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How Stevie Wonder defeated Motown

Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy who has been singing for his whole life. When he was just 10-years old, he could be spotted on the streets of Detroit. It was only a matter of time before he would get snapped up and become a superstar.

A year later, in 1961, Wonder’s relationship with Motown Records began when he was only 11-years-old, and this love affair lasted for over half a century until it came to an end in 2020. Back when he joined the label, he wasn’t even Stevie Wonder and still went under his real name, Steveland Hardaway Morris. At the same time, Motown Records wasn’t the household name that it is today, instead, only finding minimal moments of radio play.

Like two trees in a forest, the two grew together at the same pace, with Wonder getting tied to a deal that allowed him to release music at a furious pace but without the guarantees of riches he had maybe hoped for. Despite selling countless records, he was tied into an agreement that prevented him from enjoying the financial freedom that the success of his music should have afforded him.

However, it wasn’t just money that was irking Wonder. He was still a youngster and lived a pretty ordinary life, so money wasn’t really an issue; it was the lack of creative control that upset Wonder during his early artistic years. The first contract that Wonder signed, at 11-years-old, was a four-year recording deal that included a three-year artist management agreement. Wonder was to only earn a two per cent royalty on the retail price of his recordings sold by Motown. Back then, the list price of a 45rpm single was 98 cents, and when you’re only making two per cent royalties, then you have to sell an ocean of records to be rich.

“When Ronnie White of The Miracles first brought Stevie to Motown for Berry to hear him,” the company’s marketing chief Barney Ales remembered to Cuepoint, “someone said this kid was another ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson, who could play the piano unbelievably. Sugar Chile was great in concert but never sold records. That’s what I told Berry: that Stevie was certainly capable of playing all these instruments, but was he going to sell?”

For the first couple of years, Ales’ fears about Wonder being a commercial success were proved right, then, in 1963, everything changed. Wonder recorded a live album in Chicago which became the label’s biggest success to date, and he instantly became hot property.

Motown wanted to milk as many hits out of him as possible, but his career would be a setback for a couple of years after his voice broke as a teenager, and Wonder had to discover what kind of artist he truly wanted to be.

In 1968, he’d break out into the mainstream with ‘For Once In My Life’, and suddenly people who otherwise weren’t obsessed with the Motown scene now cared about Wonder — he became an artist who had a crossover appeal in more ways than one. The track became an international super-hit and one of the most famous records ever released on Motown. Wonder was still a teenager at this point. He was tied down on a deal which he was unhappy about yet had no choice but to carry on making other people money.

‘For Once In My Life’ was the type of music that Wonder wanted to keep on making, and the release provided a landmark moment for him as an artist. The singer was at the peril of Motown, who decided what he sang and when he released it.

Although Motown had become one of the coolest labels on the planet by the time Wonder turned 21 in 1971 — he was completely disillusioned. Now he was one of the most in-demand performers around. Wonder asked the label if he could now take the reins of his own work that he’s a fully-fledged adult.

Label chief Berry Gordy refused to grant his wish, so Wonder simply refused to record with Motown. He wasn’t prepared to create a project in his name that wasn’t something that he believed in. The singer’s decision to play hardball with the label could have backfired significantly.

The label were a powerful force in the industry, and they could have pulled stunts to make it as hard as possible for his career to prosper. Meanwhile, Wonder took himself away and started working on an album forged in his creative vein.

Motown were desperate not to lose one of their biggest stars, which had nurtured into the artist he was in 1971, and eventually, let Wonder do whatever he wanted. They bowed down, offering Wonder a new contract which allowed him total creative control over his work. Allowing Wonder to have this control could have backfired too, he was still a young artist, and the ten years of good work he did before reaching this point could easily have been undone with a few missteps. However, we all know that’s not how this story ends.

Over the next five years, Wonder carved out five records that proved that he could stand on his own two feet and still be a superstar on his terms.

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