the youngest artist to earn that distinction. Though it didn’t expand his musical avenues, Wonder had his profile raised by appearing and performing in two films, Muscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach, in 1964.
The following year, Wonder dropped Little and dropped his classic tune “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” Wonder entered a productive period of writing and recording his own hits, writing songs for others artists, and knocking out hit covers (like his version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”). By 1970, he’d cemented some of his classics, such as “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Cherie Amour,” and “For Once in My Life.” That year he produced himself for the first time, resulting in the #3 Pop/#1 R&B smash, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.”
By 1971, Wonder was at a crossroads. He’d gotten married, began to inject more social consciousness into his songs, and sought new inspiration. Wonder developed an interest in using synthesizers after hearing them deployed by TONTO’s Expanding Head Band. Seeking more creative control like label-mate Marvin Gaye, Wonder allowed his Motown contract to expire; however, his Where I’m Coming From album experienced a critical drubbing. Nevertheless, Wonder signed an expansive new Motown contract that gave him the kind of creative control that had allowed Gaye to make his masterpiece, What’s Going On. With renewed enthusiasm (and significantly more royalties guaranteed), Wonder set about making the album that would become Music of My Mind.
For the album, Wonder brought in Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil as co-producers. Margouleff and Cecil were the talent behind TONTO’s Expanding Head Band, which was named after the TONTO synthesizer that Cecil created. Wonder deployed the synth sound on the record, playing every other instrument except for trombone (Art Baron) and guitar (Howard “Buzz” Feiten). Released in March of 1972, the album produced one Top 40 single, “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” and hit #21 on the Hot 100. Despite being a little less successful commercially than he previous few efforts, the album was championed by critics who praised Wonder’s exploration of new sounds and his attempt to make a whole album that grappled with real-world concepts and issues, an idea that was still somewhat a rarity in pop music. Many critics believed that the disc represented Wonder’s maturity as an artist, and it currently sits at #350 on the Rolling Stone magazine list of the Greatest Albums of All Time.
The release of Music of My Mind marked the start of Wonder’s Classic Period, a five-album cycle that ran from 1972 to 1976. Before 1972 was out, Wonder, working again with Cecil and Margouleff, would release an absolute landmark album in Talking Book. Book demonstrated the impossibly wide range of Wonder’s vision, including funk landmark (and possibly Wonder’s signature tune) “Superstition,” and two vastly differently styled love songs in “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).” “Superstition” and “Sunshine” were both #1 hits, and the album went #3 Pop/#1 R&B. Adored by critics and audiences alike, the album saw Wonder win his first Grammys (Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Sunshine” and Best R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B song for “Superstition.”) Rolling Stone has Talking Book at #59 on the Greatest Albums list.
Wonder took his hot streak (and Cecil and Margouleff) into 1973. Released in August, Innervisions featured nine tracks that were completely composed by Wonder. He also played most of the instruments (including four tracks where he played everything). The album peaked at #4 while generating classic hit singles like “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City.” Wonder’s success was marred by a near-fatal auto accident three days after the album’s release; a severe brain contusion resulted after Wonder was struck in the head by a log that flew off a transport truck and went through the windshield. He was comatose for four days but would recover. Wonder would perform again by November and credit the accident for deepening his already present spirituality. As for that Rolling Stone Greatest Albums rank? Number 34.
Fulfillingness’ First Finale arrived in 1974, with the Cecil and Margouleff co-production team intact. Wonder also invited a number of other stars to provide additional vocals to various tracks, including Paul Anka, The Jackson 5, Sergio Mendes, Minnie Riperton, and Deniece Williams. The overall album was a funkier affair, even as it featured more sections of pessimistic lyrics about the state of the world. Fulfillingness’ First Finale hit #1 on the Pop and Soul charts, and resulted in #1 and #3 Pop hits in the forms of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” (a clear indictment of the Nixon administration) and “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”
Wonder closed the Classic Period with his self-produced double-album and bonus EP Songs in the Key of Life. The artist grappled with his feelings about his career prior to making the record, wondering if he should do something different like teaching in Ghana, but ultimately signed a landmark deal with Motown. The biggest recording contract in history to that point, Wonder’s deal guaranteed full creative control along with plans for seven albums over seven years at $37 million. The new set debuted at #1 on the album chart, making him the first American artist to do so. Songs “I Wish” and “Sir Duke” were #1 hits as well. For the recording, Wonder went in the opposite direction of his one-man band tracks; 130 people contributed across the 21 songs. It’s almost impossible to offer a pithy summation of the songs on Songs. Its most famous tune, “Isn’t She Lovely,” was initially unreleased as a single because Wonder was hesitant to edit the ode to the birth of his daughter for radio length. The remaining works encompass every genre available to Wonder’s vast array of powers, and artists like Prince, Elton John, Mariah Carey, George Michael, and Whitney Houston have all referred to the album’s status as both an influence and a work of greatness. The Rolling Stone list agrees, placing in at #4. To date, Songs in the Key of Life won four Grammys (including Album of the Year) and has sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Stevie Wonder has never stopped recording and releasing music. Though critics widely cite 1972 to 1976 as his Classic Period, the artist has continued to knock out songs and albums with regularity. Ironically, the biggest hit song of Wonder’s career wasn’t from one of his classic collections, but from the soundtrack for the scarcely remembered comedy film The Woman in Red. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” was released in 1984 and is still Wonder’s best-selling single. It went #1 in 26 countries, including the U.S. It’s another example of Wonder’s wide net, demonstrating that he can do simple love songs while being equally adept at confronting pervasive social issues like poverty and racism.
There’s little doubt that Steve Wonder is a musical genius. He has the accolades to prove it, and anyone who’s ever listened to his work for very long would find it hard to dispute it. Maybe we’ll never know exactly how a run like Wonder’s Classic Period is formed. Maybe it was some mystic calculus of the right time, the right social environment, and the right amount of creative freedom. Maybe it came from Wonder’s own willingness to explore and embrace new forms. Or maybe it’s magic, even if a wise man once told us that superstition ain’t the way. Whatever it is and however it happened, what remains is the evidence: five timeless albums that will remain powerful, influential, and undeniably classic.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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