Music News: A 70th birthday celebration of Stevie Wonder

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The Current Music News for May 13, 2020 (MPR Video)

Stevie Wonder celebrates his 70th birthday today. Seventy is a substantial milestone, but it's kind of hard to believe Stevie Wonder is only 70 when you think about the depth of his achievement and the longevity of his career. This is an artist who was there for Motown's early days, who had towering artistic successes with sprawling '70s albums, was a consistent hitmaker in the '80s, and remains active as an artist to this day.

He was born Steven Judkins in Saginaw, Mich., in 1950. Born premature, he was put in an oxygen-rich incubator that saved his life but, as an accidental side effect, caused the newborn to lose his sight. He made up for it with hearing that was so extraordinarily acute, he'd have people drop handfuls of change on a table and astonish them by saying how much money it was, just by the sounds the different coins made.

After he moved to Detroit, the musical prodigy quickly caught the attention of newly-formed Motown Records, where the 11-year-old blew Berry Gordy away by walking around the studio and playing every instrument there. Soon he was being billed as "Little Stevie Wonder," more than holding his own alongside some of the label's biggest stars.

Even though Motown was a hit factory, Stevie Wonder was never going to be a cog in anyone's machine. His breakout hit was the first live record ever to hit number one on Billboard's Hot 100: an exuberant, semi-improvised performance of "Fingertips." The '60s were a decade of commercial ups and downs for Stevie Wonder, but by the end of the decade he'd settled into a winning groove with a series of hits including "For Once in My Life" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours."

When Wonder married that song's co-writer, Syreeta Wright, Berry Gordy's wedding gift was a $5,000 synthesizer. It was a good investment. Increasingly sophisticated electronics would allow Stevie Wonder to unlock a whole new level of accomplishment with a series of brilliant albums that buoyed Motown in the '70s, when Wonder finally became the label's towering star with fascinating, huge-selling albums like Talking Book, Innervisions, and Songs in the Key of Life.

By the '80s, Wonder was a revered icon who — let's remember — was still just in his thirties! He had a string of chart-topping hits like "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and the Paul McCartney duet "Ebony and Ivory" — and he shone at the center of the mind-boggling collection of stars who recorded "We Are the World."

In recent decades, Stevie Wonder has remained active as an artist — very much on his own terms. He's released more sweet-sounding albums, he's been a strong advocate for social justice, and recently he toured around the 40th anniversary of Songs in the Key of Life, playing the sprawling album front to back.

We'll leave you with a 1980 Stevie Wonder song that became an anthem of the successful movement to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday. He's sung it many times in honor of Dr. King, and today we're celebrating Stevie Wonder himself. Happy birthday to one of the all-time greats.

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