Stevie Wonder gained prominence in the early 1960s as a musical prodigy, and his dance hits and love songs have segued over the years into thoughtful commentaries on the joy and injustice in our world. Born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1950, Wonder became blind shortly after birth. He learned to play the harmonica, piano and drums by age 9. By the time he was 10, his singing and other musical skills were known throughout his neighborhood, and when the family moved to Detroit, impressed adults made his talents known to the owners of Motown Records, who gave him a recording contract when he was age 12.
His debut LP featured his first nationwide hit, “Fingertips.” That recording was followed in just a few more years by “Uptight (Everything’s All Right),” “For Once in My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and “If You Really Love Me.” He undertook the study of classical piano, and, later, music theory, and beginning in 1967 he began writing more of his own material. He authored the Smokey Robinson hit “The Tears of a Clown.”
In the early 1970s, Wonder toured with the Rolling Stones and had major hits with the songs “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” In the mid-70s, his album “Songs in the Key of Life” topped the charts for 14 weeks. It includes the breakout hits “I Wish,” “Sir Duke” and “Pastime Paradise;” the latter song was sampled in 1995 within a hit by another artist, Coolio. Wonder’s songs have been covered by many artists including Eric Clapton, Barbra Streisand, Marc Anthony, Mary J. Blige, John Mellencamp, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, just to name a few.
Over the years Wonder has delivered 32 No. 1 R&B and Pop singles, 49 Top 40 R&B and Pop singles, and garnered 25 Grammy Awards, as well as the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. He collected an Academy Award for the 1984 hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from the film The Woman in Red. In 1989, he was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. In 1999, Wonder became the youngest honoree of the Kennedy Center Honors. He was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2002, and in 2004 he won the Johnny Mercer Award in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding creative work. In addition to his musical accomplishments, in 1983 Stevie spearheaded the realization of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday.
In 2005, the Library of Congress added Wonder’s 1976 double album “Songs in the Key of Life” to the National Recording Registry, which recognizes recordings that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”
In 2008, Wonder was named the recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and also received a Library of Congress musical commission, joining a group of eminent composers who have received Library commissions, ranging from Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein to Paquito D’Rivera.
Wonder’s receipt of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song will be presented by President Barack Obama on February 25, 2009, in an evening of celebration and performance taped by WETA Washington, D.C., as part of the “In Performance at the White House” series. The program will air on PBS stations nationwide on Thursday, February 26, 2009, at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings) as “In Performance at the White House - Celebrating the Music of Stevie Wonder: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize.