Stevie Wonder: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will teach you about the life, work, and career of musical prodigy Stevie Wonder. You'll learn the story of his bright beginnings at Motown, his iconic 'classic' period, and his ever-growing catalog of hit songs.

'A Language We All Understand'

Stevie Wonder wrote this lyric (from his hit 'Sir Duke') about all music, and it definitely applies to his work. The blind rhythm-and-blues musician has been writing and recording hits since he was only a kid, and over his 50-year career has found an audience in almost every country, with people of every race, religion, and age. This lesson will introduce you to Stevie and his music, taking you through his life, his creative periods, and the hit songs he's penned over the years.

Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder in 1973.

A Child Wonder

Stevie Wonder was born Stevland Hardaway Judkins on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan a few hours north of Detroit. His birth was six weeks ahead of schedule, and complications surrounding his delivery caused him to be born blind. He moved with his mother to Detroit when he was four, and soon after young Stevie began listening to Detroit's rhythm-and-blues radio station, WCHB. He heard a wide variety of artists, including many local acts, and their music awakened in Stevie a passion for singing. Soon he was performing his favorite songs on Detroit street corners, and soon after that he received his first instrument: a four-note harmonica from his uncle. Shortly thereafter he started playing piano and drums.

By the age of 11, Stevie's talent had been recognized by the CEO of Motown Records, an up-and-coming recording studio in Detroit. With Motown, Stevie began touring and recording; his producer, Clarence Paul, gave him his stage name of 'Little Stevie Wonder.' By age 13, he had recorded his first No. 1 single: 'Fingertips,' a live recording of a tune by Clarence Paul. 'Fingertips' topped Billboard's Hot 100 chart and its R&B chart, and Stevie was on the road to super-stardom.

The Classic Period

After 'Fingertips,' Stevie had less success as his voice began to change. Motown even considered canceling his recording contract after a few hit-less years. By 1968, though, he was back! Within two years, he'd released three hit singles for Motown: 'I Was Made To Love Her,' 'For Once in My Life,' and 'Signed Sealed Delivered I'm Yours.'

This success set the stage for the 1970s, when Stevie negotiated a new contract with Motown which gave him higher royalties and greater artistic control. The next five years would see Stevie produce three chart topping albums: Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), and Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974). These three albums boast some of Stevie's best-known and best-loved singles.

Talking Book featured the groovy 'Superstition,' which reached No. 1 in the United States and was a hit overseas, as well. Innervisions included the tracks 'Higher Ground' and 'Living for the City.' The latter tackled racism and social justice, including in the middle a 60-second 'radio play' in which a black man is unjustly arrested and convicted of drug possession. 'You Haven't Done Nothin'' from Fulfillingness' First Finale was yet another No. 1 hit for Stevie.

None of the three earlier albums would match the hit success of Stevie's 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life . This album produced no fewer than three hit singles, two of which, 'I Wish' and 'Sir Duke,' reached No. 1 on the singles charts. Songs in the Key of Life was the first album ever by an American artist to debut at Billboard's No. 1 spot. This celebrated quartet of albums was so groundbreaking and influential that music historians have taken to calling it Stevie's 'classic' period. After these six years of productivity, Stevie took time away from the studio, returning to recording in 1979.

The Eighties

The 1980s began with Stevie's album Hotter Than July and a new litany of hits. 'Happy Birthday' was particularly special to Stevie: he was a vocal proponent of making Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, and had composed the song as a sort of anthem to support the cause. Later, in 1985, his album In Square Circle was yet another smashing success, featuring the hit singles 'Part Time Lover' and 'Overjoyed.'

Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach
Stevie Wonder with collaborator Burt Bacharach in 1976.

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