5 reasons why Stevie Wonder deserves his Gershwin award
26th Feb 2009 | 12:51
MusicRadar salutes a musical genius
On Wednesday night, Stevie Wonder became only the second person in history to receive the Gershwin prize for Popular Song, the highest honour that can be bestowed on an American pop musician.
He received the award from President Barack Obama, himself a big Wonder fan. Indeed, when introducing Wonder, Obama went so far as to quip: "I think it's fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me, we might not have married."
MusicRadar can't think of a more deserving recipient of this prestigious prize (Paul Simon, in 2007, was the only other person to be similarly honoured) and we can give you five reasons why.
1. He's a pioneer
Few artists – if any – have released such a high-quality run of albums as Stevie did in the 1970s. Music Of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale and Songs In The Key Of Life kept the bar remarkably high, but not only were these records popular, they were also groundbreaking.
With Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil (AKA Tonto's Expanding Head Band), Wonder pioneered the use of synthesizers in mainstream music, simultaneously redefining what soul/R&B music could sound like. His interest in technology has never waned: he's still a regular visitor to the Winter NAMM Show, where he likes to test the very latest gear.
Here's the fabulous Boogie On Reggae Woman, from 1974's Fulfillingness' First Finale.
2. He took control of his career
When Stevie's original contract with Motown expired on his 21st birthday, rather than simply sign a new one, he took the royalties that had been held in trust for him and built his own recording studio. He then renegotiated his deal with Motown, ending up with an agreement that entitled him to a greater share of royalties and full artistic control. He also set up his own publishing company.
All of which proves that, as well as being a genius musician, Wonder also knows how to get what he wants.
1971's Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer was one of the first songs that Wonder both co-wrote and produced.
3. He can play more instruments than you
Some of us are proficient on one instrument, while others might be able to hold their own on one or two more, but Stevie's playing skills are extraordinarily wide-ranging.
As well as being a master of various keyboard instruments – notably the piano (acoustic and electric) and Clavinet – he can also play the drums, bass guitar, congas, bongos and, famously, the chromatic harmonica. Oh, and he's a very capable producer, too.
4. He's survived some dubious moments
Like many artists, Stevie has, on occasion, blotted his copybook. Despite being a big hit, I Just Called To Say I Love You is an unmitigated piece of schmaltz, and though the sentiments that motivated Ebony and Ivory, his duet with Paul McCartney, were honourable, the record itself has a certain naffness.
Despite these inauspicious moments, though, Stevie's place in musical history is assured. His good stuff massively outweighs the bad.
That said, we still don't know what he was thinking when he agreed to be part of this.
5. He brought the funk to Sesame Street
Plenty of artists have been invited to appear with Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and co, but surely few have given such a kick-ass performance as Stevie did when he turned up in April 1973.
This is as tight a rendition of Superstition as you're ever likely to hear. Make sure you check out the kid who gets lost in the music at 4:10 – we know how he feels.