Imagine being born without sight. Picture living in a world you have never seen. Then visualize yourself becoming one of the greatest musicians on the planet. Not just singing, but a virtuoso with a synthesizer, and an expert at playing different instruments and performing in front of millions of people.
It would be hard to believe that any of this is possible until you read the story of Stevland Hardaway Judkins, born six weeks premature on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw Michigan. The stunted growth of blood vessels in the back of his eyes caused his retinas to detach. The oxygen pumped into his incubator made it worse, leaving him permanently blind as a baby.
Judkins was fathered by a small-time pimp, who drank too much and beat his mother. His parents divorced when he was four. It was around this time that he made his first foray into music. He began singing in a church choir and followed that up by learning how to play piano, harmonica, and drums. He soon formed a partnership with a friend named John Glover, and they began playing on street corners and at parties.
Judkins’ big breakthrough came at the age of eleven. He penned a song, called “Lonely Boy,” and performed it for Ronnie White of the Miracles, an R&B group. He had so much self-confidence that he even bragged, “I can sing badder than Smokey [Robinson].” White was so impressed by Judkins that he took him to see Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records.
Gordy signed Judkins up to a contract right away and paired him with Clarence Paul, a producer and songwriter, who gave Judkins the name he uses today. A name that will forever be written in musical lore: Little Stevie Wonder.
He recorded his first album in 1961, “Tribute to Uncle Ray,” at the age of eleven, and a second one later that year, “The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie.” Neither were particularly successful, but they provided Wonder with valuable writing and recording experience.
He joined the Motortown Revue on its first tour in 1962 and stole the show. He was such a hit with the audience that Gordy decided to release a live single, “Fingertips Part 2,” which reached number one in the Billboard Hot 100 in August, 1963, the same month that Wonder became a teenager. He was the youngest artist to ever top the chart. The single was simultaneously number one on the R&B chart. It was the first time anyone had achieved that feat.
Wonder went on to record a number of hit singles in the sixties, including “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” his first self-produced song. Things began to take off for him in the seventies. He got married and released a series of albums, including “Songs in the Key of Life,” which debuted at number one and stayed there for fourteen consecutive weeks.
He also took the unprecedented step of allowing his contract with Motown to expire in May, 1971. Wonder stood up to the biggest name in the industry, demanding more control and higher royalties. He independently produced two albums before signing a new contract with Motown that gave him rights that were unheard of at the time.
Wonder also survived a massive car accident that put him in a coma in August, 1973. He was back on tour less than six months later, showcasing an ability to rebound from adversity that would characterize much of his life.
If the Seventies was the decade that put Wonder on the map, the Eighties was the decade that cemented his status as a legendary musician and hitmaker. In addition to reeling off a number of huge hits and high-profile collaborations, Wonder lent his voice to social and political causes.
He kicked things off with “Hotter than July,” his first platinum-selling single album, which included the single, “Happy Birthday,” paying tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. He won an Oscar for “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which he dedicated to Nelson Mandela.
Wonder has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, and Sting, to Bruce Springsteen and Elton John. He has made cameo appearances on the Cosby Show and Saturday Night Live, and he has raised awareness about racism and apartheid.
He has slowed down over the last couple of decades, still producing new music and making one-off performances, as he did for Barack Obama’s Inaugural Celebration and at Michael Jackson’s memorial service. In October 2020, he released two new singles under a new vanity label, whose proceeds will be donated to Feeding America.
When all is said and done, Stevie Wonder will go down as one of the most successful songwriters and musicians in history. He was virtually a one-man band in his prime. He expanded the sound of R&B, innovated the use of new instruments, and influenced musicians in a variety of genres, spanning pop, R&B, soul, funk, and rock.
Wonder has recorded more than 30 top ten hits in the U.S., including 10 number ones on the pop charts and 20 on the R&B charts. He has sold over a million records. He has won 25 Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. He is revered by some of the biggest names in music. Kanye West aspires to match his achievements, while Elton John had this to say about him:
"Let me put it this way: Wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of Songs in the Key of Life. For me, it's the best album ever made, and I'm always left in awe after I listen to it. When people in decades and centuries to come talk about the history of music, they will talk about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder [...] he [Wonder] evolved into an amazing songwriter and a genuine musical force of nature. He's so multitalented that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes him one of the greatest ever. But first, there's that voice. Along with Ray Charles, he's the greatest R&B singer who ever lived."
Here are some things you might not have known about Stevie Wonder:
- He flew a plane from Chicago to New York, and another in Ghana.
- His mother cowrote several of his hit songs, including “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”
- He is the recipient of humanitarian awards from Poland, Hungary, Japan, and France.
- Marvin Gaye helped out on drums on his first album, “The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie.”
- Wonder was renown for being late; for example, some years ago, thirty minutes before he was due to perform in Seattle, he phoned his tour manager to let him know that he was just setting out from home in Los Angeles.
And three lessons from his life:
Seize Your Moments of Inspiration.
Stevie Wonder doesn’t go anywhere without his synthesizer. He literally has it with him all the time. When he’s on tour, his assistant sets up the hardware in his hotel room, then when it comes time for him to perform, he packs it up and sets it up in his dressing room. In doing so, Wonder ensures that he can seize moments of inspiration anytime they come to him, or as his ex-wife, Syreeta Wright, puts it, "when the heavens send.”
Wonder doesn’t force things either. If he’s not feeling a song, he will stop midway, only to return to it when he feels inspired to do so. He explains, “I have songs I wrote a long time ago and never finished. But at certain times I might think, this feels right for now, this feels good.” He started writing “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” his biggest hit, in the mid-seventies, but the song emerged in 1984, as part of the soundtrack for the movie, “The Woman in Red.”
You can’t manufacture moments of inspiration. All you can do is make sure you’re ready to capture them. Human beings perform in bursts. Inspiration comes in waves. So, carry a notebook or use a note-taking app. Always be prepared, because you never know when your next moment of inspiration may come.
Many people would not have been able to overcome growing up blind, to a single mother, poor and Black in America. But, to Wonder, none of these things were negatives. As he puts it, “Do you know, it's funny, but I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being Black as a disadvantage. I am what I am. I love me! And I don't mean that egotistically – I love that God has allowed me to take whatever it was that I had and to make something out of it.”
Throughout his life, he has greeted the world with fearless enthusiasm. As a kid, he got into fights over girls and once leaped off the roof of a shed in his backyard. As an adult, he went about his life as if he had no obstacles.
Ira Tucker, one of his assistants, observed, “He even turns the lights on and off when he goes to the bathroom. What for? I don’t know. He said it’s ’cause he hears everybody else do it. Click, you go in, click, you’re out. So, he does it, too. But he goes to the movies, runs from place to place, going out to airports by himself. And on planes people think he’s a junkie, ’cause he sits there with these glasses on, and his head goes back and forth, side to side when he feels good.”
In fact, many credit Wonder’s blindness with enhancing the power of his other senses. He had such deep sensitivity with his touch and his hearing, that it enabled him to master music and instruments more seamlessly. He was even able to fly a plane, because "the sensitivity of his hands was unbelievable," as the pilot recalled.
We have the power to turn anything into a positive. Wonder embraced his blindness, using it to develop his other senses and establish a unique persona on the world’s stage. His eternal optimism pushed him through a challenging childhood and helped him overcome a life-threatening accident later in life. Positivity opens up new possibilities.
Although Wonder will inevitably be remembered for his music, the man has been active in promoting social and political causes throughout his career. He played an instrumental role in getting legislation passed to celebrate Martin Luther King Day.
His song, “Happy Birthday,” was all about urging lawmakers to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday. In the years following King's assassination, other people's efforts to persuade Congress had failed, but Wonder teamed up with Coretta Scott King to start a petition that ultimately succeeded.
Wonder also helped shed light on the apartheid in South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s incarceration. He dedicated the Academy Award he won for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” to Mandela, and wrote numerous other songs about race, civil rights, and war.
Some of Wonder's rally speeches were at least as good as the lyrics he was writing at the time. "We need a day to celebrate our work on the unfinished symphony," he said at a rally on Capitol Hill in 1982. "A day for a dress rehearsal for our solidarity."
Success can provide you with a platform for having a positive impact on other people’s lives. Not everyone leverages their success this way, but those that do, derive a deeper fulfillment from their work and leave a more powerful legacy. Wonder will forever be associated with Martin Luther King Day. He will be remembered for more than being a supremely talented musician. And, for many of us, that means more.