BORN: May 13, 1950, Saginaw, MI
When Stevie Wonder began recording in 1962, he was only 11 years old. Even
then, his talent was evident, although there was no sign of how deep it was.
After all, the music was the work of a startlingly gifted child; it was all
exuberant flash, with few complexities. Soon, Wonder would go far beyond
the infectious energy of "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, the overwhelming majority of which he wrote himself. During
this time, his albums were like other Motown albums -- a combination of killer
singles and pleasant filler, only Wonder was allowed to record the occasional
number that reflected his increasing social consciousness, like his hit version
of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." By the end of the '60s, he was not
only hitting the charts with his own records, but writing material for many
other Motown artists, including the Spinners' "It's a Shame" and co-writing
"The Tears of a Clown" with Smokey Robinson.
With his creativity growing by leaps and bounds, Wonder soon felt limited
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. Soon afterwards, the two albums -- Where I'm Coming From
and Music of My Mind -- were released.
Music of My Mind, especially, helped usher in a new era of soul/R&B.
Along with Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye, Wonder was responsible for making soul
and R&B albums not just collections of singles, but cohesive artistic
statements, where artists could extend their music beyond the confines of
a three-minute hit single. With his next two albums, Talking Book and Innervisions,
Wonder's music became richly complex and inventive; in addition to his musical
innovations, Wonder's lyrics addressed social and racial issues as eloquently
and incisively as any other pop songwriter. Wonder sustained his creative
peak through 1974's Fulfillingness' First Finale and 1976's Songs in the
Key of Life.
Three years later, he released the ambitious and bewildering Journey Through
the Secret Life of Plants, which received terrible reviews upon its release.
Wonder released the more straightforward Hotter Than July in 1980; the album
received substantially better reviews and became his first platinum album.
However, he wasn't able to sustain that momentum for the rest of the decade.
Although his records sold well and he scored the occasional hit -- including
the smash hit ballad "I Just Called to Say I Love You" -- his albums weren't
as focused as they were a decade earlier. By the '90s, he was still an immensely
respected musician, but his music was no longer on the cutting edge. ~ Stephen
Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide