Last year, Stevie Wonder joined the pantheon of A-list stars with something to promote, debuting his first new music in 10 years on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” For her part, Oprah pulled out all the stops, dedicating the entire show to the music legend. Video segments included a peek at Wonder’s private life, including the blind musician’s driving skills behind the wheel of his new Rolls Royce. Wonder goofed with the host, sang with his daughter as well as his “biggest fan,” (Oprah) and performed a medley of his many hits.
Oprah asked her trademark meaning-of-life questions. And as expected, Wonder responded thoughtfully, though with little revelation or surprise. Example: How does Stevie Wonder, 55, define himself as a musician? “I am a lover of music and I am a person who will continue to be constantly curious about the sounds I hear,” Wonder responded in part. Gazing at the musician with rapt attention, Oprah casually mentioned how he performed at her party — transmitting her considerable consumer endorsement of his new LP to her ever-obedient audience.
Of course, that was when “A Time To Love” was scheduled for release in May. Several abandoned release dates later, the new LP finally hits stores on October 18, long after Oprah’s original thumbs up. Wonder’s strategic booking didn’t take into account the musician’s perfectionism that helped make this Wonder’s first new release in a decade. As he told “Billboard,” it was just a matter of “getting it right.”
Despite the long stretch between LPs, Wonder has never been far from the public eye. In the last few years, he performed at Johnnie Cochran’s memorial service and the Live 8 concerts, publicly scolded Eminem for picking on Michael Jackson in Em’s “Just Lose It’ video, and was allegedly waved at by George W. Bush at a presidential gala. But extended absence from the music charts makes fans forget. And the kids who think of Wonder as that other blind piano player, the one who wasn’t played by Jamie Foxx in that movie, don’t know why he’s so important to the music they listen to today.
Wonder’s influence extends beyond the sample of his song “Do I Do” in the Ja Rule tune, “Livin’ It Up,” or “Pastime Paradise” used in the Coolio hit, “Gansta’s Paradise.” Both Usher and Justin Timberlake have built careers on pretty good Wonder vocal impressions. And to be sure, programmed radio overflows with Wonder hits. From “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and “Superstition,” on oldies stations, to the sentimental love songs “My Cherie Amour,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” on the easy listening channels, Wonder is engrained in our universal consciousness. It’s almost too easy to take him for granted. But there’s more to Wonder than just the hits.
Melding R&B, pop, jazz, reggae, African music, and show tunes, Wonder’s fusion of sound heralded the R&B album of the ‘70s. Along with Marvin Gaye and Issac Hayes, Wonder created LPs that worked as full concepts, not just a couple of sure-fire hits and some filler. The gifted singer, songwriter, and producer who can play a multitude of instruments made synthesizers the norm in modern R&B music. And while some of Wonder’s weaker lyrics can be faulted as overly sentimental, the music is always immaculate.
Little Stevie Wonder, as he was crowned when he first signed with Motown when he was barely 11 years old, is the rare child protegee who grew up to be an even more successful adult, leading a life comparatively free of controversy. (Take, for example, the aforementioned Motown roster mate, Michael Jackson.) He divorced his first wife, singer Syreeta Wright, with whom he wrote several songs, including “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” but the two remained friends and song-writing partners until her recent death. He was sued by a former lover in 2001 — but that sort of thing, along with multiple divorces, is de rigueur for anyone famous these days.
Blind nearly since birth, Wonder’s preteen success is thanks in some part due to “that other blind piano player,” Ray Charles. Wonder’s second full-length LP, “Tribute to Uncle Ray,” was comprised of Charles cover tunes and played upon the older musician’s success and the similarities between the two. But it wasn’t until his third LP, “The 12 Year Old Genius” (also referencing Charles’ “genius” status) that Wonder gained worldwide attention.
Fans who came of age during Wonder’s heyday as both a boy and an adult will tell you they learned everything they needed to know from Wonder’s music. Love, religion, issues of race and class — Wonder embraced these themes through both words and music. Crafting solid pop standards such as “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” from the 1972 LP “Talking Book,” Wonder also extended his craft to deftly cover social issues in his music, including the hits “Living for the City,” and “Higher Ground” from the 1973 LP, “Innervisions.”
The 1976 double-LP, “Songs in the Key of Life” remains the height of Wonder’s career. Two years in the making, “Songs” was Wonder’s most ambitious work, featuring a variety of musical styles and themes. Hits included the Duke Ellington tribute, “Sir Duke,’ a ballad for his daughter, “Isn’t She Lovely,” and the funk hit, “I Wish.” Unsurprisingly, it earned a Grammy for Album of the Year, but it was three years before Wonder released another LP. Wonder continued to receive awards for other hits, including an Oscar for “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
Worth the waitWonder’s new LP, “A Time to Love,” is hailed by many critics as worth the wait. The 15-track collection includes three duets, including “How Will I Know” which features his daughter, Aisha Morris, for whom he wrote “Isn’t She Lovely?” He is also accompanied by India.Arie on the nearly 10-minute-long title track, and by gospel vocalist Kim Burrell on “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved.” Another song, “Shelter in the Rain,” was originally written about the recent deaths of both his brother, Larry Hardaway and his ex-wife, Write. However, the LP’s postponed release coincided with the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and typical of his humanitarian work, Wonder is contributing the royalties of the song to Katrina-relief efforts.
In honor of his 40-year career, Wonder recently received “Billboard’s” Century Award, the music magazine’s highest honor. He’ is one of the few artists to have two songs named by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) as the century’s most popular love songs (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”) It’s doubtful that Wonder will ever be viewed as a has-been. “So What the Fuss,” The first single from “A Time To Love” (released long before the LP was available), debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard Adult R&B Chart, possibly on inertia of the Stevie Wonder legend alone. Whether the LP does well remains to be seen, but it’s certain that Wonder will always be a welcome guest on “Oprah,” or any other stage he chooses to grace.
Helen Popkin lives in New York and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.