Stevie Wonder is a music legend. His songs about love and social justice have topped the charts and moved hearts for decades. But it’s a “wonder” we have his music at all. From his near-fatal birth to an accident that almost took away his talent, Wonder’s music is a rare gift. And that’s to say nothing about his family feuds, mysterious mistresses and looney lawyers. These are the wild facts about Stevie Wonder, music’s miraculous prodigy, that every audiophile has to know.
1. He Arrived Earlier Than Expected
Stevland Hardaway Morris got the stage name “Stevie Wonder” because of his musical talents. But, frankly, the real “wonder” was the fact that he even survived his infancy. The soon-to-be musical prodigy was born six weeks ahead of schedule. To save his life, the doctors had to put him in an incubator. But it wasn’t a perfect solution.
2. He Wears Sunglasses At Night
Audiences today know Stevie Wonder as much for his voice as they do for his distinctive, dark sunglasses. But his trademark sunglasses aren’t a fashion statement. The incubator that saved Wonder’s life also had a brutal side effect. It cost him his vision. The oxygen rich environment of the incubator caused something called retinopathy of prematurity—as in permanent, irreversible blindness.
3. His Mother Blamed Herself
Quite apart from the fact that she had given birth prematurely, Wonder’s mother blamed herself for his condition. Not only had Wonder’s mother been abandoned by her own mother, she’d also been rejected by her father, kicked out by her aunt, and suckered into a marriage with an older man. With all this trauma in her life, she thought that Wonder’s blindness was God’s divine retribution for her own sins.
Little did she know, however, that his blindness was, in fact, a blessing.
4. He Was Happy To Be Blind
Stevie Wonder remembered that his mother used to cry “all the time” over his blindness. But what she considered to be a terrible curse, he thought was the greatest blessing anyone could ask for. Wonder explained to his mother that he was “happy to be blind”. And it’s not like he didn’t have other talents to compensate for his lack of sight.
5. He Was A Musical Prodigy
One thing Wonder inherited from his mother—who was, herself, a musician—was an ear for rhythm. Perhaps because he was blind shortly after his birth, Wonder’s other senses were heightened. By the time he was just nine years old, he was already well on his way to musical stardom, displaying virtuoso-level skills on the piano, harmonica and drums.
With talents like that, he was destined for greatness…if he could just stay out of trouble.
6. He Was A Daredevil
Stevie Wonder never acted like he was blind. In fact, he was even something of a daredevil. From the time that he could walk, he used to do all kinds of crazy things. Wonder played with the other kids from his neighborhood, riding bikes, climbing trees and even driving cars. But some of his other stunts nearly ended his career before it began.
7. He Took A Leap Of Faith
For someone who is blind, just about every step is a leap of faith. Of course, Stevie Wonder had to take that literally—something taking his life into his hands. When he was just a boy, Wonder jumped off the roof of the shed in his backyard. His mother just so happened to be walking by and caught the musical prodigy before he went “splat” on the ground below.
8. He Caught The Ear Of Motown
Ultimately, it was a good thing that Wonder never let his blindness get in the way of playing with kids his age. Because it just so happened that one of the boys in his neighborhood was the younger brother of Motown recording artist, Ronnie White. And once White caught wind of Wonder, he knew that the world of music would never be the same.
9. He Gave The Audition Of A Lifetime
Ronnie White was so impressed with Stevie Wonder that he brought him into Motown to show off his talents. And if Wonder had the gift of sight, he might have been too nervous to play. The musical boy “wonder” got his very first audition in front of the all-powerful CEO, Berry Gordy. Wonder might have been blind but Gordy saw dollar signs.
10. He Made Peanuts
At just 12 years of age, Stevie Wonder became the most-anticipated new talent at Motown—but there was a dark side to his big break. The terms of his contract were anything but favorable. Because he was still a minor, Motown held all of the royalties that he made (a middling 2%) and paid him only to cover his expenses. It would take a while for Wonder to find his sound anyway.
11. He Was Carried Off Stage
Maybe it was his youth and inexperience or the lack of creative control he had at Motown but Wonder’s early recordings didn’t fare particularly well. His live performances, however, left audiences dumbstruck and Wonder never wanted to get off the stage. In fact, his producer had to physically carry him off.
With that kind of passion, it was just a matter of time before he hit it big.
12. He Topped The Charts
Wonder’s live performances were so magnetic that even the recordings of them turned into smash hits. The live recording of “Fingertips”, for example, went straight to the top of the charts. At just 13, Little Stevie Wonder became the youngest artist ever to top the Billboard Hot 100. Despite this success, you might say that he was beginning to crack.
13. He Was Beginning To Crack
Musical prodigy or not, puberty comes for everyone. And in 1963, at 13 years old, it came for Stevie Wonder—and the results were devastating. His already-famous voice began to crack. Motown CEO Berry Gordy thought that Wonder’s recording days were over.
But not everyone at Motown was ready to five up on the musical prodigy. Fellow Motown artist, Syreeta Wright, saw his potential—and not just in music.
14. He Was “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”
Syreeta Wright stayed with Wonder and helped him to write and produce his own songs. In fact, she was partially responsible for some of Wonder’s most memorable hits of the 1960s, including “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”. For the two Motown artists, the lyrics of that soul classic turned out to be authentic.
15. He Was Kind Of A Control Freak
All throughout his youth, Wonder felt that he hadn’t met with the success he deserved because he wasn’t free to make the music he wanted. So, when he reached the age of maturity at 21 and his contract with Motown expired, he made a risky decision.
He wanted to strike out on his own unless Motown gave him complete control over his music.
16. He Had A Short Marriage
When Stevie Wonder left Motown, he didn’t exactly leave empty-handed. In 1970, he and Syreeta Wright decided to make more than just sweet music together—they were making sweet love. However, their fairytale had an unhappy ending.
The highly secretive marriage only lasted for 18 months. We’ll probably never know why the marriage fell apart. But we can always speculate.
17. He Has A Secret Child
One possible reason why Wonder and Wright’s romance didn’t last? Well, he might not have been faithful to her. Sometime before 1975, he had a child with a woman named Yolanda Simmons, a secretary working at his publishing company. It’s impossible to know if the office romance was the reason for the end of Wonder’s marriage. After all, we know exactly nothing about this mysterious love child.
But we know all about the kid that came next.
18. He Was Friends With His Ex
Wonder and Wright managed to keep the details of their failed marriage out of the tabloids. But from what little leaked out, it doesn’t seem like their romance was entirely unharmonious. Even though their marriage lasted about as long as the B-side of an album, they remained friendly throughout their lives. Even through Wonder’s many more romances.
19. He Thought She Was Lovely
In 1975, Yolanda Simmons gave birth to yet another one of Wonder’s children. This time, we know a lot about the little bundle of joy because Wonder wrote a song about her. His greatest hit of all time, “Isn’t She Lovely” is about his second child, Aisha Morris. Of his daughter, he said, “she was the one thing that I needed in my life and in my music for a long time".
20. He Got His Freedom
Wonder’s gamble with Motown paid off. Even though he hadn’t produced as many hits as they hoped, Motown agreed to take Wonder back and gave him total artistic freedom. And considering that’s when his career took off, freedom was just what he needed. Well, freedom…and a vicious, ruthless, unpredictable viper for a lawyer.
21. He Had Strange Friends
The reason for Wonder’s new favorable contract with Motown wasn’t his own musical talent. It was his lawyer, Johanan Vigoda. You might say that Vigoda’s legal tactics were a little off key. According to those who knew him, Vigoda had a liking for “exotic diets” and spent more time “wandering around Venice Beach, dressed like a homeless person” than he did in court.
It’s not like he couldn’t have afforded better suits.
22. His Lawyer Robbed Him Blind
There’s a persistent rumor that Vigoda negotiated Wonder’s precedent-setting contract with Motown while striking a yoga pose. On his head. Even though he’d gotten the better of them, the running joke around Motown was that “if Wonder could see the lawyer, he’d fire him”. They weren’t wrong. You might say that Vigoda was robbing Wonder blind.
23. His Lawyer Wanted Too Much Credit
There’s no doubt that Vigoda helped to free Wonder to create the music that he we all know and love. But he maybe wanted more credit than he deserved. Decades after Vigoda negotiated Wonder’s contract and after years of friendship, Wonder suffered a shocking betrayal.
Vigoda’s widow sued the legendary artist, citing the fine print in his contract.
24. He Was On The Hook—Forever
Vigoda’s widow pointed to a clause in Wonder’s contract pertaining to royalties. It stated that Wonder would have to pay 6% to Vigoda and his heirs—in perpetuity. In his defense, Wonder claimed that he was unaware of the clause because he hadn’t read the contract, what with being blind and all. Ultimately, they settled out of court.
25. He Was Superstitious
However their relationship ended, Vigoda was the reason that, in 1970, Wonder was free to pursue his musical creativity. And pursue it he did. Wonder began experimenting with different instruments and synthesizers, developing a deep love for the clavinet. In a fit of creative passion, he wrote the smash hit “Superstition”.
Oddly enough, he was superstitious about recording it.
26. He Got Some Bad Karma
Stevie Wonder wrote “Superstition” for guitarist Jeff Beck. But Motown boss Berry Gordy knew that “Superstition” was the song that he had been waiting a decade to hear from Wonder. But Wonder refused to record it for a bizarre reason. He was fearful that he would ruin his karma, but Gordy convinced him and the rest is history.
Unfortunately, bad karma was waiting just around the corner on a highway in North Carolina.
27. He Wrote An Album That Meant Something
On August 3, 1973, Wonder released the sound-altering album Innervisions. The record was everything that Wonder had wanted to say with his music for years. With lyrics that meant something, the album touched “on the social problems of the world” and immediately became a critical and commercial success. And then it all came crashing down.
28. He Got Into A Car Accident
Stevie Wonder almost never lived to see the success and cultural impact of Innervisions. Just three days after he released the album, on the night of August 6, 1973, Wonder nearly lost his musical gift—and his life. While on tour in North Carolina to promote the album, Wonder got into a car accident. The details are a little hazy but that carnage is not.
29. He Was Struck By…Lumber?
Different sources give different accounts of the gruesome accident. According to some sources, a truck carrying lumber lost control and smashed into Wonder’s vehicle. Other sources claimed that it was Wonder’s vehicle that ran headlong into the truck, possibly resulting in a log striking Wonder. Either way, the outcome was not good.
30. He Had A Really Big Head
Regardless of who was at fault in the car accident, Stevie Wonder was the one who ended up paying the price. His injuries from the near-fatal car accident were so severe that he was comatose and his friends and family barely recognized him. They described his head as being “swollen up to five times its normal size”. But his music had the power to heal.
31. His Music Was Medicinal
Wonder’s friends and family knew that he enjoyed listening to music at deafening volumes. So, they tried an unorthodox form of treatment. Fellow musician Ira Tucker began singing Wonder’s hit song “Higher Ground” from his recently released album right in his ear. And by sing, we mean shout. Clearly, however, the treatment worked.
32. He Slowly Regained Consciousness
After just a couple of days of having his music shouted into his ear, Stevie Wonder who had been unresponsive, stunned his friends and family. He began tapping his fingers to the beat. It was a promising sign but it would be another two weeks before Wonder regained full consciousness. And even then, everyone feared the worst.
33. He Thought He Lost His Gift
When he realized what had happened to him, Wonder feared that the massive truck had knocked his musical gift right out of him. Berry Gordy, however, never lost faith. The Motown CEO had Wonder’s beloved clavinet sent to the hospital. As Wonder cautiously touched his fingers to the keyboard, he knew everything was going to work out fine. He still had the music.
But there was something he did not have.
34. He Didn’t Find Love For Years
After his brief (but almost certainly beautiful) marriage to Syreeta Wright, Wonder had difficulty finding love. Except, of course, in the lyrics to his songs. The soul singer didn’t remarry until 2001, when he tied the knot to the fashion designer Kai Millard. We don’t know much about the Wonder/Millard marriage—except that Nelson Mandela played a key role in it.
35. He Was A Stylish Activist
Issues around race and social justice were always a central theme in Wonder’s music. In 1985, however, he took his activism out of the recording studio and onto the streets. On Valentine’s Day, Wonder stepped out in front of the South African embassy in Washington DC to protest Apartheid wearing a fur coat and a sign that read “Free South Africa”.
36. He Stood Up To Apartheid
Wonder’s stunt outside of the South African embassy landed him in deep trouble. The celebrity singer was cuffed by officers at the protest, along with 47 other protesters. He proudly called his temporary incarceration an "expression of love to all the people of South Africa”. But, in his mind, the true hero was still sitting behind bars.
37. He Dedicated His Oscar To Mandela
Later that same year, Stevie Wonder won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1984. But his hit single, "I Just Called To Say I Love You", was more than just a few pretty words strung together over a melody. When Wonder accepted the Oscar, he dedicated it to Nelson Mandela, who was still rotting away as a political prisoner in South Africa.
The powers that be, however, did not appreciate Wonder’s show of solidarity.
38. He Took The “Higher Ground”
Wonder’s support for Nelson Mandela had disturbing consequences. The government of South Africa banned his music across the country. As always, however, Wonder took the “Higher Ground”. Instead of lashing out at the South African government, Wonder spent his 35th birthday singing a Mandela-themed version of "I Just Called to Say I Love You” outside of the United Nations.
His activism paid off.
39. He Received An Unexpected Call
20 years after his brave stand against Apartheid, Nelson Mandela gave Wonder an honor he couldn’t forget. When Wonder’s second wife, Kai Millard, gave birth to a baby boy on Wonder’s own 55th birthday, he got a blast from the past. Nelson Mandela himself reached out to the legendary singer and said, “I just called to say I want to name your child”.
40. He Couldn’t Accept Mandela’s Gift
Needless to say, Stevie Wonder and his wife were honored to have Mandela—the man responsible for liberating South Africa from Apartheid—name their child. There was just one problem. As Millard herself put it, “He [Mandela] gave us two names, one of which we couldn't pronounce. So we chose Mandla”.
And Mandela wasn’t the only civil rights activist that Wonder helped to elevate.
41. He Made MLK’s Day
Helping Nelson Mandela end Apartheid should be enough to get anyone on the good side of civil rights activists. But Wonder went even further. He’s partly to thank for Martin Luther King Jr Day being a national holiday. He teamed up with MLK's widow to amass six million signatures for the cause of celebrating MLK Day.
But not everyone cared for Wonder’s civil rights accomplishments.
42. His Cousin Made Crazy Accusations
Johanan Vigoda’s widow wasn’t the only one with her knives out for Wonder. Back in 2012, the music legend’s own cousin tried to extort $10 million from him. Alpha Walker claimed that Wonder was a “slumlord” who had abandoned his mother to live in squalor—but then he made an even more disturbing claim.
He accused Wonder of sleeping with members of his family. Needless to say, the allegations went nowhere. But Wonder hasn’t been without his fair share of scandals.
43. He Has Mysterious Mistresses
Stevie Wonder has managed to keep the details of his private life very private. But even the broad strokes paint a picture that is not always very flattering. For example, we know that Wonder has two children with a woman whose identity has remained a secret. The mistresses we do know of, however, provide us with more than enough fodder for the tabloids.
44. He Went “Viral”
According to news reports, Wonder “enjoys a good relationship with all his exes”—all of them except one. Angela McAfee, a former wardrobe consultant, sued Wonder for $30 million—and her accusations went “viral”. McAfee claimed that Wonder had given her a venereal disease and breached a verbal agreement where he would “be the sole income earner”.
45. He Had An Infection
McAfee went on to claim that Wonder had hired her to help him with “bladder, hemorrhoid and fungus infection problems”. She claimed that she had even redesigned his residence with a Braille system that made him more independent. For his part, Wonder countersued, accusing McAfee of theft. In the end, the judge threw up his hands and ordered the pair to settle out of court.
46. He’s A Flying Ace
Audiences and critics alike know Stevie Wonder for his ability to play numerous musical instruments. Including, apparently, a flight control deck. While flying with the former Ghanaian president, the blind (but clearly multi-talented) musician assumed control of the cockpit and successfully landed the full 13-seater plane.
47. He Has A Sixth Sense For Beauty
Even though he’s been blind since before he could talk (far less sing), Wonder has always been something of a ladies’ man. But, it was always kind of a mystery as to how he could know a beautiful woman when he “saw” one. He ended up providing a hilarious explanation.
Wonder claimed that a beautiful lady ”wears an expensive top, is not loud when she speaks, and smells good”.
48. He Keeps An Entourage
In addition to a woman who “smells good”, Wonder claimed that a woman who is “light on her feet” necessarily means that she “must be a pretty lady”. Of course, if ever his strange sixth sense for beauty failed him, an unnamed source said that Wonder keeps an entourage that will tell him “if someone has a nice behind”.
49. He’s All Above Love
There’s no doubt about it, Stevie Wonder is one of those “larger-than-life” characters. It’s nearly impossible to sum him up. But when it all boils down, there has only ever been one constant in Wonder’s love: love. “No one has been a greater advocate for the power of love in this world than I have,” Wonder said, “both in my life and in my music”.
50. He’ll Run Out Of Miracles Eventually
Whether he was jumping off of sheds or slipping into comas, Stevie Wonder has had some premature near brushes with the Grim Reaper. Sadly, eventually, his day will come. But he’s well-prepared. Wonder sang at the Michael Jackson memorial service, the Whitney Houston memorial service, and at the funerals of Etta James and Aretha Franklin.
Who will sing at his funeral?