The stacks are what I remember—hundreds of albums, one on top of another, filling a music store window in downtown Baltimore when I was 22. On my way to work, I spotted hordes of fans gathering in anticipation of the year's hottest release, the line stretching around the corner. The year: 1976. The record: Songs in the Key of Life
by Stevie Wonder, the ebullient keyboard genius who had revolutionized music.
If hits like 1966's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" and 1972's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" captured the world's attention, Songs in the Key of Life
confirmed Wonder's place as a music legend. It's a success few might have predicted. The prodigy musician was born Stevland Morris in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950, the third son of Lula Mae Hardaway. (His father was estranged from the family.) In the hardscrabble housing projects of Detroit, Stevie taught himself to play a neighbor's out-of-tune piano. By 10 he had mastered the harmonica, piano, organ, and drums without taking a lesson. In 1961, when Stevie was 11, Ronnie White of the Miracles heard him perform and arranged an audition with Berry Gordy at Motown Records. Along with a record deal, Gordy gave him a stage name: Little Stevie Wonder. (The "Little" was dropped when Stevie reached 14.) In 1963 the release of the live recording Fingertips
established his commercial success, with the label marketing him as the "12-year-old genius."
One recent afternoon, Stevie and I met in the Hollywood music studios he calls Wonderland—the place where he created the lyrics and tunes for his ten-years-in-the-making CD, A Time To Love
. For a man who can't see, he has colorful decorating tastes: A red lava lamp sits in one corner, two red couches in another. In the control room, a monitor above the scores of knobs, meters, and lights reads "WELCOME TO THE WONDER BOX. LOVE AND PEACE. ENJOY YOUR STAY."
"I've had some incredibly triumphal things happen in my life," Stevie said, a cup of mint tea in his hand. And he has—like his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 after writing more chart-toppers than most people can name. Like the births of his seven children, ages 2 to 29. Like his recovery from a near-fatal car accident in 1973; instead of being devastated, he continued to use his music to spark change in our social awareness. He's still as much messenger as he is musician: A Time to Love
is not only moving musically but also raises the challenge of coming together for a greater good.
I was incredibly energized by Stevie Wonder's presence. The child born blind, black, and broke refused to let the world define him as disabled and determined that he would step out of his history and into a better one. Fifty-four years and 22 Grammys later, he's still doing that. Start reading Oprah's interview with Stevie Wonder Note: This interview appeared in the May 2004 issue of
O, The Oprah Magazine.