When asked to define himself as a musician — by Oprah Winfrey, no less — Stevie Wonder said that he was constantly curious and in love with music.
“I’m always thinking about how I can take my music to the next level,” Wonder told Winfrey in O Magazine in 2004 (note: Wonder has granted few press interviews in recent years).
“It isn’t about selling millions of CDs or making millions of dollars,” Wonder continued. “God has given me an incredible gift — the gift of music — and it’s a blessing that’s self-contained. I can go anywhere in the world with absolutely nothing and I can still find a keyboard and play. No matter what, no one can take that away from me.”
The decades of work that Wonder has built will be on display Sept. 2 when he plays a show at Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena.
Wonder’s tally of achievements — even just a partial one — is pretty astonishing. Since his debut album in 1961, he’s scored 49 top 40 singles, including 32 that went to No. 1. He’s won 25 Grammys, an Oscar and a Golden Globe (both for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” from “The Woman in Red”) and sold more than 100 million albums.
Born in 1950 and raised mostly in Detroit, Wonder was first discovered in 1961 by a member of the Miracles singing group, who took the then 11-year-old to Motown founder Berry Gordy. Wonder was signed at that early age and two years later he had his first No. 1 album (“The 12 Year Old Genius”) and No. 1 single (“Fingertips”).
The freedom of music
From that point to 1970, Wonder was one of Motown’s hitmakers, including songs like “Uptight,” “I Was Made To Love Her, “For Once In My Life” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” With his album “Where I’m Coming From” in 1971, though, Wonder broke away from Motown’s formulas and began producing his own records, and often played many of the instruments on them himself.
“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to say anything,” Wonder told NPR in a recent interview. “I wanted to just express various many things that I felt — the political point of view that I have, the social point of view that I have, the passions, emotion and love that I felt, compassion, the fun of love that I felt, the whole thing in the beginning with a joyful love and then the pain of love.”
The result of this new artistic freedom was nothing short of phenomenal: an unbroken string of top five albums from 1972 to 1985, including two No. 1s with “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” in 1974 and “Songs in the Key of Life” in 1976. There were also a bunch of No. 1 hits: “Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” “I Wish,” “Sir Duke,” “I Just Called…,” and “Part Time Lover.”
Writing from a “place of positivity”
His first album in more than a decade is long overdue, although he did talk about new music as recently as 2015, when Billboard interviewed him for a Grammy tribute he was being given.
“Since the last album I did was about 10 years ago, a lot has happened,” Wonder told Billboard. “I’m hoping to show what I’ve seen and I’m hoping it will encourage people to move to the next level that will give us a place of positivity. How long have we been talking about the planet and what we’ve got to do?”
“The fact that we’ve had (tragedies), that’s a wake-up call. ... We’ve got to have fewer people be silent and do something by their actions, by how they vote.
I just think that we’re in a time when we have to put some action behind that mouthpiece that we have.”