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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Visionary Artist Stevie Wonder, the Master of Songcraft

Stevie Wonder is a legend among legends, now in his fifth decade of making music. In countries where fans can't understand his English lyrics, they still are entranced by his melodies.

Gaile Walker, an avid Wonder fan living in Chicago, has had the experience of hearing Wonder's music in various countries. "One very vivid experience is when I went to Russia. When the car picked me up at the Moscow airport, it was Stevie Wonder on the radio," she told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "Then I was in France, and some guy was walking down the street singing a Stevie song to himself."

"Stevie connects us all," he said. "That is the rare beauty of his spirit."

According to the official Stevie Wonder Web site, he has made 35 U.S. albums, with sales totaling more than 72 million units. He has scored more than 30 Top Ten Hits, 11 #1 Pop singles, and won 19 Grammys (and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in '96). He has won a litany of awards and accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Song for "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from "The Woman in Red," the Billboard 2004 Century Award and a Kennedy Center Honor in 1999.

But Wonder has done so much more than entertain the masses since his career began. He has used his art and talent to call attention to social issues and create change. He championed the effort to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday, writing the song that became its anthem, "Happy Birthday," which was released on the "Hotter Than July" album in 1980.

Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins - and signed to Motown Records at the tender age of 11 - Wonder was known as an early innovator on the synthesizer, but he has earned his legacy status as a songwriter. Wonder has remained with the Motown record label throughout his career. But at an early age, he let it be known he would not fit into what was the traditional "Motown sound."

"Initially, it was his disability that was marketed. Motown took advantage of Ray Charles's popularity," said Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of African American studies at Duke University. "To Stevie's credit, he never used his disability. As a young age, he decided to be very active in his career, particularly in terms of production and writing."

On his 21st birthday, Wonder's contract with Motown expired, and the royalties set aside in his trust fund became available to him. Instead of immediately re-signing, he built a recording studio and enrolled in music theory classes at USC. When he negotiated a new deal with Motown, it was one that dramatically increased his royalty rate and established his own publishing company, allowing him to retain the rights to his music and to maintain artistic control.

"He was willing to experiment with different sounds, which was something people in Motown were not doing," said Neal.

Wonder put out some of the greatest music of all time during this time: 1972's "Talking Book," 1973's" Innervisions," 1974's "Fullfillingness' First Finale," and 1976's "Songs in the Key of Life."

"He basically set a new bar and standard for soul music - the content, the way he openly addressed issues and integrated acoustic instruments," said Neal.

Wonder's music has been cited as a major influence on a host of singers over the years, a list that crosses nearly as many genres: R&B singers Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey; rockers Anthony Kiedis from Red Hot Chili Peppers (whose 1989 cover of Wonder's 1973 hit, "Higher Ground," helped launch them into worldwide stardom) and Maroon 5; British singer/songwriter Jason Kay of Jamiroquai and many other musicians and producers.

DJ, writer and television personality Bobbito Garcia, also known as Kool Bob Love, is co-founder of Wonder-Full, a fabled New York party and birthday tribute to Wonder, where only songs he's either recorded or written for others are spun all night, along with cover versions of his material.

Until the wee morning hours, thousands of people from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylania dance and sing aloud to everything from Wonder's 1963 debut, "Fingertips" and the reggae-influenced 1980 smash, "Master Blaster (Jammin)" to Chaka Khan's sweaty vocals on Rufus' Wonder-penned "Tell Me Something Good" and the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway jam, "Don't Make Me Wait Too Long," also written by Wonder.

"Not only does he have a great catalogue of music but he has written hundreds of compositions for people like Chaka Khan, Sergio Mendes and Michael Jackson," Garcia said of Wonder. "He is covered by many soul, jazz, rock and hip-hop artists. People come to the party because in the middle of the night, you might very well hear a rare record recorded in Venezuela that is a salsa rendition of a popular Stevie Wonder song."

To describe Wonder as a musician, Garcia quotes Michael Bolton talking about Wonder during an interview: "If God had to choose one voice on earth in the history of mankind to speak for him, it would be the voice of Stevie Wonder.

"Technically, he can sing in eight octaves," said Garcia. "Rhythmically, he started as a drummer before he was behind a mike playing a harmonica, so his songs have a grove that is very unique. He has a knack for melody and harmony. To a sophisticated musical ear, he attacks every sense."

Charlotte, NC deejay Jaye Delai said Wonder's music has lasted because it is timeless.

"There are people who can make music in the 60s and early 70s that will be poignant now in 2007. We listen to those old songs and say, 'Wow, that's still true today.' I think that's God at work," said Delai, a deejay at WQNC-FM.

On his official site, Wonder talks about his latest CD, "A Time To Love.

"My thing has never been about creating music on some sort of schedule," he said. "When creating music you have to live life - be inspired by life - to create experiences that are worth sharing with the world.

"I really do seek to create music that is timeless. I love all kinds of music, all styles. The music today - whether it's mine or another artist - is as relevant and as significant as the music from yesterday."

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