For many, the Sixties didn’t start truly swinging until 1963. That year saw the first singles by The Rolling Stones, and the release of Bob Dylan’s anthemic The Times They Are A-Changin’ album, which saw him lauded as a spokesman for the protest movement. Beatlemania broke out in 1963 too – sending Liverpool band's records sales into the stratosphere and their fans into delirium. But while the Fab Four were mop-topping the UK charts, another once-in-a-lifetime artist was taking off spectacularly Stateside.
Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins, he had performed as a child in the choir at the Whitestone Baptist Church in his hometown of Saginaw, Michigan, along with his mother and siblings. By the tender age of 10, the boy Wonder could sing and play piano and drums. He was snapped up by Motown Records a year later. Hearing him messing around on instruments in the studio, Motown boss Berry Gordy, Jr marvelled out loud that this boy was a wonder; the name stuck.
There was no doubting Stevie’s talent, and he regularly sat in on sessions for other Motown artists, playing everything from keyboards to bongos. But his own first three singles tanked, and doubts were raised about his commercial potential. All that changed in 1963: on 10 August, aged just 13 years 189 days, he scored a US Billboard Hot 100 No.1 single (and R&B No.1) with the infectious “Fingertips – Part 2”, showcasing his snappy harmonica style.
Stevie had recorded the tune at the Chicago’s Regal Theater on 10 March 1963. Appearing as part of a Motown package tour, he’d already been playing it for 10 minutes, to the delight of the audience; backstage, however, there were concerns that the show would overrun. His band stopped and began to clear their equipment; the backing group for the next act (The Marvelettes) started setting up… and Stevie broke into “Fingertips” yet again. The musicians onstage snapped into the groove, and the last three minutes became “Fingertips Part 2”. When the track reached No.1, Stevie became the youngest solo artist to have topped the Billboard Hot 100 – though another future Motown superstar, Michael Jackson, was aged just 11 years 155 days when The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” topped the Billboard charts in January 1970.
“Fingertips – Part 2” came from the album Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, itself a Billboard No.1, making Stevie the youngest artist to top the Billboard Hot 100 LP chart. Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius features three covers of tunes by Ray Charles, Wonder’s idol – like Stevie, Charles was extravagantly talented but blind.
Unlike countless other child stars, Stevie went on to carve out a major career for himself as an adult. A superb songwriter, he also pioneered the use of synthesisers in the early 1970s, recording a string of funky best-selling albums including Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976). And he still found time to visit Sesame Street…
The long list of good causes he has promoted down the years include civil rights, Elton John’s AIDS Foundation and the Global Poverty Project. Famously, he dedicated his 1985 Oscar for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” to the then imprisoned Nelson Mandela; his records were promptly banned by radio stations in South Africa, a country then still under apartheid rule. That same year, he lined up alongside a host of superstars including Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson on the mammoth-selling USA for Africa charity single “We Are The World”, which became the fastest-selling single in US history.
Little wonder that Stevie received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2014. Then again, he’s no stranger to gongs. To date, he has picked up 22 Grammy Awards – another GWR record (no pop solo artist has scored more) – and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996 when he was aged just 46. But as you now know, he started young…