The Wonder of Stevie

·6 min read

Feb. 19—During an era filled musical riches, a plethora of enduring artists consistently hit the charts, including one born with the name Stevland Hardway Judkins.

After his mother remarried and Motown's Tamla Records signed him to a recording contract at the young age of 11, his name became Stevelnd Morris.

However, he first became known to the world under the stage name bestowed on him by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. — Little Stevie Wonder.

It took a few starts and a couple of years before Wonder scored his first hit. He hit his first #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963 with "Fingertips, Part II" — with many more to follow.

It proved a surprising entry for a #1 song in that pre-Beatles year (at least in the U.S.) of 1963. It's mainly an instrumental song, featuring Wonder primarily on harmonica and bongos. Although Wonder would become known as a keyboard player, he developed such a distinctive harmonica sound a few years later that I can usually detect it when he surprises me by giving a guest turn on the instrument on songs recorded by other artists.

With a slew of top-selling albums and singles, including an impressive amount of #1 hits, Wonder has built an impressive repertoire.

Some of his many honors include 25 Grammy Awards along with a special Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1996. He's also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from the 1984 movie "The Woman in Red." Wonder's song is a classic, enduring today, while the film for which he wrote it is mostly forgotten.

He's one of four artists to win three Grammy Awards for Album of the Year along with Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Taylor Swift — although one of Simon's three Album of the Year Awards was as the duo, Simon and Garfunkel.

Wonder won the Album of the Year Award for "Innervisions" in 1974, "Fulfillingness' First Finale" in 1975 and "Songs in the Key of Life" in 1977. Wonder had such a winning streak going at the time that when Paul Simon collected his Album of the Year Award for "Still Crazy After All These Years" in 1976, he gave a nod to his fellow artist who had been on such a winning streak.

"I'd like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn't make an album this year," said Simon.

Along with his albums, Wonder has recorded a number of great singles: "Uptight (Everything is Alright)," "Signed, Sealed and Delivered, I'm Yours," "My Cherie Amour," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "Sir Duke" and "I Wish," to name a few. He even scored hits with cover versions of songs by some of his contemporaries, such as "Blowin" in the Wind" by Bob Dylan and "We Can Work It Out" by The Beatles.

He also forged personal relationships with those artists. He and Paul McCartney recorded a #1 song with their duet "Ebony and Ivory" and Wonder was among the many artists gathered to perform and honor Bob Dylan during a concert at Madison Square Garden held to honor Dylan's then-30th anniversary in show business, along with Johnny Cash and June Carter, Neil Young, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, The Band, Booker T. & the MGs and others.

When a group of A list performers — including everyone from Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson — gathered to record Ritchie's and Jackson's song "We Are the World" in 1985 as part of the USA for Africa benefit, Dylan had trouble recording his lines in the song to his satisfaction — although some of the others who were present told him it was fine.

Wonder even sat at the piano at one point and sang the troublesome lines in his best Bob Dylan-like voice as Dylan closely listened. Dylan eventually nailed the part after getting a lesson from Wonder on how to sing it Bob Dylan-style — which I always thought was hilarious.

For such a strong solo artist, Wonder has been open to collaborations, which really isn't surprising. He's always seemed to me to be among those artists who are simply filled with the joy of making music, hence his recorded appearances while playing harmonica and singing on other artists' records.

Since Wonder is such as gifted songwriter, I felt surprised when I learned he didn't write one of his biggest hits, "For Once in My Life" — especially since I consider his version, along with the one recorded by Tony Bennett, as the definitive versions of the song. They are so different, I think in this case citing two definitive versions is justified.

"For Once in My Life" was written by the songwriting team of Ron Miller and Orlando Murden for the Stein & Van Stock music publishing company, affiliated with Motown Records.

Wonder was not even the first Motown artist to record the song, with others such as the Four Tops and the Temptations recording it for album cuts, but not for release as singles.

Bennett, who always knew a great song when he heard one, decided to record "For Once in My Life" in 1967. He liked the track so much he even named the album that included the song after it, calling the album "For Once in my Life" as well.

Bennett's version peaked at #91 on the Billboard Hot 100, but he's continued to sing it in concert throughout his career, doing his part to make it a part of the Great American Songbook.

Bennett wasn't the only one who knew a great song when he heard it. So did Wonder, who also decided to give "For Once in My Life" a turn.

Wonder recorded a much more uptempo version than the way the song had originally been written, pushed along by a great rhythm section, including Motown's vaunted session musician James Jamerson on bass. Jamerson played a rollicking bass throughout the recording, adding a melodic turn to the instrument and avoiding playing the same line twice.

It proved too much for Motown founder Berry Gordy, who did not think Wonder's version merited release as a single. He met some opposition though from Billie Jean Brown, the head of Motown's Quality Control Division, charged with ensuring Motown's record releases were of sufficient quality to make the sure the hits kept on coming.

Taking a strong stand, she finally convinced Gordy to go ahead and release Wonder's version of "For Once in My Life" as a single. Not only that, Wonder must have liked the song as much as Bennett did, because in addition to the single, his next album was also titled "For Once in My Life."

Wonder ended up having the biggest hit of all with the song, when it peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In a delightful coda, the two singers with the definitive versions of "For Once in My Life" would get together in 2006.

They recorded a duet of "For Once in My Life" for Bennett's album "Duets: An American Classic" with a special result.

Both Wonder and Bennett received a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for their duet recording of "For Once in My Life."