I remember the first time I heard Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” I was in a third-grade music class; our teacher wanted to illustrate the difference between unison melody and harmony. She pressed play, and I came online.
I have no real memories before that moment, and what a memory! The sound of eight musicians playing that opening phrase in perfect unison sent me flying out of my chair, coming to rest on the ceiling, jaw dropped, eyes wildly searching for a semblance of the reality I had just departed from. Alas, there was none. The lights were changing colors, the other students were floating around the room, mouths open, the teacher was standing on her desk, beams of light shooting out of her palms. The toy maracas, tambourines and recorders had leapt out of their drawers to march single file around the room, playing along.
My memory is a bit hazy, but it was something like that. As a nine-year-old, still reeling from the news about Santa, God, and Ms. Frizzle, I was relieved to discover that Stevie Wonder — and by extension, magic — was very real.
I’m not gonna say I’ve ever tried to sound like Stevie, but I am constantly inspired by his willingness to be so eclectic and maximalist. His music is incredibly dense — something he was criticized for early on. His lyrics have the ability to be political, romantic, and fun simultaneously. His production work is always so ambitious, and sometimes downright weird. I mean, “Isn’t She Lovely” is a beautiful song and everything, but let’s not forget that it’s three verses followed by five minutes of harmonica and a baby crying.
Stevie Wonder is a superhero. I mean, really, how many lifetimes would you need to accomplish what he has? Signed to a Motown label at age 11, more than 30 top ten hits, 25 Grammys, an Academy Award for Best Original Song, a Lifetime Achievement Award, inducted into both the Rock & Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, and sold over 100 million records.
He has been named one of the UN’s Messengers of Peace, and Obama gave him a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has raised incredible amounts of money for charity, started foundations, lobbied for gun control and against apartheid. He met Martin Luther King Jr. at a freedom rally in Chicago and was one of the key lobbyists for MLK day, his song “Happy Birthday” written as a theme for the movement. Nixon gave him a Distinguished Service award, and Stevie turned around and wrote the Anti-Nixon single “You Haven’t Done Nothing.” Nixon resigned two days later.
These achievements are even more impressive given the fact that clubs (and everything else) were segregated when he was first touring. His tour bus was even shot at occasionally.
[This is the part where I stopped writing, drank Hamm’s, and listened to all of In the Key of Life.]
Stevie Wonder is one of the main reasons synthesizers became popular. He plays all the instruments, has one of the best voices in the world, has always had a crystal-clear focus, never took himself too seriously, and has done it all with undeniable style.
Stevie Wonder has created an idiom that is nearly impossible to replicate. Not for a lack of trying. He is the King of Kings, blind prophet, musical laureate of America.
He really did it. No one’s ever gonna do it like that again. Not ever.