Musical prodigies rarely do well as adults. With all the changes involved in growing up, to say nothing of consistently shifting public tastes, what was once charming is often viewed as silly, or worse, desperate. Born blind, Stevie Wonder was signed, sealed and delivered to Motown Records at age 12. Billed as "Little Stevie Wonder, The Boy Genius," he released his first single in 1962. Deeply influenced by Ray Charles (and what musician in the late '50s or early '60s wasn't), Wonder's first hit "Fingertips Pt. II" came a year later.
The Motown of the early '60s was a sleek pop music machine - Hitsville, U.S.A. Founder Berry Gordy, once a General Motors assembly line worker took the same approach with music. Blessed with the peerless songwriting team of Eddie Holland-Lamont Dozier-Brian Holland, each Motown act (Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, etc.) would record a song (usually with the same backing musicians) with the best version released as a single. The "loser" versions wound up on albums. Nothing wasted. Only two major Motown artists were exempt from this production cycle. One was soul great Marvin Gaye, who probably didn't put up with it, and Stevie Wonder. Wonder brought an energy and drive, with rough Rock 'n' Roll edges, not heard in the other Motown acts of the era. While the connection to Ray Charles was on the surface obvious; both were blind, African-American keyboardists, Wonder was actually just a notch or two below Little Richard's frantic drive. "Signed, Sealed and Delivered," "I Was Made To Love Her," "Uptight" and even a cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind" were hits.
By the end of the '60s Motown's pop machine was running on empty. Hard Rock, Acid Rock, Folk Rock and the whole-misguided singer/songwriter trend pushed Motown aside. Not that Motown acts didn't go down without a fight. Socially relevant lyrics, studio tricks and sound effects were used in an effort to keep relevant but really only served to bury the once sleek Motown sound. Gaye managed to bridge the gap with "What's Goin' On" which credibly captured the street vibe. Wonder took it a step further adding a strong back beat. Even though "Talking Book," released in '72, had the MOR pop of "You Are The Sunshine of My Life" it also contained the fabulous "Superstition." "Innervisions" ('73) featured the gritty "Livin' For The City."
The only real knock against Stevie Wonder's career was he beat Paul McCartney at his own game. Paul could Rock but tended to favor ballads. Wonder, who could kick it out with the best of them, relied more and more on ballads to sustain his popularity through the late '70s. This wasn't so bad. What killed him was, ironically, an incredibly huge hit in '84, "I Just Called To Say I Love You," containing a backing track that sounded like it was recorded for Muzak. The beat was driven by a metronome rather than a groove. That's what you get for using (or overusing) synthesizers. But as often happens, bad music earns big rewards. Radio and MTV drilled the thing into the ground. As if everyone wasn't already sick of the thing, Wonder (and/or his management) licensed the song to AT&T who launched seemingly ubiquitous "I Just Called To Say I Love You" commercials (completed with Wonder singing into a phone). If that wasn't enough to kill a career, it also appeared in a truly unfunny Gene Wilder vehicle "Woman In Red" (at least McCartney got a Bond flick) which contained other forgettable Wonder creations. Wonder spent the rest of the decade trying to regain his footing but to no avail.
In the '60s Stevie Wonder made a joyful noise. Still largely a singles artist (at a time when that was the thing) "Definitive Collection" does the trick. The two record set contains a generous collection of '60s hits then moves strongly into the '70s with "Higher Ground," "You Ain't Don Nothin', the rollicking Duke Ellington tribute "Sir Duke" and a couple of excellent Reggae influenced numbers, "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and Master Blaster (Jammin'). For some reason, "Isn't She Lovely" is omitted but that's a small point. The set only falters at the very end. The 70's find a mature and more in command Wonder. The "Little" is gone as Wonder produces two excellent albums back to back, "Talking Book" and "Innervisions." Though "I Just Called To Say I Love You" did more damage than good, Wonder was already on a steep decline. Most of his late '70s material is marginal (the double set "Songs In The Key of Life" has some great songs but it also burdened with a lot of filler). Forget the '80s, the ballads are often the best tracks - never a good sign.