Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life
By Ifeteleola Hephzibah
Genius knows no expiration date, and definitely we hope Stevie Wonder will still treat the world to another great master blast as he celebrated his 65th birthday this year. Steveland “Stevie Wonder” Morris is an indisputable icon of American music, but in many ways is best understood as a part of a separate tradition — that of the musical prodigy. Like Mozart, Mendelssohn, Earl Scruggs, and Alex Chilton before him, Stevie Wonder composed and performed songs as a young child that inextricably transformed the contemporary landscape. By the time he was 12 years old, Wonder was an ascendant star and popular live draw. By 18 he had already experienced a full career’s worth of professional and creative triumphs and setbacks. By the 1970s, a decade he dominated with a masterful run of classic albums, Wonder had fully wed his extraordinary intuitive genius with the hard-won lessons of a calloused music business veteran.
Stevie Wonder was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950, the third of six children to Calvin Judkins and Lula Mae Hardaway. He was born six weeks premature, which, along with the oxygen-rich atmosphere in the hospital incubator, resulted in retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a condition in which the growth of the eyes is aborted and causes the retinas to detach; so he became blind. When Wonder was four, his mother left his father and moved to Detroit with her children. She changed her name back to Lula Hardaway and later changed her son’s surname to Morris, partly because of relatives. Wonder has retained Morris as his legal surname. Wonder began playing instruments at an early age, including piano, harmonica and drums. He formed a singing partnership with a friend; calling themselves Stevie and John, they played on street corners, and occasionally at parties and dances. A natural showman and sonorous vocalist, Wonder gained sufficient notoriety as a street performer that he quickly attracted the attention of executives from the local Motown juggernaut. What followed was a series of events resembling nothing so much as Harry Potter arriving at Hogwarts — the gifted wunderkind encountered skeptically by veteran wizards including Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. Label head Berry Gordy was the Dumbledore figure — sufficiently intrigued to take a chance, but worried what complications might follow. Complications did arose but he weathered them with his intricately woven songs and the joy he brought to people’s lives were unquantifiable.
Fast forward 2015, Wonder has become such a legendary figure that he was celebrated at An All-Star GRAMMY Salute,” a primetime entertainment special event presenting the iconic songbook and remarkable legacy of the 25-time GRAMMY winner. In the 56-year history of the GRAMMY Awards, Wonder is the only artist to have received Album Of The Year honors in three out of four consecutive years with Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and the seminal Songs In The Key Of Life. With a catalog that is one of the richest treasure troves in American music, his songs are still revered and influential today and his longevity as one of America’s and the world’s most respected and beloved artists is well earned.
Wonder has been married twice: to Motown singer/songwriter and frequent collaborator Syreeta Wright from 1970 until their amicable divorce in 1972; and since 2001 to fashion designer Kai Millard Morris. In August 2012, Wonder filed for divorce from Kai Millard; they had been separated since October 2009. Wonder met Yolanda Simmons when she applied for a job as his secretary for his publishing company. Simmons bore Wonder a daughter on February 2, 1975: Aisha Morris. According to Wonder, the name Aisha is “African for strength and intelligence”. After she was born, Stevie said “she was the one thing that I needed in my life and in my music for a long time. It was this in mind, she was the inspiration for his hit single “Isn’t She Lovely”. Aisha Morris is a singer who has toured with her father and accompanied him on recordings, including his 2005 album, A Time to Love. Wonder has two sons with Kai Millard Morris; the elder is named Kailand and he occasionally performs as a drummer on stage with his father. The younger son, Mandla Kadjay Carl Stevland Morris, was born on May 13, 2005, his father’s 55th birthday. Wonder’s ninth child, and his second with Tomeeka Robyn Bracy, was born in December 2014. Originally thought to be triplets, the couple’s new daughter is named Nia, meaning “purpose” – “one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa”. In May 2006, Wonder’s mother Lula Mae Hardaway died in Los Angeles, at the age of 76.
A prominent figure in popular music during the latter half of the 20th century, Wonder has recorded more than 30 U.S. top ten hits and won 25 Grammy Awards (the most ever won by a solo artist) as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award. He has also won an Academy Award for Best Song, and been inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame. He has also been awarded the Polar Music Prize. American music magazine Rolling Stone named him the ninth greatest singer of all time. In June 2009 he became the fourth artist to receive the Montreal Jazz Festival Spirit Award.
He has had ten U.S. number-one hits on the pop charts as well as 20 R&B number one hits, and has sold over 100 million records, 19.5 million of which are albums; he is one of the top 60 best-selling music artists with combined sales of singles and albums. Wonder was the first Motown artist and second African-American musician to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, which he won for his 1984 hit single “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from the movie The Woman in Red. On February 23, 2009, Wonder became the second recipient of the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for pop music, honored by president Barack Obama at the White House. On March 6, 2010, Wonder was appointed a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand. Wonder had been due to be invested with this honor in 1981, but scheduling problems prevented this from happening. A lifetime achievement award was also given to Wonder on the same day, at France’s biggest music awards. In June 2011, the Apollo Theater inducted Wonder into the Apollo Legends Hall of Fame.
With songs like “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Superstition,” and “For Once In My Life,” Wonder contributed to the soundtrack of many millions of lives worldwide. In the meantime, there is also the truth that a man’s legacy is his truest testament. Arguably no living artist has left a legacy greater than Stevie Wonder.