Stevie Wonder

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Stevie Wonder Pencil Portrait
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Last Update : 26/4/15

The young man was brought to the N.C. Baptist Hospital’s intensive care unit in Winston-Salem; his vital signs were stable but he was still unconscious. It was 6th August 1973 and the prodigious 23 year old singer, songwriter, musician and producer had been heading north on Interstate 85 on a hot dry Monday afternoon after a performance the night before in Greenville, South Carolina. The car was being driven around 1.40 pm by his cousin John Wesley Harris when it was involved in a collision with a Dodge flatbed truck. The car crashed into the back of the vehicle and the bed of the truck shattered the windshield striking the young man a glancing blow to the head as he moved forward as a direct result of the impact.

The singer’s publicist Ira Tucker couldn’t even recognize the star; his head seemed to be swollen five times its normal size and “and nobody could get through to him.”

Family and friends holding vigil at the bedside were trying to reach the young man with their words. First one visitor and then another would gingerly take his hand, lean over to his one exposed ear and gently say, “Stevie, you there?” The process of regaining full consciousness was taking awhile yet the turning point in his hospital recovery occurred when Tucker loudly began singing “Higher Ground” to the comatose singer. “Gonna keep on tryin’ til I reach my highest ground.” Tucker soon noticed the man christened Steveland Judkins moving his fingers in time to the song doing keyboard licks on the hospital bed.

Eventually he made a full recovery although he bears the facial scars to this day; within weeks the man known to millions as Stevie Wonder was back on the road.

For my money, he is unquestionably the premier artist Motown Records ever had under contract and if both Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson had a greater female following amongst teenagers, there was little doubting Wonder’s sheer musical virtuosity.

He has been recording now for fifty years and is musically revered all around the world. When his mother remarried he became Steveland Morris and was eventually taken under the wing of Motown boss Berry Gordy at the age of 10 and dubbed the boy wonder. Little Stevie grew into a six-footer, lost his Little moniker, sold 100m-plus albums, and became one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music. No less a luminary than Paul Simon was moved to thank Stevie in 1976 for not issuing an album the year he scooped the Grammy for “Still Crazy after all these years,” so overwhelming had been Wonder’s domination of the ceremony throughout the preceding years.

Newly born he was placed in an incubator and given too much oxygen. As Stevie himself puts it, “I was premature. My doctor didn’t know what’s known now about the right amount of oxygen, so I was given too much and an area of my eyes was destroyed. A girl who was born one minute before me actually died. She couldn’t withstand that much oxygen.”

He has gone on record as saying he bears no ill will towards the medical staff and recalls revisiting the hospital where he was born; “There was this big hoopla and they gave me an award. I think people were scared I was planning to sue that doctor’s ass. But he didn’t have any intent to harm me.”

Since the end of the twentieth century, Wonder has been monitoring developments in the pioneering field of intraocular retinal prosthesis. Retinal prostheses have the potential to restore some level of visual function to blind individuals. While visual prosthetic devices for the optic nerve and visual cortex also have potential application, the retinal approach offers the advantage of relatively accessible retinal neurons in the back of the eye. Biological studies have demonstrated biocompatibility of implantation and stimulation and have investigated retinal response to stimulation. Recent clinical trials have shown that a prototype epiretinal implant, despite having few electrodes contacting the retina, still allows test subjects to perform simple visual tasks. Ongoing engineering research is focusing on the fabrication of a high-resolution implant

The retinal prosthesis-a sliver of silicone and platinum that is often incorrectly referred to as an _‘eye chip’_-is attached to and sits atop the retina. It works by electrically stimulating the remaining healthy retinal cells via the array of electrodes; the retinal cells, in turn, pass on the visual information to the brain via the optic nerve.

The last seventeen years of his life have been a rollercoaster of fluctuating emotions; the deaths of his first wife, singer Syreeta Wright, who wrote the lyrics for “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” and his brother Larry Hardaway. There was joy when his second wife, fashion designer Kai Millard, gave birth to two sons, Kailand and Mandla, now eleven and seven respectively, but the couple subsequently separated in 2009 and filed for divorce in 2012 agreeing on joint custody for the children. In the past, he has described his love life as complex. Details are sketchy about his private life, and he seems to like it that way. Of his five oldest children, most appear to have been with Yolanda Simmons, whom he never married but has always remained close to. Asked in 2005 what women saw in him, the musician considered the question carefully before answering, “I think I have a nice personality. I’m intelligent, and I think I’m not hung up on myself. If you’re hung up on yourself, you are hung up.” Expressing his view that too many celebrities are self-obsessed barely begins to explain the contradictions in his life.

Wonder is now 64, heavily framed and paunched. His receding hair is corn-rowed from the back of his head down to his shoulders. He looks markedly different from the cool, skinny Afro-haired Wonder of the 70s and those closest to him are providing no favours in permitting his existing dietry habits to continue.

Recommended listening

Evets Rednow (1968)

A much maligned all instrumental release featuring Wonder on harmonica. Dismissed by many music critics as mostly overproduced fluff, the album nevertheless features the teenaged Stevie at his arresting best on “How Can You Believe,” one of his earliest compositions and “Alfie,” a tour de force in “two draw” blowing.

Music of my mind (1972)

For all my admiration of “The Funk Brothers,” it was obvious little Stevie needed to escape from the shadows of the Hitsville factory and pioneer his own individual sound.

“Music of My Mind” was Stevie Wonder’s first release after he gained complete artistic freedom from Motown Records’ “hit factory.” Re-signing to the label after his contract lapsed on his 21st birthday, no committee would tell him which track to release as a single or what cover versions to include – this was now his domain alone.

Aside from trumpet, guitar and support from his wife at the time, Syreeta Wright, Wonder played every note on this, his 14th studio album. It also marks the first time he collaborated with synthesizer pioneers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil.

“Music of My Mind” is his first real excursion into polemics which would be more fully explored on “Innervisions” and “Fullfillingness First Finale.” The closing track, “Evil,” was written at the height of the Vietnam War as response to Memorial Day. It ends proceedings on a downbeat, questioning note, and is indicative of just how far Wonder had travelled since “My Cherie Amour”.

“Love Having You Around” signposts the new territory: a leisurely, synth-driven jam with a propulsive beat, jive talk and celebratory lyrics referencing his new found artistic freedom.

The standout track for me is “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” which I recall playing endlessly on my turntable in the 70’s. Most songwriters would have been content to pen the opening half, but Wonder then hits his stride with an aching lament for ailing love, suitably adorned with tasteful soloing from guitarist Buzz Feiten that makes the hairs on your neck stand out.

Somewhat left in the shadow cast by his following two albums, “Talking Book” and “Innervisions,” “Music of My Mind” nevertheless remains a fascinating, influential listen.

Talking Book (1973)

Innervisions (1973)

Fulfillingness First Finale (1974)

Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Hotter than July (1980)

In Square Circle (1985)

A Time to Love (2005)

Sketches of life (Library of Congress 2012)

Recommended viewing

Classic Albums – Songs in the Key of Life (1996)

Another entry in the “Classic Albums” series in which the creation of landmark recordings is dissected and analysed using performance footage and the original multi track tapes. In the case of Stevie’s album, the programme is further enhanced by the man’s active participation and a live “in the studio” recreation of two of the seminal songs by the original musicians. Stevie himself reminisces about the inspiration for the album, and there are also contributions from Motown founder Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and lyricist Gary Byrd, amongst many others. Watching Wonder’s amusement at a single fluffed harmonica moment amidst his majestic solo on “Isn’t she lovely” is almost worth the price of the DVD alone for the man remains a unique amalgamation of musical genius and humility.

Stevie Wonder Musikladen/Beat Club (1974)

Currently unavailable on DVD this is Stevie in his prime performing live on German Tv. Eagle eyed viewers will spot Denice Williams on backing vocals who went onto achieve notable success in her own right as the decade progressed. Featuring Reggie McBride on bass. Michael Sembello on guitar and keys with Ollie E. Brown on drums the set list includes the instrumental “Contusion”, which would not premiere for another couple of years until the release of “Songs inthe key of Life”. Amidst a trio of crowd pleasing favourites, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”, “Living For The City” and “Superstition”. Wonder wades in with “I Can See The Sun In Late December”, a song officially unreleased to this day by the man himself yet bequeathed to Roberta Flack for her “Feel Like Makin ‘Love” the following year. Portions of this half hour set have been broadcast many times over the years and the show is now available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube.

Recommended reading

Stevie Wonder – A Musical Guide to the Classic Albums (Steve Lodder)

Lodder tells Wonder’s story from a fresh musical perspective, concentrating on his most productive period, 1971-1981. After an in-depth look at Wonder’s background and his early history with Motown, the author explores in detail the musical characteristics and influences found on the classic albums from the ’70s: Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale , and Songs in the Key of Life . In contextual terms, the narrative favours musicians more than casual browsers for Lodder is a jazz pianist himself but perseverence pays dividends as he describes Wonder’s embrace of the new 70’s technology afforded by the synthesizer and multi-tracking in order to create a series of albums as popular as their critical acclaim.


Stevie Wonder

An extremely useful resource – woefully short on commentary – but colourfully presented.