You know the story: Stevie Wonder, the man who brought us such classics as Hotter Than July and Songs In The Key Of Life, was born Steveland Morris six weeks premature.
But this proved to be a big problem because the blood vessels at the back of his eyes had not yet reached the front and their aborted growth caused the retinas to detach. The medical term for this condition is retinopathy of prematurity or ROP, and it was exacerbated by the oxygen pumped into his incubator.
Despite his “handicap,” Stevie made history with an incredible deal that led to the creation of Songs In the Key Of Life. After the papers were signed, Wonder had a seven-year contract that promised him a $13 million advance (with the opportunity to net up to $37 million if he delivered more than his album-per-year minimum), 20 percent royalties, and control of his publishing. At the time, it was the biggest deal that had ever been done in the music industry. Time magazine noted that it was more than Elton John and Neil Diamond’s contracts combined.
“In those days $13 million was a lot of money,” Gordy said in the 1997 Classic Albums: Songs in the Key of Life documentary. “I’d heard that was an unprecedented deal, the most that had ever been paid. But I had to do it because there was no way I was going to lose Stevie. I was shaking in my boots!”
Throughout his career, the now 70-year-old Stevie has been an advocate for the voiceless, the creator of words for those going through something and the soundtrack to many of our lives. And through it all, he has always kept a smile. Even though some have left him high and dry, Stevie had to take advantage of him and more…he looks at the silver lining.
“I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage,” said Wonder. “And I never thought of being black as a disadvantage. I am what I am. I love me! And I don’t mean that egotistically – I love that God has allowed me to take whatever it was that I had and to make something out of it.”
“I’m always optimistic, but the world isn’t. People need to make a jump to a place of positivity but they put it all on one person to make it happen,” he says. “It takes everybody. And the mindset has to be different. ”
Everything started in 1961, when, at the age of 11, “Little Stevie” who played many instruments and sang in the church choir, signed a contract with Motown. “Fingertips” was his first big hit and his career took off from there. Hit singles came one after another before Wonder let his Motown contract expire. He was in his early twenties with about a dozen classics behind him, still, his best work was yet to come. From that moment, nobody and nothing was able to stop his shine.
But something almost did. Stevie vividly remembered the car crash in which he nearly lost his life. It was 1973, and the sedan in which he was traveling careened into a truck. His wounds were severe. He permanently lost his sense of smell and temporarily lost his sense of taste.
“It was on 6 August that I almost died in that car accident,” he recalls. It was a key date for another reason. “It was also on 6 August – 1988 – that my son Kwame was born. Life is funny.”
Does the crash remain the most significant event of his life?
“It is significant,” he explains, and it’s a typical Wonder response, “I was blessed to come out of it. God gave me life to continue to do things that I would never have done.”
It was after that he penned such albums as Hotter Than July, Songs In the Key of Life and many hits that…