A Time To Love - Press Release
The Independent (UK)
Stevie Wonder: The vision of a genius
Ten years have passed since the former child prodigy released an
album. And he is still keeping his fans hanging on for his latest.
May 07, 2005
There are only two artists in the history of pop upon whom the
epithet "genius" has been bestowed, and it is a peculiar quirk of
coincidence that both have been blind black soulmen who played piano.
Or maybe not such a coincidence. There's every chance that Berry
Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, was deliberately trying to
establish a connection in the public mind between Ray Charles, the
original genius of soul, and his new protégé, "Little" Stevie Wonder,
when he titled Wonder's 1963 breakthrough album The 12 Year Old Genius.
It wasn't the first time he had tried to link the two talents: a
year earlier, Stevie's debut album had been A Tribute to Uncle Ray, a
collection of Charles covers which made little impact on the public
consciousness, but which did enable the child prodigy to meet his hero.
Ironically, until then he had not realised that Brother Ray was, like
himself, black - but then, how could he?
Perhaps the even greater irony is that both these entertainers, for
whom colour was essentially just a concept, would become significant
figures in the emancipation struggles of the civil rights era - Charles
leading by example in refusing to play to segregated audiences, and
Wonder creating some of the most articulate (and popular) musical
commentaries on racial inequality.
As Wonder once said, "Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes
doesn't mean he lacks vision." In such songs as "Living for the City"
and "You Haven't Done Nothin'", he robustly confronted the ignorance and
negligence of the Nixon administration's attitude towards the black
community. Rarely, if ever, have black anger and black pride been as
eloquently fused as in the string of extraordinary recordings he made
between 1972 and 1980, which includes at least three albums - Talking
Book, Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life - that can stand
shoulder to shoulder beside the pop landmarks of Pet Sounds, Revolver
and Blonde on Blonde.
Not only that, but Stevie Wonder has also extended his prodigious
talents into non-musical areas, becoming a tireless figurehead for
various humanitarian causes; and, perhaps most impressive of all, he was
the central unifying force in the campaign to have Martin Luther King's
birthday declared a national holiday.
But since the early 1980s, he has seemed a more peripheral figure on
the music scene, his recordings pale reflections of his former glory,
and the gaps between them seeming to yawn ever wider. His last album,
Conversation Peace, was every bit as tired as its title pun. That
appeared in March 1995.
Since then, he has made the occasional guest appearance,
embellishing this song or that with his distinctive harmonica, but
little was heard of his own projects until rumours leaked out last year
of a new album, A Time 2 Love. Originally scheduled for last July, its
release date has been put back several times as Stevie strove to make it
meet his exacting standards. It was finally primed to appear later this
month, but only yesterday his record label advised me it had been
postponed yet again, to sometime in June.
Stevie Wonder was born Steveland Judkins on 13 May 1950 in Saginaw,
Michigan, later taking the name Morris when his mother remarried. An
accidental overexposure to oxygen while he was in a hospital incubator
has been most commonly cited as the cause of his blindness, though some
have suggested it may have been due to retinopathy of prematurity, a
condition which affects the growth of blood vessels in the eyes of
prematurely born babies, eventually resulting in the detachment of the
As with Ray Charles, the loss - or non-development - of one sense
has been partially compensated for by the hypersensitivity of another,
with the young Steveland quickly mastering keyboards, harmonica and
drums. But the boy wonder's progress from gospel to secular music was
hugely accelerated by performances with a friend, John Glover, as Steve
In 1961 Glover's cousin, Ronnie White of The Miracles, arranged
Stevie an audition with Berry Gordy. After a brief demonstration of his
multi-faceted talents, he was signed to Motown and placed under the care
of producer/musical director Clarence Paul, who dubbed him Wonder,
reasoning that "we can't keep introducing him as the eighth wonder of
It took Stevie a few years, and a couple of albums, to establish an
identity for himself, finally breaking through in 1963 with the
chart-topping harmonica showcase "Fingertips", a live recording that
captured his natural ebullience. But further attempts to repeat the same
formula failed, and Wonder's career was put on hold the following year
while his voice broke.
When he returned as a young man in 1965, the ecstatic single
"Uptight (Everything's Alright)" smashed into the pop scene like a bolt
of lightning, announcing the arrival of a vibrant new talent mature
beyond his years. The real extent of those abilities would not become
clear, however, until Stevie turned 21 and promptly declared his
previous contract null and void, moving to New York and using his trust
fund revenues to set up his own Taurus Productions studio.
The crucial next step in Wonder's musical development came at around
the same time, when his always curious ears encountered Zero Time, an
entirely electronic album made by two studio engineers, Robert
Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil.
Intrigued by the manner in which their layered, symphonic pop pieces
belied the synthesizer's early reputation as a cold, inhuman machine,
Stevie sought the duo out, recording two albums, Where I'm Coming From
and the seminal Music of My Mind, which he then used to secure not just
an improved deal financially from Motown but also the creative control
that was only just being grudgingly accorded the likes of Marvin Gaye.
Recorded almost entirely solo, Music of My Mind set the benchmark
for use of the synthesizer in pop, Wonder using it unashamedly as a
source of new timbres and textures which were then seamlessly blended
into warm, engaging songs such as "Love Having You Around" and
For the next few years, he continued working at a prodigious pace,
but then slowed down while completing his last great work, 1976's Songs
in the Key of Life. Picking up a Best Album Grammy in 1975 for Still
Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon began his acceptance speech by
thanking Stevie for not making an album that year.
Mind you, Stevie should worry: nominated 59 times, he has won an
extraordinary 19 Grammys in his career, along with an Academy Award for
the glutinous "I Just Called to Say I Love You", which became Motown's
all-time UK best-seller. As he says, "Ability may get you to the top,
but it takes character to keep you there."
Stevie's character seemed to falter as the 1980s approached,
however. Albums would be announced, then never materialise. As fans
waited longer and longer for follow-ups, Stevie drifted further away
from both the mainstream and the cutting edge.
"I was just living and sharing life," he said recently when asked
about his recent decade-long hiatus. "That is something that we do in
the creative process when you are working on music and songs. The issue
is not why it took so long; it is how much life have you lived that
encourages and inspires you to write."
And Wonder's life has shifted substantially away from aesthetic
matters over the past 25 years, as he has become more politically
active. As well as the Martin Luther King Day campaign, he has been
involved in issues such as Aids awareness, gun control, health and
hunger programmes, the fight against apartheid, and the National
Campaign on Ethnic Tolerance. Not surprisingly, he supported John
Kerry's presidential campaign.
More recently, he has expressed his support for his fellow Motown
child prodigy Michael Jackson, offering to be a defence witness at the
But despite his serious persona, Wonder has a puckish sense of
humour that can often catch friends off guard. "He's very playful, and
very wise," says soul singer India.Irie, with whom he has worked. "He's
more silly than you would think - I'm, like, 'Stop playing!'. He and my
mom are ridiculous together!"
His own relationships have been many and various, and often rooted
in creative partnerships: many of the production techniques he used
through the 1970s were premiered on the two albums he produced for his
first wife Syreeta, with whom he wrote several songs. And Wonder is
unusual among showbiz celebrities in generally concluding his
relationships amicably - except for one ex-girlfriend, his former
wardrobe assistant Angela McAfee, who filed a £30m palimony suit against
him in 2001, claiming he had promised to support her for life, adding he
had also given her herpes. Wonder refuted both charges.
Throughout everything, his religious faith has served as the
backbone of Wonder's life. Accepting an honorary doctorate of music at
the University of Alabama in 1996, Wonder said: "Many years ago, there
were those who said, 'Well, you have three strikes against you: You're
black, you're blind and you're poor.' But God said to me, 'I will make
you rich in the spirit of inspiration, to inspire others as well as
create music to encourage the world to a place of oneness and hope and
positivity.' I believed Him and not them."
A Life in Brief
BORN 13 May 1950, Saginaw, Michigan.
FAMILY Married to second wife, Karen Millard-Morris. A son, Kieta,
and a daughter, Aisha.
CAREER Signed in 1962 to the Motown label as Little Stevie Wonder.
First chart success in 1963 with "Fingertips". Went on to become one of
the most successful Motown artists. The 1980 album Hotter than July,
dedicated to Martin Luther King, became his first platinum-selling
album. Winner of 22 Grammy Awards.
HE SAYS "The two big advantages I had at birth were to have been
born wise and ... in poverty."
THEY SAY "When he comes into a room, people adore him. He tries to
use his music to do good." Elton John