Most generations have a specially prodigious musical talent to inspire them. A young child who grows to create music not only to be heard but seen and felt as well. 18th century Europe had Mozart. And late 20th century America had Steveland Morris,more popularly known as Stevie Wonder. Growing up in a lower class family in Saginaw Michigan, his mother Lulu sometimes had to steal coal from the loading docks to help her family including her son Stevie,blind from birth due to an incubator malfunction. Somehow the odds were very much against this young man whose only musical outlet for a time was a toy harmonica given to him by an uncle. When he showed very strong aptitude for music, it was onto a blitz that included classical training at the Michigan School For The Blind and eventually signing with Motown records,where he still remains to this day. Along the way he has influenced artists who themselves influenced another generation after them,and also managed to be instrumental in getting Dr.Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday to become a national holiday.
My own personal experience with Stevie Wonder’s talent came from a very early memory: my mother singing me songs such as “My Cherie Amour” and “Isn’t She Lovely” in the form of lullaby’s. His album Characters from 1987 was part of my growing up and somehow always in my mind as it was played quite a lot. One of my favorites of his actually. It was not until I was 14 years old that I walked into Strawberries Record Store (now long closed) and saw a copy of his album Music Of My Mind on cassette tape. I had just enough to pick it up-at the time a five dollar bill and a quarter. I knew by this that this was his big creative breakthrough,the recording that changed the focus of his music. I didn’t know what to expect. I took it home,unwrapped it and put it into my miniature boombox. Having been exposed to everything else he recorded before and after that album since, I still never heard another album from Stevie Wonder quite like this one. He was creating music as much out of sounds-different rhythms and musical harmonies as he was in writing mere catchy melodies. Songs such as “Love Having You Around” an “Girl Blue” have sound sonic’s that are..close to unbelievable.
Hearing this made me feel something that a lot of adolescence especially during the especially glum musical ethic of the early/mid 1990’s likely felt much: pure, unadulterated joy. It reminded me of how Whoopi Goldberg described the emotion in the Star Trek film Generations-as if joy were something tangible that I could wrap myself around like a blanket. After hearing this I realized why I never needed unnatural highs,such as from a drug. Stevie Wonder tapped into his imagination to create something that everyone else could actually experience. Something that could (and should) inspire them,in their own special ways,to tell their own story. With no intended melodrama, hearing this album made me want to be a better person. It changed my outlook on reality-helped me see how too many people were ignoring imaginative and original thinking. And it started me on a quest to pursue exactly that which continues onto this day. It made me want to hear everything Stevie Wonder ever made. So from that point on whatever album I could find of his-whether from the 60’s,70’s,80’s or his current music I’d pick it up.
One of the qualities I also admired about Stevie Wonder as I grew older were the unique combination of chords and notes of the melodies in his songs. Many of them are closer to the jazz and classical method of songwriting you’d hear from a George Gershwin,Duke Ellington or Bach than you might from even the very man,another musically ingenious and un-sighted man: Ray Charles. In recent years, as I’ve begun to write my own song lyrics which now number in the hundreds it is Stevie Wonder-type song structures I tend to hear in my own mind as I write them. That brings me to the other important end of Stevie’s source of inspiration to me: his journey of self realization. In his 1973 song visions he spoke of his own awareness saying “I’m not one to make believe/I know that leaves are green”-an extremely profound revelation. This is a man who is physically unaware what “green” is. But he is still aware leaves are that color. This excellent balance of dreaminess and realism is an appealing aspect of his musical character.
Of course as much as I admire the music,I admire the man. With his very individual mixture of humanism and Christian mysticism Stevie Wonder has applied his own popularity to a number of important causes. His 1979 soundtrack to the film A Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants applied to the story of plants communicated with each other beyond our understanding. On the more tangible level he contributed mightily to help end starvation in Africa with his work on “We Are The World” and personally protesting against the Aparteid system in South Africa. Later,which his participation in the song “That’s What Friends Are For” and contributing to the Rent soundtrack, he did much to help increase HIV/AIDS awareness. Now an iconic figure who seldom records (unfortunately for me and many other of his admirers), I would like to take the time out to personally wish Stevie a happy 63rd on Monday. His birth date is not far from mines-a matter of days. As two Tauruses,though both with two different types of vision I think I understand some of the creative concepts only he seems to see. If I am right about that,I am honored. Happy birthday Stevie!
*This last video is a very rare BBC documentary about Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July tour in DC in 1980-part of his crusade to change American law to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday.