December 15, 2014


GQ Icon: Stevie Wonder : Though blinded at birth, Stevland Hardaway Judkins discovered a different  vision on the streets of Fifties Detroit. Through his music he brought colour to the world only he had ever seen, but after five decades of inspiration, who really knows the truth about this wonderful life of mystery, melancholy and magic? (GEORGE CHESTERTON 09 DECEMBER 14, British GQ)

Stevland Judkins was born on 13 May 1950 in the worn-down manufacturing town of Saginaw. Or was that Steveland Hardaway? Or Stevland Morris? It certainly wasn't "Stevie Wonder" written on the side of the incubator that would both save his life and wreck his eyes.

His mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, had been born near the evocatively named Hurtsboro, Alabama, but was abandoned by her own mother and raised by an aunt and uncle. In 1943, when she was 13, she took a train to stay with her absentee father in east Chicago. After a fortnight, Noble Hardaway packed his daughter off to a second aunt, the wife of a church deacon. In 1948 she became pregnant and was thrown out in disgrace, taking refuge with yet another relative, this time in Saginaw.

After the birth of Milton Hardaway she married Calvin Judkins, a man as old as her father and who had much else in common besides. Judkins was a drunk, a gambler and a small-time pimp, but Lula Mae was infatuated and she clung to this relationship despite being coerced into prostitution by her own husband. A second son, Calvin Judkins Jr, arrived soon after, but Lula Mae's third pregnancy was fraught with debilitating pain and sickness. Stevland emerged two months premature and at not even 4lb was rushed to an incubator. His name remains mysterious. It was Judkins at school, Morris (chosen by his mother) on legal documents and Hardaway in other sources. Steveland and Stevland appear interchangeably. Regardless, the baby's retinas were being damaged beyond repair by the extra oxygen pumped into his incubator. In the Forties and early Fifties there was an epidemic of what is now known as retinopathy of prematurity and he was one of many thousands of babies affected.

Wonder's early years followed the manic pattern set by his parents, as Lula Mae protected and fed her children in spite of their father's negligence and exploitation. In 1953 she stabbed Judkins - he filed charges against her, which he then dropped. One of the terms of their short-lived reconciliation was to move the family to Detroit, where they found a home beside the multi-tower Brewster-Douglass housing project, whose other inhabitants included William "Smokey" Robinson and Diana Ross. Here Wonder asserted a benign defiance that he was a "normal boy" looking for mischief with friends and girls.

Whatever he did, he wanted to grow, to keep moving - to jump. It became the theme of his life. "I wanted to do all the things the sighted kids could - hopping from woodshed to woodshed and climbing trees. In my mind I was very adventurous." His mother's default reaction to this troublemaking was the "magic ironing-cord whipping" - a period and a punishment immortalised in the song "I Wish".

There is no doubt mother and son adored each other, though Lula (she dropped the Mae) continued to mourn for her son's condition. "It bothered me that my mother was crying all the time," he said. "She thought God might be punishing her for something. She lived during a time when things were particularly difficult for a woman in her circumstances... So I just told her I was happy to be blind and I think she felt better after that." About his father he has said almost nothing in the 60 or so years since Calvin Judkins was ousted from the family home.

As with almost all his contemporaries, the church provided the first public stage on which to demonstrate his unearthly abilities. It began with percussion - toy drums and bongos first - then harmonica, then keyboards. The swirling head movements of his live performances were first seen by worshippers at the White Stone Baptist Church on Fenkell Street, where he would sing in the choir then stay and play anything else he could get his ever-grasping hands on. But the Church's banners did not fly over all the territory of his young life.

When he was ten years old he learnt Braille at a school for the blind, which nurtured his interest in world history, as well as the fearful millennialism that has always seemed to haunt him. He was growing up in other ways too. Sex is one of many subjects about which Wonder prefers to remain deliciously enigmatic, but anecdotal testimony from throughout his early career suggests that aside from music he thought of little else.

In  1960 he formed a duo with a friend, John Glover, with whom he improvised around the neighbourhood. Glover later recalled without bitterness that, "I have a feeling he knew something about me when he befriended me, something he thought might be valuable." That something was a somebody. Glover's cousin was Ronnie White, a member of The Miracles, at the time the Motown label's most important act. A year later, White agreed to check out the young prodigy.

Motown is often described as a "family". It is true that Motown grew strong on familial love, survived familial squabbling and thrived under a unified sense of purpose and pride - not least in the face of everyday and corporate racism - but it was more of a small kingdom with big plans for conquest, and its king was Berry Gordy. In order to reach Gordy's privy chamber at 2,648 West Grand Boulevard, Wonder would have to pass through the anterooms of his lieutenants, who were all impressed with this impish boy in sunglasses, but put off by the prospect of working with a minor. Gordy listened to the eleven- year-old and made a decision. After days of wrangling between the company and Lula, Wonder signed the standard Motown contract with an "X" under the name Steveland Morris. He was given a monthly wage of $200 and told his earnings would go into an escrow account, minus expenses.

In 1962 his name changed again. There are many stories about who first came up with the name "Wonder" but on the reason there is unanimity. Wonder was merely a description: it was what he was, even if Gordy, and Wonder's musical director and surrogate father, Clarence Paul, were still scratching their heads over what to do with him. His first album, The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie was a mishmash, which, if not commercially successful, at least put Wonder in the studio night and day. (Marvin Gaye, another Motown misfit waiting for his chance to strike, helped out on drums.)

Wonder joined the Motortown Revue on its first tour in October 1962 and soon caught the eye with skits of such exuberance he would have to be yanked away by Paul to placate the angry acts waiting to come on. He was literally stealing the show. It is easy to imagine many talented Motown writers and performers enduring a Salieri moment while listening to this soulful Amadeus.

The tour was a formative experience, exposing Wonder to the ingrained prejudice of the Deep South as well as his first large audiences. On the way to Birmingham, Alabama, the bus was shot at. He was passing through the land of sharecroppers, the land of "whites only" signs: the land of his mother - and he would remember the stench of injustice and wasted potential. But thanks to the wild reaction of audiences, Gordy followed a hunch and released a live single. "Fingertips Part 2", a harmonica riff with some well-placed hollering, reached No1 in the Billboard and R&B Singles chart in August 1963. The albumRecorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius also went to No1, Motown's first since it was founded four years earlier. Wonder was precocious, but still a boy, and a lonely one. "So, at 13 years old, you know you're a big star," he said. "OK, fine, but I want to go and watch Huckleberry Hound."

In commercial terms, the three years that followed "Fingertips" were fallow, as Motown searched down one cul-de-sac after another. Wonder then had a growth spurt: suddenly he was pushing 6ft and his face was changing from cute to handsome - but dips into lukewarm jazz standards and surf-movie soundtracks only heightened the fear that his sales would never quite match his talent.

His mid-teens were pocked with bouts of depression and isolation, a retreat that reflected his fears for the future. He had an operation to remove two nodules from his vocal cords, which drew a line through singing for most of 1964 and led to even more anxiety. A route out of this slump was provided by the Michigan School For The Blind, which became a sanctuary from the drug-fuelled politics of Motown and the attentions of Lula. Here, he divided his time between his tutor and latest father-figure, Ted Hull, and the music department. As the prodigy accelerated into his 15th year, Gordy described Wonder's now broken voice as a "controlled, powerful, versatile instrument". But he needed a hit. He found it with new writing partner, Sylvia Moy, who channelled his energy into more modern-sounding lyrics. "Uptight (Everything's Alright)", a song that makes being trampled by a marching band sound like fun, was the first fruit of this hip pairing and an international success. A year and a few hits further down the line Wonder released his version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind", which, however much of a curio, proved he was prepared to fight for his artistic freedom, forcing its release against the wishes of the Motown hierarchy. It also proved Gordy was right about that voice, which had never sounded so resonant or rich in complex emotion.

He followed that with a series of joyous sub-three-minute gems that stand tall beside the other great works of pop music's gilded window of 1966-69, including "I Was Made To Love Her", "My Cherie Amour" and "For Once In My Life". But as the Sixties ended, so too did Wonder's Motown-induced optimism. The 1971 album Where I'm Coming From is the often-cited breaking of the dam, but the truth is that almost everything he'd done since "Uptight" had been a grope for freedom. His world was in flux. In 1968 he graduated from high school and his relationship with Hull began to fracture in arguments over the war in Vietnam and Wonder's waning respect for the political establishment (the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy appalled and terrified him). Detroit itself had suffered repeated civil unrest, ignited by police brutality, unemployment and slum housing. As if this tumult wasn't enough, Wonder began to write with, and fall for, Motown starlet Syreeta Wright, whom he married in 1970.

Where I'm Coming From is a collection of disparate ideas held together by bloody-minded rebellion and the impetus of his partnership with Wright. Songs about race, civil rights and war were fired off on his Hohner clavinet, the stringed electric keyboard that became the great signifier of smouldering Seventies funk, and the instrument of which he became the undisputed master.

Now 21, all that remained was to loosen the chains of Motown itself. He called Gordy's bluff and opted out of a new contract, but of his estimated $3.5 million earnings since 1962, the company handed over only $100,000 - the rest had been chipped away as expenses. He then fled to New York just as Motown decamped to Los Angeles. Now there was a continent between them.

Posted by at December 15, 2014 6:07 PM

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