Of all the notable artists who emerged from the Motown label in the 1960s, Stevie Wonder is perhaps the most accomplished. Blind since infancy, he was a multi-instrumentalist child prodigy who quickly established himself as both a major star and a musical visionary with a singular voice. He was also the first Motown artist to rebel against the company's restrictive hit-factory approach and win creative control of his own musical output.
While growing up amid poverty and domestic violence in Michigan, Stevie — born Steveland Hardaway Judkins — demonstrated a precocious musical talent and mastered multiple instruments in early childhood. With help from Ronnie White of the Miracles, he won a deal with Motown while still a preteen. But the company had little success marketing him as a novelty act, until the joyous, uninhibited live track "Fingertips, Pt. 2," from the album The 12 Year Old Genius, became a surprise hit in 1963.
By 1965, Wonder’s voice had matured, and he began a long string of hits including "Uptight (Everything's Alright)," "Nothing's Too Good for My Baby," "I Was Made to Love Her," "For Once in My Life," "My Cherie Amour" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," which showed him to be a magnetic and versatile performer. The political consciousness that would later become a prominent element of his work first emerged in 1966 with "A Place in the Sun" and a hit cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."
Despite his success, Motown's hitmaking formula proved too narrow to contain Wonder's rapidly developing songwriting and expanding sonic vision. In 1971, when he turned 21 and his Motown contract expired, he successfully battled with label head Berry Gordy to win the right to produce his own records and choose his own material. That year saw the release of Where I'm Coming From, his first self-produced and self-written album.
As reluctant as Gordy may have been to grant Wonder artistic freedom, Motown benefited from his artistic declaration of independence, as such vibrant, adventurous 70s albums as Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life became both artistic triumphs and commercial hits.
The artist's boundless musical curiosity and enthusiasm led him to explore an audacious array of styles, incorporating Funk rhythms, Jazz textures, Reggae and African beats and Tin Pan Alley songcraft, while making pioneering use of then-new synthesizer technology and often taking advantage of overdubbing to play most of the instruments himself. His albums were popular with R&B audiences as well as Rock fans, while such singles as "Superstition," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "Living for the City," "Higher Ground," "Boogie On Reggae Woman," "You Haven't Done Nothin'," "Sir Duke," "I Wish," and "Isn't She Lovely" kept him on the Pop charts, even as his songs addressed racial and social issues as well as romantic and spiritual matters.
To make such innovative music at such a breakneck creative pace is a daunting thing to maintain, and Wonder settled into a more relaxed, workmanlike groove after 1979's mostly instrumental Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Since then he has continued to make solid and commercially successful, if not groundbreaking, music, while maintaining his status as one of the planet's most beloved and respected music-makers.