It’s hard to even remember music without Stevie Wonder. But 70 years ago — when Stevland Morris was born on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan — the music world was forever changed. Although he went blind as an infant, his artistic vision set a new bar for generations of musicians.
“I want my music to encourage people to understand that what the world needs is positivity, and that isn’t something that happens by happenstance,” Wonder told People magazine in 2005. “It is something that you have to commit yourself to every day by the way you treat your fellow man.”
As we celebrate his 70th journey around the sun — “Happy birthday to ya, Stevie!” — we look back on seven memorable moments in this music icon’s life.
1. Taking the stage
“Little Stevie Wonder” made his debut at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in December 1962, at the tender age of 12. He was so nervous that he dropped his bongos, but he went on to become an Apollo legend. The following year, he released his breakout hit, the No. 1 single “Fingertips,” from his album “Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius.” That was already Wonder’s third LP: His debut album, “The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie,” came out in September 1962.
2. First Grammy gold
Wonder has 25 Grammy awards at home — the first three of which he won for his classic 1972 album, “Talking Book,” which included the No. 1 single “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” He would go on to win the most prestigious Grammy, Album of the Year, three times in four years for 1973’s “Innervisions,” 1974’s “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and his double LP, 1976’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” He’s tied with Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon for the record of most Album of the Year wins in Grammy history.
3. Playing with Paul
Wonder is the Beatles of black music, setting the template for all of the soul men — and women — that would come after him, from Luther Vandross to Prince to Alicia Keys. So when he teamed up with a real Beatle, Paul McCartney, for their No. 1 hit “Ebony and Ivory” in 1982, it was a significant meeting for the R&B and pop worlds. The single was immortalized on “Saturday Night Live” with the skit featuring Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo.
4. Singing for change
Stevie was part of the all-star U.S.A. for Africa group that released “We Are the World” in 1985. He’s the second voice you hear on the international smash — one of the best-selling singles of all time — which benefited African famine relief. He was joined by other stars of the era such as Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross. But that wasn’t the only time Wonder let his music carry a message: Also, in ’85, he was part of the “That’s What Friends Are For” charity single with Dionne Warwick, Elton John and Gladys Knight that raised money and awareness for AIDS.
5. Honoring MLK
Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” track — off his 1980 album “Hotter Than July” — gave a musical anthem to the movement to make the day Martin Luther King Jr. arrived on Earth a national holiday. He would keep fighting the good fight, along with King’s widow Coretta Scott King, until President Reagan signed a bill making the third Monday in January a national holiday starting in 1986.
6. Bowling them over
Before Bruce Springsteen, before Prince, before Beyoncé, Wonder performed during the Super Bowl halftime show in 1999. The game pitted the Denver Broncos against the Atlanta Falcons. (The Broncos won 34-19.) During the halftime show, Wonder lit it up alongside Gloria Estefan and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.”
7. A royal performance
A king among musicians, Wonder performed at the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 with the likes of McCartney, Elton John and Ed Sheeran. And he tailored the lyrics of his classic “Isn’t She Lovely” just for the Queen. But last year, Wonder performed in honor of another Queen — the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin — as the last singer at her epic funeral.