Even from an exceptionally young age, there was no doubt that Wonder would truly be a wonder.
At age 11, he’d already achieved what so many musicians dream of – a signed deal with Motown superstar label, Tamla. With Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles also on the client list, Stevie would be in great company. Stevie’s 1963 single “Fingertips” shot to the Billboard Hot 100 number 1 spot when he was at the tender age of 13, the youngest ever artist to top this chart. Yes, as he had only just hit his teen years, Stevie Wonder was already building the foundations for the outstanding career that lay ahead of him.
Most of Stevie’s critical success happened during the 70’s, which saw the release of the still-HUGE tunes like “You Are The Sunshine of My Life”, “Sir Duke”, “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Superstition”. His albums Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976) all won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year – yep, that’s three consecutive albums with a Grammy. He is the only artist to have ever achieved this, breaking records left right and centre.
Superstition IS the way!
Speaking of 70’s success, we couldn’t leave this iconic era of Stevie’s career from our syllabus songlists, and we certainly didn’t hold back. “Superstition” is arguably his biggest ever track (just a mere 385,277,293 Spotify streams on that one!), and you can find it featured on our Drums Grade 6 syllabus. Whilst this is an enormous accolade (humour us, please!), the song also ranked number 74 on the Rolling Stone “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, and was of course number 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 too. Stevie worked with Jeff Beck on this track. Jeff came up with the unmistakeable opening drum beat, which Stevie then improvised over. This would be the birth of “Superstition” and it really shows what a key, structural role the drums play in the tune.
Funky Keys Activism
Stevie has and always will be highly praised for his funky style of playing the keyboard, and if you thought we’d miss out on the chance to feature this within our grades then you’d be wrong! We’ve included the 1973 track from the Innervisions album, “Living For The City”, on the Grade 6 Keys songlist. Another tune that’s ranked in the Rolling Stone “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list (number 105 this time!), this song opens with an iconic syncopated keys riff, played by Wonder himself, of course. Fun fact: Stevie actually played all instruments that you can hear on this track!
However, above all, Stevie is delivering an important message to his audio-audience in “Living For The City”. The song is about a young black man who experiences racial discrimination in New York, where he is then arrested for a crime he did not commit. You can actually hear the dialogue taking place within the track, amongst other sounds of the city. By shining a light on racial discrimination within his music, Stevie could spread the word to his gigantic audience. The song won a Grammy in 1974 for Best R&B Song and for Best Male Vocal Performance.
This would not be the only time that Stevie would use his music to bring attention to his activism. He helped to campaign for Martin Luther King Day, a public holiday in the USA to celebrate the life and achievements of this great man (it would be on the third Monday of January – close to the birthday of MLK!). Wonder released his famous version of “Happy Birthday” to popularize the campaign and it worked. They ended up collecting over 6 million signatures on the petition which would be taken to Congress and passed as law – the largest petition in favour of an issue in US history!
100 million records, 25 Grammy’s and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame later, Stevie is still a living legend. To sum up the enormity of his career in one blog is frankly impossible, but celebrating his fantastic achievements is not! Now get your speakers on and blast your favourite Wonder tune… Ooooooh very superstitious…
Have you read last weeks blog yet? It's featuring the wonderful Emeli Sandé.