When little Stevie Wonder’s family moved to Detroit, his mother was afraid to let her seven-year-old boy, who had been blind since birth, out of the house. And a brilliant musical career was launched. To pass the time, Wonder would beat spoons on pots, pans, and any other surface that helped him keep rhythm with the tunes he heard on the radio. As he became proficient on various real instruments, he started playing at the local church and soon grew to be something of a neighborhood sensation. His local fame reached critical mass when Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, came to hear the ten-year-old Wonder, and signed him on the spot. His first album for Motown, 12-Year-Old Genius, had a monster hit with “Fingertips, Part 2.” He hit the road with other Motown acts, and scored hits with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “For Once in My Life,” and “I Was Made To Love Her.”
Although Wonder co-produced, wrote, and played many of the instruments on his albums, Motown still maintained a stranglehold over his professional and personal life. Motown had Wonder appearing with whiter-than-white Frankie Avalon and purer-than-pure Annette Funicello in such fare as Bikini Beach. Is it any wonder that he wanted out of his contract when he turned twenty-one? The split from Motown was bitter, but by starting his own studio, Wonder was able to start exploring: he made records that combined elements of gospel, rock and roll, jazz, African, and Latin American rhythms. Wonder eventually made amends with Gordy, and Motown distributed Music of My Mind. In 1972, Wonder went on tour as the Rolling Stones’ opening act (they had been his opening act years before), and this introduction to white audiences was pivotal to his success as an adult performer.
From 1972 through 1976, he had hit after hit, including classics such as “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” “Superstition,” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” A near-fatal car crash in 1973 led him to reevaluate his goals in life, and he started to concentrate on altruistic causes: he lobbied the federal government to create the Martin Luther King, Jr., national birthday holiday; in 1982, he played the Peace Sunday concert to protest nuclear weapons and promote peace; and he recorded a number of songs that urged racial harmony (“Ebony and Ivory,” with Paul McCartney), opposed drunk driving (“Don’t Drive Drunk”), and fought world hunger (“We Are the World”). Wonder’s anti-apartheid work was recently acknowledged when he was invited to meet with South African president Nelson Mandela, who said, “Stevie Wonder is my son, and I speak to him with great affection.”
In the nineties, Wonder put together the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s controversial film Jungle Fever, and he released the critically acclaimed Conversation Peace, which was eight years in the making, but well worth the wait. Wonder’s long career has been remarkable not just for his musical genius, but for his persistence in overcoming obstacles–most notably his blindness–that have stood in his way. Witness his recent participation at a charity auction: he drove James Bond’s BMW Roadster onstage to help auction it off.