A Story Of

Stevie Wonder's Journey Through Creative Expansion

By: Mya Gibbs

A General Overview

Bibliographical PowerPoint

The Powerpoint below provides a brief description of what will be discussed in more detail throughout this page. Through extensive research the fact was proven that Stevie Wonder was able to explore his talents on a deeper level once he negotiated a new contract with Motown Records.

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INTRODUCTION

Stevie Wonder started off as a child prodigy and through the cultivation of his talent; he became musician known and loved by many people around the world. Wonder is not a person that limits himself for others, and certainly was not going to do so in his music. Stevie wanted to sing about the world and all the adversity people face from day to day, but Motown records wanted him to remain the same way he was when he was discovered at age 11. Stevie knew that he needed to loosen the grip that Motown had over his career in order to grow and form into his ideal of a change-making person. Stevie Wonder’s new contract with Motown records was the impetus that allowed him to grow and express his feelings about the world through his music.

Born on May 13th, 1950, in Saginaw Michigan, Stevland Hardaway Morris, known by his stage name Stevie Wonder, would soon become known as a musical genius to many. Stevie was born six weeks premature with an eye disorder known as retinopathy. When put into an incubator, he received too much oxygen, exacerbating the condition and leading to his blindness. At the age of four, his family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he began to show an interest as well as a gift in music. He started off singing in his church’s choir and he also taught himself to play the piano, drums, and harmonica all by the age of nine. Growing up in Detroit would later show to have a profound influence over many decisions Stevie made as an artist.

  • Moving to Detroit at the age of four was a great influence on the sounds Stevie created throughout his career.
  • An overprotective mother, caused Stevie to stay inside and learn music instead of playing outside.
  • Being introduced to Motown at such an early age, Stevie was influenced by artists such as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Miracles, Sam Cooke and even Ray Charles all before the age of 18.

Little Stevie Wonder

   In 1960, Stevie formed a duo with a friend, John Glover and the two improvised around the neighborhood together. Glover’s cousin was Ronnie White, a member of The Miracles, which at the time was Motown label’s most important act. A year later, White agreed to listen to Stevie and helped him get an audition with Berry Gordy at Motown. At the young age of 11, Stevie Wonder signed with Motown under the name Little Stevie Wonder, earning 200 dollars a month that was put into an escrow account until he turned 21. Wonder worked with Motown songwriter, Clarence Paul, to release his debut album The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder in 1962. During that same year, he released the album Tribute to Uncle Ray, in which Stevie covered the songs of Ray Charles. 

The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder

This was Stevie's first album with Motown released at the age of 12.

Neither of the albums sold very well, but after a very exposing and successful tour with Motortown Revue, Gordy took another chance with Stevie and released the live album, The 12 Year Old Genius. This album included the song “Fingertips”, which was edited into the single “Fingertips, Pt. 2”, and this became Wonder’s first number one song reaching the top of both the R&B and pop charts in 1963. Over the next year, Wonder released a few more singles, but none of them topped “Fingertips”. 

His career took a pause during his mid-teens and Stevie fell into a slump fearing the future. In efforts to get out of his slump, Stevie went to the Michigan School for the Blind and studied classical piano. The school was a source of solace from the all the drugs and politics taking place in the city of Detroit. While in school, Stevie was able to strengthen his changing voice and unlike many other child prodigies, he was able to fight through the changes and continue his career into adulthood.                 

Changes Arising

Detroit Riots of 1967

The late 60’s started a change in the Motown sound as well as in Stevie Wonder himself. On a Sunday morning in the summer of 1967, unrest broke out in Detroit. Five days of confrontation between the Detroit Police Department and the city’s black population resulted in one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in the history of the United States.

Where I'm Coming From was the album that marked the start of Stevie's creative expansion. Releasing the album despite Barry Gordy's opposition, would lead to the major change that was to come in the near future.

 During the latter part of the sixties, Stevie started to gain more control over his music by co-writing as well as producing more of his works. Some of these works were the albums For Once in My Life and Signed, Sealed & Delivered, as well as the songs “I Don’t Know Why” and “My Cherie Amour.” The year 1971 served as a major turning point in Stevie’s career. A month before his 21st birthday, Wonder released his first entirely self-produced album, Where I’m Coming From and he also co-wrote every song on the album. This album explored the sound of seventies funk with the use of his Hohner clavinet and synthesizer. Although the album was not very successful, the album served as a notice to Motown that a change was coming. Many of the songs gave commentary on racial, political and social issues taking place, for example, “I Wanna Talk To You,” portrayed a racially-charged dialog between a black man and an old white southerner, while the song “Sunshine in Their Eyes,” touched on the topic of war. 

Out With the Old, In With the New

Once 21, Wonder did not immediately renew his contract with Motown, but he instead used his earnings from his trust fund to build his own recording studio and take music theory courses at the University of Southern California. Eventually, Stevie negotiated a new contract with Motown increasing his royalty rate and he also founded Black Bull Music, a publishing company, which allowed him to retain the rights to his music. This new contract gave Stevie the artistic control he had been longing for, as he said he felt that he wasn’t able to grow and express his feelings about the world.

"I WASN'T GROWING... I JUST KEPT REPEATING THE STEVIE WONDER SOUND AND IT DIDN'T EXPRESS HOW I FELT ABOUT WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN THE WORLD."

- Stevie Wonder

    Now that Stevie full artistic control under his new contract, he was able to begin producing music that he felt allowed him to speak his mind. Music of My Mind was the start of Stevie’s new sound being the first album released under the new deal. It was not as efficacious as planned, but it piqued the interest of a new crowd, white rock fans. This album then lead to the creation of the more refined album, Talking Book, in which Stevie declared independence from the systematic Motown sound. There was a mixture of different genres throughout the album for example, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” has the sound of a jazzy ballad, while “Superstition” has funk sounds made by the clavinet. In the summer of 1972, Stevie went on tour with the Rolling Stones where he became even more popular with the rock crowd.

Exploration and Reflection

Innervisions

Deeper reflections were expressed in the album Innervisions. The song “Living for the City” expresses the systematic racism in the United States by telling a story of a boy that migrated from Mississippi to New York for new opportunities only to find himself in prison after getting caught up in the drug business. Marvin Gaye, a pioneer for Motown’s new sound, labeled this song as Wonder’s “superior musical intelligence. “Higher Ground” addresses the idea of reincarnation and to keep working until reaching the highest ground while not allowing negative people to have an influence. Innervisions reflected Stevie at his most exploratory time through his combination of funk sounds and the feelings invoked by gospel music. Within this combination, neither was diminished by the sound of the other, although both were enhanced.

            Three days after the release of Innervisions, rumors circled that Stevie Wonder had died in an accident. He did not die, but he was severely injured and in a coma after his car collided with a truck full of timber. Wonder saw this as a fulfillment of his own prophecies drawn in “Higher Ground”, as well as a blessing from God, leading to the making of Fulfillingness’ First Finale. The album was described as more upbeat from his previous one and it included “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”, a song that was a critique against Richard Nixon, and “Boogie On Reggae Woman”.                  

In 1975, Wonder signed another new deal with Motown for 13 million dollars. He wanted to expand his band, Wonderlove, and he started building his new LA studio named Wonderland. Motown wanted another album, but at this point Stevie was not inclined to rush his work. Songs In the Key of Life was released a year later and it incorporated multiple musical themes and sounds such as big band, jazz, funk, Latin, and gospel. “Sir Duke”, a tribute to Duke Ellington, and the funky “I Wish”, were the number one singles on the album, but also included on the album was “Isn’t She Lovely”, a song that lauded the birth of his daughter.

Returning to the Scene

            For three years, Stevie did not release anything, and when he did finally return to the scene with the documentary soundtrack, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, fans were not pleased. In efforts to counteract his previous failure, he came out with his next album in 1980, Hotter Than July. On this album was the song “Happy Birthday”  and this was apart of the eventually successful campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Not only did Wonder write and produce “Happy Birthday”, he was persistent in his efforts by attending rallies and fundraisers from 1979 until it was signed into law in 1983 by Ronald Reagan. Also included on this album was the number one pop single “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, which became Motown’s biggest international hit of all time and also won Stevie an Academy Award.

Fighting for a National Holiday

Stevie Wonder is pictured at the MLK Jr. March. This was another part of his campaign to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday.

COLLABORATIONS:

Stevie Wonder on tour with the Rolling Stones

 Throughout his career, Stevie had many collaborations with multiple musicians. As previously stated, he went on tour with the Rolling Stones where he expanded his audience and was said to outshine the Rolling Stones even though he was to play a supportive role. In 1982, Stevie partnered with Paul McCartney to produce the single Ebony and Ivory. The song promoted racial harmony and was featured on McCartney’s album, Tug of War. A Time to Love, released in 2005, included multiple artist features, naming a few, Prince and En Vogue in “So What the Fuss”, Kirk Franklin in “Shelter in the Rain”, his daughter Aisha Morris in “Positivity”, and Indie Arie and Paul McCartney in “A Time to Love”. He has also appeared on other albums by other artists including Snoop Dogg, Raphael Saadiq, and Mark Ronson.

Political and Social Presence

During the course of his success coupled with some failures, Stevie established numerous political and social platforms apart from his music. In 2008, Wonder showed enthusiastic support for Barack Obama during his campaign, and he also made the song “Keep Moving Forward”  urging people to elect President Obama for another four years in 2012. Stevie is also a firm believer in climate change and at A Benefit for Hurricane Harvey Relief he said those who do not believe in global warming ‘must be blind.’ Wonder is also apart of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving and he has even appeared on posters showing his support. His most recent display of political and social platform was at the Global Citizens festival in September of 2017 where he took a knee in support of football player, Colin Kaepernick, as well as in opposition of the racial injustice occurring throughout the country.

Supporting President Obama

Stevie Wonder strongly advocated for Obama during his campaign in 2008, and he continued to do so when Obama was up for reelection in 2012. Stevie even went as far as to create a song urging people to vote.

Taking A Knee

At the Global Citizens Festival in 2017, Stevie Wonder took a kneel while performing to show his support for Colin Kaepernick as well as the cause itself.

Conclusion

    Stevie Wonder started his career very early on and his success only grew larger from that point. Album after album explored different sounds and pushed many boundaries. Before resigning with Motown, Stevie fell in line with the ‘in-the-box’ standards that the company held him to although he yearned for more. Once 21, Stevie was able to sign a new contract with Motown, which allowed his creativity to flourish. No longer boxed in, Stevie was able to speak his mind about issues he believed were prevalent, especially racial injustice.

 His Detroit roots had a profound impact on his decisions as a musician as he wanted to display the many problems that were originated from the institutionalized racism established in America. Wonder was able to express his unrest through songs such as “Living For the City” as well as “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”. In addition to using his music as an outlet for his concerns, he has taken on multiple platforms to make his voice heard. In summary, Stevie’s renegotiation with Motown records allowed him to stir a change in the world through music and to grow in to the musical genius he is known as today.

Discography

Awards and Honors

One of the many Grammy Awards Stevie would receive throughout his career.
President Obama honors Stevie with the Medal of Freedom.

Other Information

Stevie Wonder has had an influence on many people throughout the world. His musical ability has only thrived even with a disability. Combinations of different sounds and his soulful tone has set him apart from other musicians. 

Stevie has worked around the world, but his main locations have been Detroit, New York, and LA.

http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/stevie-wonder-songs

https://www.allmusic.com/artist/stevie-wonder-mn0000622805/biography

                                                                                                                                   Bibliography

Brown, Jeremy K. Stevie Wonder: Musician. Infobase Publishing, 2010.

Davis, Sharon. Stevie Wonder: Rhythms of Wonder. Robson, 2006.

Hughes, Timothy Stephen. “Groove and flow: six analytical essays on the music of Stevie Wonder.” PhD diss., University of Washington, 2003.

Jarnow, Jesse. “Stevie Wonder.” Icons of R&B and Soul: An Encyclopedia of the Artists Who Revolutionized Rhythm (2008): 309.

Perone, James E. The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words and Music. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.

Shaw, Arnold. The world of soul: Black America’s contribution to the pop music scene. Cowles Book Co., 1970.

Werner, Craig. “” Heaven Help Us All”: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and the Meaning (s) of Motown in the Age of Obama.” Michigan Quarterly Review 49, no. 4 (2010): 467.

Werner, Craig. Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul. Crown Archetype, 2007.

Williams, Tenley, and James S. Brady. Stevie Wonder. Infobase Publishing, 2002.

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Copyright 2017 Mya Gibbs