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The Music Diaries | The blind genius - Stevie Wonder

Published:Friday | May 18, 2018 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
A young 'Wonder Boy'.
Stevie Wonder defied the odds, learning to play multiple instruments.

Blindness is often looked at as an impediment to progress by the sighted, but for some blind persons, it is more of a motivational tool.

One person who has used blindness for motivation is Steveland Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder, who, for 55 of his 68 years on Earth, has defied all odds to become one of the most versatile and accomplished entertainers in music history.

He was born with the last name Judkins. Motown named him Wonder, and then he adopted his mother's family name Morris, which he uses in his business transactions. Although he was considered a 'wonder boy', it was certainly no wonder that he became known as 'The blind genius', one of two individuals in music bestowed with that title, the other being Ray Charles.

No extraordinary sighted person in music history has been as well known for having mastered drums, piano, and the harmonica before reaching the age of 13. Wonder did it, and in the process, emerged as a pop and soul superstar.

Born in Saginaw Michigan, United States of America (USA), Wonder celebrated his 68th birthday last Sunday, which makes this retrospective particularly timely. In a mild celebration, music fans from around the world joined to wish him a happy birthday. There was also talk about a set of shows planned for Las Vegas this summer. Maintaining a busy schedule that shows no signs of relenting, Wonder is currently working on a new album, Through The Eyes Of Wonder.

He lost his sight shortly after birth, owing to a problem with his incubator, and immediately, his mother took him to a faith healer, but apparently to no avail. Observing an innate ability to catch on to musical sounds, she bought him a piano and a harmonica, and he quickly learnt both instruments. By then he had moved to Detroit and his parents were divorced. The gospel influence of the Church and Rhythm and Blues (R & B) balanced his musical perspective, and soon, Wonder was attracting the attention of music executives. A chance meeting with Ronnie White, a member of Smokey Robinson's Miracles, led to an audition with Motown Recording Company. Armed with his harmonica, he impressed Motown executives and was signed to the label at 12 years old.

Motown marketed him first as 'Little Stevie Wonder' on his debut smasher Fingertips Part 2, the following year. He seemed quite aware of how he was viewed by the public at the time as he spoke with biographer Leonard Pitts Jr "It's kind: of a stereotype. Sometimes I do feel that with blindness, I am able to say things that, say, had another black person said, they would not necessarily get airplay."

By age 15, the blind genius began to display another side of his musical skills - his songwriting prowess - which he displayed in the recording Uptight (Everything's All Right) in 1965. With Wonder becoming a crossover favourite, a string of R & B top 10 hits followed: I Was Made To Love Her (1967), For Once In My Life (1968), My Cherie Amor (1969), and Signed, Sealed Delivered I'm Yours (1970).

He wrote, or co-wrote, almost, all his recordings during this period, in addition to some for other Motown artistes, including the Spinners' It's A Shame and The Miracles' only number one hit, Tears Of A Clown. His humanitarian principles came to the fore on Ron Miller's A Place In the Sun and Bob Dylan's Blowing In The Wind in 1966. In the last cut, Stevie asks the poignant questions:

"How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

And how many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

And how many times must those cannonballs be fired

Before they're forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind."

When Stevie's contract with Motown expired in 1971, rather than re-signing immediately, he ventured into areas that sought to give him more artistic control and publishing rights over his works. It involved more ambitious musical forms like the use of the synthesizer and his playing of all the instruments. With this and other moves, Wonder had neatly forced Motown into a new contract. It involved the establishment of his own publishing company, Black Bull Music, which allowed him publishing rights to his music and overall artistic control of his recordings.

In the meantime, Wonder was widening his lyrical content to include racial issues and matters concerning black liberation. He then moved in another direction by employing polyrhythmic funk for the first time in the recording of Superstition in 1972 and followed up with the creative ballad You Are The Sunshine Of My Life. Involved in a near-fatal auto accident in 1973, Wonder's next set of songs reflected his awareness of mortality.

In 1984, he earned a record five Grammys, while the 1976 album Songs In The Key Of Life was widely acclaimed as his most ambitious work. After a three-year hiatus, he returned with the album Hotter Than July, which highlighted the reggae-influenced Master Blaster. Moving in a pop direction, Wonder teamed up with Paul McCartney to produce the smasher Ebony and Ivory in 1982. Two years later, he hit even harder with his biggest selling hit to date: I Just Called To Say I Love You. Wonder proved himself a champion of black rights when he lobbied in the early 1980s to have the birthday of Dr Martin Luther King declared a public holiday. It was formally instituted on January 15, 1986.