The 1999 Polar Music Prize is awarded to the American singer and composer Stevie Wonder for a unique career as a singer, composer and stage artist. As a young boy he already stood with both feet on firm musical ground, rooted as he was in soul and gospel. After the early years with the legendary Motown recording company, which signed him up as a “Little Stevie Wonder” when he was only 12 years old, he gradually released a striking curiosity and responsiveness to current developments in black music, successfully incorporating in his own music a host of stylistic elements reflecting both tradition and renewal. These have since been amalgamated to form the supremely personal inflection which makes him one of the absolutely pivotal figures of present-day rock.
Little Stevie Wonder
Steveland Hardaway Judkins was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950, he would later change his name to Steveland Morris when his mother remarried. After the family had moved to Detroit in 1954, he began singing in his church’s choir and learned piano, drums, and harmonica all by the age of nine. Ronnie White from The Miracles discovered the child prodigy while he performed for some of his friends in 1961. Ronnie helped to arrange an audition with Berry Gordy at legendary record label Motown. Gordy signed the youngster immediately and teamed him with producer/songwriter Clarence Paul, under the new name Little Stevie Wonder, “the eighth wonder of the world” as White called him.
The eight wonder of the world
Little Stevie Wonder released two albums on Motown, A Tribute to Uncle Ray, which featured covers of Stevie’s hero Ray Charles, and The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, an orchestral jazz album spotlighting his instrumental skills on piano, harmonica, and assorted percussion.
The sales were not doing so well until 1963 with the live album The 12 Year Old Genius, which featured a new extended version of the harmonica instrumental “Fingertips.” Edited for release as a single with lyrics, “Fingertips, Pt. 2” went straight to the top of both the pop and R&B charts, thanks to Wonder’s irresistible, youthful exuberance, and The 12 Year Old Genius became Motown’s first chart-topping LP.
Wonder charted a few more singles over the next year, but none on the level of “Fingertips, Pt. 2.” He also released a cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and featured with a live performance in the popular teen movie Muscle Beach Party in 1964.
The legendary music label Motown with its sublabels Tamla, was founded in January, 1959 by Barry Gordy. It would become a new kind of factory in car city Detroit, that produced massive hits and a new kind of music melting pop, R&B and gospel, that would change America both musically and socially.
In the middle of the civil rights movement, Motown was owned by black people, produced black artists and spread music originating from the black musical traditions to the white world. And with great success. The sound of Motown would create a whole new generation of bands, styles and idols for the younger generations. Motown has been the starting point for worldwide artists Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder, among many others.
After his first huge teen-successes, Stevie Wonder dropped the “Little” portion of his stage name and released the typical Motown-sounding smash hit “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” in 1965, that he co-wrote with Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy who would become his new songwriting team. This also reinvented him as a more mature vocalist in the public’s mind and from now on Stevie Wonder grew up musically with every song he recorded. He also began to work in the Motown songwriting department, composing songs both for himself and his label mates, including “Tears of a Clown” for Smokey Robinson and “It’s a Shame” for The Spinners.
A cover of Bacharach/David’s “Alfie” led to a complete instrumental album released just after his Greatest hits album of 1968, under the pseudonym Eivets Rednow, where most of the instruments were played by Wonder. This rare but genius album that never really took off.
The "new" Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder married his co-writing partner Syreeta Wright in 1970 with whom he co-wrote som of his biggest hits at the time, like “Signed Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours).” His “youth contract” with Motown expired in 1971 when he for the first time could gain more artistic and financial control over his own music, building his own studio and creating his own publishing company. Free from the rules for what a song should sound like he could start to develop a new career and his own artistic expressions, starting to use other sounds like those produced by Moog synthesizers and other electronic instruments on his first album out on his own, Music of My Mind. He finally returned to Motown for his commercial releases but with a very different deal in his favour: more royalties and more artistic freedom.
Defining a "Wonder" sound
Talking Book, which followed up Music of My Mind, would be the first international breakthrough for Stevie Wonder and from then on he became one of the most loved and respected artists and composers. Guest appearances include Jeff Beck, Ray Parker, Jr., David Sanborn, and Buzz Feiten and the sound of the Hohner clavinet C on “Superstition” will be a recognizable and typical trademark for Wonder’s new sound from now on.
Songs in the key of life
The album took almost two years to finalize, a very long period for being Stevie Wonder who had released one album per year since his debut.
The result was a masterpiece and a major milestone in Wonder’s career and his most complete work in music, experimentation and lyrics. Songs in the Key of Life was released as a double album in 1976, a year after the birth of his daughter Aisha whom he dedicated “Isn’t She Lovely” to. It combined themes of love and relationships, spirituality, social and political issues and stayed three months on Billboards #1 and won two Grammies.
Eighties and onwards
Stevie Wonder continued his productive career by evolving in his music and put his genius at the service of others. He wrote film music, honored his friend Marvin Gaye who passed away in 1984 and is part of the ’80s charity project USA for Africa in which he helped compose, “We Are the World” together with Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson och Lionel Ritchie. His album In Square Circle was in preparation but got delayed for some years, being finally released in 1991. The album contained the controversial song “Apartheid (It’s Wrong)” which gave his long time activism for South Africa its own soundtrack. He got an Academy Award for “I just called…” and dedicated it to Nelson Mandela, imprisoned at that time, which made South African government ban his music.
Stevie Wonder’s career has been marked by his political and social activism, both in music and in actions. He was a strong spokesman for making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday through his song “Happy Birthday” from 1980, the holiday was finally voted on in 1986. Stevie Wonder’s face and name were also used in a Don’t drink & drive-campaign from 1984 with the quote “Before I’ll ride with a drunk, I’ll drive myself.”
In 1985 he was arrested in front of the South African embassy in Washington during a peaceful action against Apartheid. In 2009 he became an ambassador for the UN focusing on disabled kids and he has also been active during Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
Stockholm May 1999
Stevie Wonder received the Polar Music Prize together with Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis. Legendary jazz musician Toots Thielemans performed at the banquet, a surprise for the very happy and honoured Stevie Wonder who took to the stage for a jam session. Stevie Wonder also performed his classic “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” before thanking the academy for the prize.