Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Signed, Sealed, and Delivered' tells Stevie Wonder's story

Stevie Wonder performs at Target Center, Minneapolis, in 2015.
Stevie Wonder performs at Target Center, Minneapolis, in 2015. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

Mark Ribowsky opened Signed, Sealed, and Delivered with the naming of the date on which "baby boomers officially get to feel like grumpy old men." That date? May 13, 2010, the day when "Stevie Wonder begins drawing breath in his seventh decade."

Ten years later, Wonder is onto his eighth decade, baby boomers have a lot more to feel grumpy about, but "the eternal man-child some of us old fossils still remember as 'Little Stevie'" remains as much an enigma as ever. If you're new to The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder (buy now), Ribowsky's biography is a good place to start.

Prince was among the many artists who revered Wonder, and for all the differences in their life stories, the parallels are unmistakable. The common threads include precocious musical genius, multi-instrumental virtuosity, and a sweeping, idiosyncratic vision that leads to repeated clashes with a record industry that sees their value but wants to fit them into tidy boxes.

Unlike Prince, Wonder has meant to sustain a lifelong relationship with a label. Of course, Motown Records isn't just any label. Wonder's career has run almost in counterpoint to the master Motown narrative, his individuality rising to fill the silence when Berry Gordy's machine faltered.

Stevie Judkins first walked through the door of Gordy's "Music City, U.S.A." in 1961, when he was just 11. Ronnie White, of the Miracles, was a first cousin of Stevie's early bandmate John Glover. At his audition, Stevie demonstrated how it was always a mistake to underestimate him: not only did the boy, blind from shortly after birth due to the side effects of an oxygen tank that saved the premature infant's life, immediately memorize the studio layout, he walked from instrument to instrument and played every one.

Wonder's first decade with Motown was, given the summits to which he'd later climb, surprisingly uneven. The problem, it seems, was that the self-contained talent was a poor fit for Gordy's famously standardized system. Artists like the Supremes, the Marvelettes, and the Miracles racked hits with clockwork regularity, but Wonder was too distinctive a talent for that system. His first big hit, the explosive "Fingertips," was a live recording (the first ever to top the pop chart) that demonstrated Wonder's charisma and improvisational flair as he reworked the song's staid studio version.

He remained a live barnburner and occasional hitmaker throughout the '60s — notably "Uptight (Everything's Alright)," perhaps the most successful synthesis of his style and the Motown sound, and a cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" — but he wasn't a regular chart presence until the late '60s, when he seemed to settle into a comfortable adult-pop groove with hits like "For Once in My Life" and the book's title song, the first single Wonder self-produced, demonstrating that he could do the Motown sound his own way (sitar and all).

As the next decade began, Wonder watched Marvin Gaye — an older artist who he'd regularly upstaged over the years — break new ground with the synthesis of the political and personal he brought to classics like 1971's What's Going On. The key that would unlock Wonder's stunning '70s was brought to his ears by way of the novelty disc Switched-On Bach: the Moog synthesizer. Wonder received one as a wedding gift from Gordy when he married "Signed, Sealed" co-writer Syreeta Wright; while the $5,000 price tag may have seemed steep, it would prove a savvy investment for the Motown head.

The Moog and its increasingly sophisticated successors would give Wonder the scope to realize his unparalleled string of masterpieces in the Me Decade; among them Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), and Songs in the Key of Life (1976). As Ribowsky notes, the reason Wonder's use of the synth still sounds so fresh is that he treated it as the totally new instrument it was. He didn't want to use electronics to replace traditional instruments, but to create entirely new, wild worlds of sound that listeners could get lost in.

It didn't hurt that the new music was also deeply funky, even more so than his piano-driven music of the '60s. Despite a mysterious, life-threatening car accident in 1973, Wonder reached deep and produced some of the most endlessly listenable music in pop history, finally finding the kind of pure freedom Dylan reached with Blonde on Blonde. Even a dud double album all about houseplants couldn't slow him for long; he bounced back in 1980 with Hotter Than July, an album now best-known for its MLK celebration "Happy Birthday."

Wonder's '70s run is now so revered that you might forget just what a commercial colossus he was in the '80s. He had four chart-topping singles, including the Paul McCartney duet "Ebony and Ivory," the Dionne Warwick duet "That's What Friends are For," the only reason anyone remembers the movie The Woman in Red ("I Just Called to Say I Love You"), and the best of all of them, the rollicking "Part Time Lover."

A highlight of Ribowsky's book is his description of the superstar session for "We Are the World." Although the song was written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones was running the session, Wonder shone at the center of the most epic collection of talent ever to share a studio. (That included Ray Charles, the artist Gordy had originally, misguidedly, tried to position Wonder as a successor to.) Bob Dylan, not exactly accustomed to celebrity choirs, struggled to hit the key, but Wonder kept him on track with a patient ear and some well-placed flattery.

The most disappointing thing about the biography is the way it whips through the next quarter-century; and, of course, now there have been ten years since. Wonder's retreated into his cathedral of sound, occasionally emerging with a typically tasteful album or scene-stealing appearance at a charity concert. One of those was the 2016 Prince tribute at the Xcel Energy Center, which saw him reuniting with "I Feel For You" partner Chaka Khan and being the only performer who dared dip into his own catalog. (No one complained.)

He was also in Minneapolis a year earlier, on his Songs in the Key of Life anniversary tour. He closed that show with an audience exchange that could well serve to cap a remarkable career, one that happily continues to this day.

"Are you happy?"

"Yeah!"

"Are you happy?"

"Yeah!"

"Are you happy?"

"Yeah!"

"We did it!"

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May 20: Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Life by Alfonso Casas (buy now)

May 27: Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop by Nate Patrin (buy now)

June 3: Me & Patsy Kickin' Up Dust: My Friendship with Patsy Cline by Loretta Lynn (buy now)

June 10: Cult Musicians: 50 Progressive Performers You Need to Know by Robert Dimery (buy now)

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