Stevie Wonder's supernatural hit-making talent

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Stevie Wonder in concert at Target Center
Stevie Wonder in concert at Target Center in Minneapolis on March 29, 2015. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)

Stevie Wonder — a musical giant, genius, innovator and a genuine superstar. His career has spanned six decades, overflowing with landmark records, highlighted by an astonishingly prolific string of groundbreaking, genre-stretching albums from 1972 to 1976 (details below) and joyful, uplifting performances (everyone who saw him at the Target Center in 2015 can attest that he still brings it). Wonder's best songs were fresh, infectious, endearing — and enormously popular. Here's a compendium of notes and quotes about his eight No. 1 hits. You'll hear these classics and some deep tracks as The Current honors Stevie Wonder during its celebration of Black History Month.

Fingertips (Pt. II) — The artist formerly known as Little Stevie Wonder topped Billboard's Hot 100 for three weeks in the summer of 1963 with this track from The 12-Year-Old Genius. Three previous singles, including "I Call It Pretty Music, But the Old People Call It the Blues," hadn't made an impression, but Wonder's exhilarating appearances at Motown Reviews shows inspired Berry Gordy to make a live album. The six-minute "Fingertips" was split into two parts; the B-side, boasting a rousing call-and-response with the crowd ("Everybody say 'yeah'!") and dizzying harmonica solos, found favor with DJs and listeners, and was the first live song to reach the top of the chart.

Superstition — Nearly 10 years passed before Wonder returned to No. 1 in January 1973, though many now-classic tracks had lodged in the Top 10 ("Uptight [Everything's Alright]," "I Was Made To Love Her," "For Once In My Life," "My Cherie Amour," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours"). Meanwhile, his albums evolved from scattershot collections and curious detours (Stevie At the Beach — yep, a set of surf tunes; Eivets Rednow, an all-instrumental easy-listening outing) to the sonic leap signaled by 1972's Music of My Mind, Wonder's first release after winning artistic control over his career.

"Superstition" is from Talking Book, which was released eight months after Music of My Mind — Stevie was on a serious roll. The song was written for guitarist Jeff Beck, who worked on sessions for Talking Book. Jeff recalled: "One day I was sitting at the drum kit, doing this beat. Stevie came kinda boogieing into the studio: 'Don't stop.' 'Ah, c'mon, Stevie,' I can't play the drums.' Then the lick came out: 'Superstition.' That was my song, in return for Talking Book. I thought, 'He's given me the riff of the century.' He played it to Motown, and they said, 'No way is Beck getting this song, it's too good.' That was the right decision but we were gutted, you know, totally. We would have had a monstrous, monstrous hit."

You Are the Sunshine of My Life — The second single from Talking Book spent one week at the top spot in May 1973. The sweet but semi-cloying love song was written for Wonder's first wife, Syreeta Wright.

You Haven't Done Nothin' — The first hit from Fulfillingess' First Finale TKTK in November 1974 (Wonder's '73 release, Innervisions, yielded two Top 10 smashes, "Higher Ground" and "Living For the City"). The "You" in the title of the angry, funk-driven track (featuring vocals by the Jackson 5) is President Richard Nixon.

I Wish — The first No. 1 from Songs In the Key of Life, which was released in September 1976 after a long-for-Stevie two-year stretch since his last opus, reached No. 1 in January 1977. Wonder said: "We were going to write some really crazy words … something about 'The Wheel of '84.' A lot of cosmic-type stuff, spiritual stuff. But I couldn't do that 'cause the music was too much fun — the words didn't have the fun of the track. The day I wrote it was a Saturday, the day of a Motown picnic in the summer of '76. God, I remember that 'cause I was having this really bad toothache. It was ridiculous. I had such a good time at the picnic that I went to Crystal Recording Studio Right afterward and the vibe came right to my mind: running at the picnic, the contests, we all participated. It was a lot of fun … from that came the 'I Wish' vibe."

Sir Duke — The second Key of Life chart-topper started a three-week run in May '77. The buoyant track, propoelled by a fleet and playful horn TKTK, paid tribute to the jazz giant Edward Kennedy Ellington (with a shoutout to Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and fellow Black History Month honoree Ella Fitzgerald). "I knew the title from the beginning," Wonder said, "but wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us. So soon they are forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation."

I Just Called To Say I Love You — Written for the soundtrack of The Woman In Red, a romcom by director/star Gene Wilder (with Kelly LeBrock as the title character), the sentimental smash was one of Wonder's biggest sellers, spending three weeks atop the U.S. Hot 100 in October 1984 — and it was his only No. 1 in the U.K.. It also garnered the Best Original Song Oscar.

Part-Time Lover — Wonder scored his final No. 1 in the fall of 1985 with this track from his 20th album, In Square Circle. He said the composition was inspired by two Supremes hits, "You Can't Hurry Love" and "My World Is Empty Without You." Luther Vandross, Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire, and his ex-wife Syreeta Wright.

Stevie On Stevie: "I feel everyone should be able to grasp what you're doing. I shouldn't be so complicated that it's beyond everyone's capabilities, nor should it be so simple that you cannot use your mind to think about it. I would like to feel that as my albums change, my people — meaning all people — will come with me, that we will grow together. Everything that I experience is in the songs that I write. You see, my music is my way of giving back love."

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  • Stevie Wonder celebrates Songs in the Key of Life (and love) at Target Center Performing in an arena like the Target Center can be a tough challenge for an artist to overcome. With all of that empty open space lingering between the stage and the sloping tiers of seats, it can be a downright Herculean task to convey any kind of authentic human emotion to the sea of people in front of you. Stevie Wonder makes that kind of connection between his fans, his band, and his heart look effortless.

2 Photos

  • Little Stevie Wonder, 'Fingertips' parts 1 and 2
    At age 13, Stevie Wonder became the youngest person ever to have a No. 1 single. (© CBS Records.)
  • Stevie Wonder
    Stevie Wonder (Courtesy of the artist)

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