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Ouch Q&A #20: Stevie Wonder

by Ivy Broadhead

20th August 2007

As musician Stevie Wonder embarks on his first tour since the mid 90s, we take a whistlestop journey through the life and career of the blind soul legend.

Q: Who is he?

A: Stevie Wonder is up there with Smokey, Marvin and Aretha as one of the great soul legends, thank you very much. Since the sixties he's been belting out hits like Uptight (Everything's Alright), and Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours. The latter was written with his mum. Bless.

Q: Ahh, that blind bloke with the piano, right?

Stevie Wonder
A: Not just the piano. His talents include the drums, congas, bongos, bass guitar, organ, harmonica, melodica and synthesizer.

Q: Phew! What's he done to earn such a wondrous name?

A: To dazzle you with some facts and figures, in over forty years as a singer-songwriter, Wonder has racked up over thirty Top Ten hits, 22 Grammy Awards, nine US number ones, a lifetime achievement award, and sold 100 million albums. Oh, and he also appeared on Sesame Street in 1972 (as you can see on this YouTube clip).

Q: Impressive. But where did it all start?

A: 'Little' Stevie Wonder first appeared in 1961, when he signed to Motown Records. Young, gifted, black, and blind, he stormed the US charts with Fingertips at the tender age of only thirteen, the youngest artist ever to have a number one single.

Q: Even Britney didn't manage that! His managers must've been chuffed?

Stevie Wonder on stage
A: While he certainly mastered the distinctive Motown sound, he wasn't such a fan of the label's 'shut up and sing' mentality, and insisted on full creative control. The label bosses were none too pleased, but when he left to record two albums independently in 1972, they gave in, and he went on to release five hit albums for them in under five years.

Q: How long did this magic streak last?

A: Wonder spent the eighties churning out extremely lucrative but unacclaimed material like the schmaltzfest I Just Called To Say I Love You. Some might say he was resting on the 'musical genius' laurels he earned in the sixties and seventies. After this came a ten year lull, only broken by 2005's A Time To Love.

Q: Was Stevie Wonder born blind?

A: No, he is thought to have become blind as a premature baby, due to a condition called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), possibly caused by too much oxygen in his incubator.

Q: Isn't there some miracle cure?

Stevie Wonder performs at the piano
A: Some cases of ROP can be treated, or repair themselves, In others, like Mr Wonder, sight loss is permanent, but he has apparently expressed interest in something called an intraocular retinal prosthesis, which could restore partial sight.

Q: The sell-out! Where's his disability pride?

A: Although never very outspoken about his condition, as a supporter of the Democrat party, he certainly doesn't shy away from politics - both musically, with protest songs like You Haven't Done Nothin', and in public life, campaigning for Martin Luther King Day to recognise the civil rights hero.

Q: What's he doing these days?

A: Stevie's just announced his first tour of the US in over a decade, called A Wonder Summer's Night, although sadly he won't be making it over to the UK any time soon.

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