He’s the man behind the song “I Just Called to Say I Love You”—a song he fore knowingly predicted to become a hit. Even before the song was released Stevie was already convinced that it would captivate the public. Not only did it become a huge hit, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is now considered a classic.
Stevie’s Early Biography
Unbeknown to many, Stevie was not born blind. On 13 May 1950, Lula Mae was rushed to the hospital after her water bag suddenly broke two months prior her due date. They named the premature baby boy Stevland. To save his life, he was put in an incubator shortly after coming out of Lula Mae’s womb. Unfortunately, the incubation exposed the infant to too much oxygen, which resulted in the scarring of his retina. Doctors called his case retrolental fibroplasia, but for Lula Mae, it was simply blindness. Her baby boy’s sight can no longer be restored, and so she was told.
Not a woman who would easily take “no” for an answer, Lula Mae took her son to several specialists and faith healers. They attempted to heal the boy, raising Lula Mae’s hopes up only to be repeatedly told that Stevland was beyond help. Stevie, as his mother fondly called him, did not see his blindness as something to brood about. To him, having a happy family was enough of a blessing. He and his five siblings were fortunate to have a responsible mother in Lula Mae. The head of the family, Calvin Judkins, became more of a burden for his spouse. When Stevie was four, Lula Mae left him and brought the rest of her children with her to Detroit.
She dropped her husband’s last name and reverted to being called Lula Mae Hardaway, while her kids’ last name was changed to Morris.
As Stevie was surrounded by loving family members, he did not feel that something was wrong with him. Whenever his brothers and sister climbed trees, Stevie went with them. It was pretty much a normal childhood as far as Stevie was concerned. The little boy had no notion of his impairment.
The first time he heard of a derogatory remark concerning his color, he did not understand why people made so much fuss about skin tones. No one can expect a blind boy to understand how the world’s perception can be easily twisted by what society labels superior and otherwise.
When Stevie was around nine years old, Lula Mae is yet to give up hopes of restoring her son’s eyesight. The consultations soon made Stevie weary. He detested having to hear the sad news over and over again and finally summoned the courage to tell his mother, “Enough.” He told Lula Mae after yet another trip to a faith healer, "Maybe God doesn't mean for me to see. Maybe God meant for me to be just something else.”
Stevie may have been denied eyesight but his sense of hearing was exceptional. When Stevie was but a toddler, Lula Mae was surprised to see her blind son sitting atop the kitchen counter playing with pots and pans. It became a regular thing for Stevie who was peculiarly drawn to sound of any kind.
Knowing how much of a music junkie he is, his uncle gave him a harmonica and a toy drum set for Christmas presents. Stevie innocently asked his uncle what the holes in the harmonica are for. As soon as he discovered how to make music out of it, the harmonica became Stevie’s favorite toy. It did not take long before he became proficient in playing the harmonica.
Lula Mae encouraged her son to dream, but the boy often heard people around them saying that his blindness was a curse and that he must forget about pursuing a career other than making potholders. Taking after his mother, Stevie was not disheartened by their remarks. Instead, he felt compelled to prove all of them wrong.
Life was not easy for Stevie’s single parent whose only source of income was a low–paying blue–collar profession. It was hard to imagine how Lula Mae managed to raise her six children all by herself. Challenging as it was for Lula Mae, she was ready to give her all to her children especially to her little Stevie.
But Lula Mae was also well aware of how bleak their future looked. Her wage was hardly enough to support her growing children. Stevie also needed special care and to send him to a special school would cost an arm and a leg. However, Lula Mae did not let her children see her growing anxiety. She kept on motivating them to give their all in whatever they do to excel in their chosen field.
Since Stevie’s heart was in music, Lula Mae built her son’s self-confidence by commending him whenever he entertained the family by singing and dancing for them. Back when he was a kid, Stevie already had a knack for performing. He was definitely a scene-stealer and a delight to watch and listen to.
Stevie Gets Discovered
His private performances were anticipated by his mother and siblings. One fine day while he was enthusiastically performing for his most indulgent fans, Gerald White overheard him singing. As fate would have it, Gerald was Ronnie White’s brother. Ronnie is a member of Motown’s talent, The Miracles. Gerald couldn’t believe his ears and bravely knocked on Lula Mae’s door. Upon seeing the little performer, Gerald couldn’t believe his eyes. He excitedly told Ronnie about Stevie. But his brother was too busy with his own career to bother. Gerald did not stop bugging him and Ronnie agreed to see the wonder boy he was excitedly talking to him about just to get his annoying brother off his back.
His annoyance turned into delight after hearing Stevie sing. It was all worth the trouble. Now, the next step is to introduce Stevie to Berry Gordy, The Miracles’ handler and owner of Tamla Records. As a cunning businessman, Berry was not so taken by the blind boy’s talent in singing. The music industry was already teeming with young talents and unless Stevie proves that he had that x-factor, Berry won’t consider giving him a contract. All throughout the boy’s audition, Berry was only half-listening—until Stevie began playing his harmonica.
Stevie Releases His First Set of Songs
That convinced Berry Gordy to make Stevie a Motown Talent. They agreed to call him Little Stevie Wonder. The first single he released under the Tamla label of Motown was “I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues.” It hardly did anything to launch Little Stevie Wonder to stardom. With the help of Paul Clarence, Stevie wrote his other singles, “The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie” and “Tribute to Uncle Ray.” It was almost ignored by the public. They then released his third single “Little Water Boy” written by Lamont Dozier. Their third attempt to market Stevie was relatively successful only in a couple of states.
They were beginning to panic, so was Stevie. He knew that he cannot be “Little Stevie Wonder” forever. Pressure slowly built up around Stevie as he became worried each day of having no progress taking place in his dreary career.
The Song that Made Him Famous
Stevie basically made a living out of going with Motown bands to play live in Detroit clubs. In one of their gigs, they played “Fingertips” live. The band tweaked the notes of the music and Stevie got carried away. He started yelling, “Everybody say yeah,” and the audience actually did!
He officially became famous in 1963. He was only 13 years old, yet his schedule resembled that of a company CEO. School became a burden to Stevie when he started getting preoccupied with his career. It came to a point when Stevie was asked by the school to choose between studying and singing. Stevie was not ready to give up going to school, but his career was as important to him as studying. Stevie was in a quandary. Lost and confused, he turned to God for help, praying not to allow his career to come to an end.
Ted Hull becomes Stevie’s Eyes
Ted Hull was an answered prayer. In order for Stevie to keep on performing, they looked for a tutor who would be willing to go with him. Ted, partially-blind himself, felt a strong attachment to the boy. He agreed to Motown’s terms and Stevie was relieved to keep his career.
Stevie loved Ted. He became the child’s eyes and Stevie learned a lot of things other than rudimentary school subjects from his faithful teacher. Ted also taught him about girls and cultural differences. Life became more fun with Ted around. His other mentors were Motown talents and staff, like Clarence Paul, Esther Edwards, and Ardena Johnson. They all became parents to the adorable Stevie.
The time Stevie was dreading came in 1965. He was 15 years old and his voice began to change. The notes he had easily sung before became a struggle to reach. For a time, Stevie was gripped with fear, thinking that his voice was gone for good. Along with the change in his voice was Stevie’s growing interest in the opposite sex. Unable to see, Stevie got to know girls by talking to them over the phone.
List of Little Stevie Wonder’s Songs
Despite his hectic schedule, Stevie proved to be a good student. He got remarkable grades, which made Ted Hull really proud. What was not looking good though was his career. None of his songs were doing well in the charts. He was yet to make a name in his own country, unlike in Great Britain where “Hey Harmonica Man” made it to the UK Top 30 at number 29. After five albums, Stevie began asking himself if he was nothing but a one hit wonder.
His assumption was proven wrong when his sixth album “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” was released in 1966. Among the singles that made it to the UK chart were “Nothing's too Good For My Baby,” “Blowin' in the Wind,” and “Uptight.” “Uptight” secured the 14th spot in the UK chart and it commenced Stevie’s legendary music career.
“Down to Earth” soon saw its release, becoming yet another hit with singles getting included not only in the UK top 20 but also in the R&B charts. He met his first love, Angie, when he was 17 years old. In love for the first time, Stevie created the song “I Was Made to Love Her” with the help of his lyricist Sylvia Moy. The single resonated with profound emotions and it became his first song to become number one in R&B and pop charts in the UK and the US. “I Was Made to Love Her” was also the first song of Stevie that was included in the UK top 10 charts at number 5.
Though quite impossible to believe, Stevie was able to graduate from Michigan School for the Blind with honours in 1968. Ted was the proudest of Stevie apart from Lula Mae when he was awarded the distinction and received his diploma.
His career was also looking good with “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da Day” garnering a spot in top 10 charts all over the country and overseas. It was in that same year that Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Because of the outcry it generated, Stevie was among the first to lobby against the apartheid movement.
An album named “Eivets Rednow” was also released that year with four of the singles written by the already popular Stevie Wonder. Contrary to what they expected, the album’s sales fell short. People did not identify the album with Stevie Wonder and Motown Records did not do enough to enlighten the public.
Rather than sulk, Stevie decided to remake the song “For Once In My Life.” His cover was a success and it even topped his record for the single “I Was Made To Love Her.” “For Once In My Life” landed on number 3 in the UK charts.
Falling in Love and Getting Married
The hit single was followed by “My Cherie Amour” inspired by his girlfriend named Marsha. Marsha was Stevie’s love while the album was under production and it was supposed to be entitled “My Marsha.” Unfortunately his Marsha did not see the release of the album. The two broke up before it reached plugging stage. Sylvia Moy changed the title to “My Cherie Amour.” Although broken-hearted, Stevie had all the reason to celebrate when “My Cherie Amour” garnered the second spot in the UK chart breaking all records he previously made.
The icing on the cake of Stevie’s 1968 career was a call from President Richard Nixon inviting him to receive his Distinguished Service Award at the White House.
Writing the Lyrics of Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Two years later, Stevie married Syreeta Wright, a fellow artist. The two met when Stevie heard Syreeta sing and arranged for collaboration with her. Their partnership soon went beyond professional engagements. After they were married, Stevie wrote his famous song, “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered.”
Who has not heard of that? “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered” broke his previous records and is still being played up to this moment every now and then—a timeless hit as it is now called.
A Happy and Liberating 21st Birthday
After Berry Gordy threw a lavish birthday party for him to celebrate his turning 21, Stevie informed his handler of his desire to become an independent artist. He no longer wanted custody of his career to be in the hands of Motown. Stevie wanted to start writing the songs he likes without having to seek anybody’s permission. Berry did not take the matter lightly. He was furious at first, thinking of Stevie as an ingrate.
As much as he was hurt by Stevie’s decision, Berry knew that his Little Boy Wonder was already of age to decide matters on his own. After leaving Motown and receiving a measly 1 million dollars out of the 38 million dollars he made, Stevie started his own musical production. He headed to New York, the mecca of modern musical equipment. That’s where the blind crooner met Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. Both played a key role in Stevie’s love of synthesizers. The first album he made was “Music Of My Mind.” It was nothing like what he used to sing under the Tamla label.
Working with Motown Once More
The album was new to the ears of the public and it took time before they got to appreciate Stevie’s experimental music. Stevie then spoke with his ex-studio for a possible collaboration. Motown knew how big Stevie Wonder had become and they couldn’t let the rare opportunity pass. Doing business with him again resulted in a 17–page contract.
Stevie was back in Motown and it was the beginning of more contemporary music productions. Before Stevie became famous, black artists were not given due accommodation extended to their white contemporaries. Stevie changed that practice thereby making way for more colored performers to brave joining the music industry.
The Rolling Stones Tour and Divorce
His album “Talking Book” required him to tour with the Rolling Stones, an infamous rock band known for their doping and rascal behavior. Stevie did not let the band’s image tint his immaculate record. He enjoyed collaborating with Rolling Stones and managed to stay away from drugs. His stand on substance dependence was very apparent in his songs.
By the time he went with Rolling Stones, Stevie and Syreeta had filed for divorce. They remained friends despite their marriage’s failure. Syreeta worked with Stevie in some of his singles following their separation.
“Superstition” took the world by storm and earned him his first Grammy Award. "You are the Sunshine of My Life" was also awarded Best Pop Vocal Performance in 1973. In August of the same year, Stevie got into a vehicular accident which almost took his life. He gave himself a month and a half to recover then worked on his next album, “Innervisions.” It ended up as Album of the Year.
Writing the Lyrics of Isn’t She Lovely for First Baby
Yolanda Simmons became Stevie’s lady love after his divorce with Syreeta. In 1975, she gave birth to Aisha Zakia to whom he dedicated his song “Isn’t She Lovely.” In 1977, Stevie became a father once more to a boy they named Keita Sawandi. He collaborated with Paul McCartney to produce the anti-apartheid song, “Ebony and Ivory” in 1983. Stevie became one of the most enduring forces of the anti-racial discrimination movement that peaked after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King. In 1985, he was even arrested for taking part in a demonstration. When he won the Oscar for his “I Just Called to Say I Love You” single, Stevie dedicated it to the imprisoned South African leader, Nelson Mandela.
Receiving Grammy Awards and the Ambassador of Peace from the UN
More Grammy awards came and in 1996, they gave Stevie a Lifetime Achievement Award. Two years later, he received the Ambassador of Peace Award from the United Nations. In 1999, his contribution to the music industry was recognized by the United States when he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors. Another award from the US government came in 2008—Stevie became the recipient of the Gershwin Prize given by the Library of Congress. Then the United Nations saw him to be a fitting Ambassador of Peace, a title given him in 2009.
He has recently divorced Kai Millard, his wife of 11 years. They got married in 2001, which ended in a divorce in 2012.
Stevie is blind and yet he accomplished more than any sighted artists ever had. He was unperturbed by his lack of sight. Considered one of the greatest artists of all time, Stevie Wonder is an esteemed figure in the music industry and in the political arena. When President Barack Obama campaigned for his second term, Stevie was one of the influential people who endorsed him.
Stevie also goes out of his way to contribute to worthy causes and raise funds for victims of natural calamities. He was right when he said God did not mean for him to see. God used him to inspire others to reach for their dreams in spite of physical limitations. Since his rise to fame, we would see Stevie participate in “wonderful” things not as a little kid but as a responsible and caring individual who need not see to feel and do something to provide for the needs of others.
If a blind person can do that, how much more people like us who can very well see poverty and suffering?
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- Andre Agassi Foundation for Education
- American Foundation for AIDS Research
- Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes
- Children in Need
- Children's Health Fund
- City of Hope
- Elton John AIDS Foundation
- Entertainment Industry Foundation
- Fulfillment Fund
- GRAMMY Foundation
- Habitat For Humanity
- Hearts of Gold
- Music for Relief
- Nancy Davis Foundation for Multiple Sclerosis
- Robin Hood
- Special Olympics
- Stand Up To Cancer
- Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF)
- Dr. King Jr.'s National Holiday
- Anti-apartheid movements
- House Full of Toys
- 1963: Became the youngest artist to have a #1 single in Billboard Hot 100
- 1968: Received the US Distinguished Service Award
- 1973: Won the Best Rhythm & Blues Song Award (Superstition)
- 1973: Named Best R&B Vocal Performance (Male Category)
- 1973: Named Best Pop Vocal Performance (Male Category)
- 1973: His album Innervisions was named Album of the Year
- 1974: Received the Presidential Award
- 1974: His song "You are the Sunshine of My Life" became the Best Rhythm & Blues Song
- 1974: Won a Grammy Award
- 1974: Named Best Male R&B Vocal Performance
- 1974: Named Best Male Pop Vocal
- 1974: His album Fulfillingness' First Finale was named Album of the Year
- 1975: Won his second Grammy Award
- 1976: Awarded the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance
- 1976: Awarded the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance
- 1976: Named Best Producer of the Year
- 1976: His album Songs in the Key of Life was named Album of the Year
- 1983: Inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame
- 1984: Received an Academy Award for Best Song
- 1984: Received the Founders Award from ASCAP
- 1985: His single I Just Called to Say I Love You won Best Original Song in the Oscar Academy Awards
- 1985: His single I Just Called to Say I Love You won Best Original Song in the Golden Globe Awards
- 1985: Named Best Male R&B Vocal Performance
- 1985: Named Artist of the Decade by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers
- 1986: Won Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal
- 1986: Received the W.C. Handy Award for "Outstanding Humanitarian Efforts" from Black Gold Awards
- 1989: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- 1990: Received the Honorary Global Founders “Don’t Drive Drunk” Award
- 1994: Earned his "star" in the Hollywood Walk of Fame
- 1995: His song "For Your Love" was named Best Rhythm & Blues Song
- 1995: Named Best Male R&B Vocal Performance
- 1996: Awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences
- 1998: Named Best Male R&B Vocal Performance
- 1998: "St. Louis Blues" was named Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocal(s)
- 1998: Received the Ambassador of Peace Award from the United Nations
- 1999: Recipient of the Polar Music Prize
- 1999: Youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors
- 1999: Named MusiCares Person of the Year by the Grammy Awards Committee
- 2001: Received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Ivor Novello Awards (UK)
- 2002: Received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters Hall Of Fame
- 2002: Love's in Need of Love Today" won the Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals
- 2002: Awarded the George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2002: Received Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame
- 2003: Recipient of the Walk of Fame Honor
- 2004: Awarded by Billboard with the Billboard Century Award
- 2004: Considered by the Rollingstones at the 15th Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of All Time
- 2004: Received the Artistic Achievement award from the T.J. Martell Foundation
- 2004: Received the Lifetime Achievement from Billboard Century Award
- 2005: Awarded the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance
- 2005: "So Amazing" won the Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals
- 2005: Awarded by the City of Detroit with a Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2006: Included in the Michigan Walk of Fame
- 2006: Awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Civil Rights Museum
- 2006: Received the National Artistic Achievement Award
- 2006: Received the Maria Fisher Founder's Award for Public Service
- 2006: Received Legends in Songwriting Award
- 2007: Received American Troubadour Award
- 2007: Received Living Legend Award
- 2007: Received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Civil Rights Museum
- 2007: Received the Hope of Los Angeles Award
- 2008: Received the Hall of Fame Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
- 2008: Landed number 5 in Billboard's Hot 100 All-Time Artists
- 2008: Awarded the Gershwin Prize by the Library of Congress
- 2009: Made UN Messenger of Peace
- 2009: Received the Spirit Award at the Montreal Jazz Festival
- 2010: Appointed by French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand as Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters
- 2010: Received a Lifetime Achievement Award from California's African American Museum
- 2010: Received the AAPD Image Award from The American Association of People with Disabilities
- 2010: Awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Oberlin College
- 2011: Awarded an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degree by the Tulane University
- 2011: Inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Apollo Theater
- 2012: Included in The SoulMusic Hall Of Fame
- 2012: Received the Musical Arts Award from BET Honors
- 2012: Received the Icon Award from Billboard
- 2012: Received the Distinguished Individual Award from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF)
- 1973: His song "Superstition" was named Best Rhythm & Blues Song
- 1973: He was awarded Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for his song "Superstition"
- 1973: He was awarded Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male for his song "You are the Sunshine of My Life"
- 1973: "Innervisions" became Album of the Year
- 1973: Named Best Producer for "Innervisions"
- 1974: He was awarded Best Rhythm & Blues Song for "Living for the City"
- 1974: He was awarded Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "Boogie On Reggae Woman"
- 1974: He was awarded Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Fulfillingness' First Finale"
- 1974: Fulfillingness' First Finale became Album of the Year
- 1974: He was named Best Producer for "Fulfillingness' First Finale"
- 1976: He was awarded Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "I Wish"
- 1976: He was awarded Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Songs in the Key of Life"
- 1976: He was awarded Best Producer for "Songs in the Key of Life"
- 1976: "Songs in the Key of Life" became Album of the Year
- 1985: He was awarded Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "In Square Circle"
- 1986: He was awarded Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal (along with Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight) for "That's What Friends Are For"
- 1995: Awarded Best Rhythm & Blues Song for "For Your Love"
- 1995: Awarded Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "For Your Love"
- 1996: Received Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
- 1998: Awarded Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocal(s) with Herbie Hancock and Robert Sadin for "St. Louis Blues"
- 1998: Awarded Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "St. Louis Blues"
- 2002: Awarded Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals with Take 6 "Love's in Need of Love Today"
- 2005: Awarded Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "From the Bottom of My Heart"
- 2005: Awarded Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals with Beyoncé Knowles for "So Amazing"
- 2006: Awarded Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals with Tony Bennett for "For Once In My Life"