Young blind jazz musician gets start with harmonica
Behind the unseeing eyes of Little Stevie Wonder there is music and rhythm. As he sits and talks, his hands beat jazz rhythm on imaginary bongos. It seems as if he is giving a beat to a tune playing in his mind. Almost every waking hour of the 13-year-old recording sensation concerns his music.
Because Stevie cannot see, the world of sound is much more important to him. “I started loving music almost as early as I can remember anything,” he told us. “The thing I want most to do is to make people happy. If my music makes people happy, then I’m happy.”
Stevie was doing a personal appearance date in a New York theater. And, he was making people happy. He received top billing over many well known stars. At 8 in the morning, over 1,000 under twenties were lining up to get tickets for the 10:30 show. Each show played to a packed house.
The slightly-built 13-year-old boy was almost an overnight sensation. His first really big success came with his recording of “Fingertips.” The single moved so fast that Tamla Records rushed out the “Twelve Year Old Genius” album. The result: Stevie, a few weeks ago, held the unique distinction of having both his single and his album listed as the top sellers in the country.
Stevie, blind since birth, took his first musical step when he was four years old by buying a 10-cent harmonica. He soon mastered the instrument. A few years later, he inherited a piano from a family moving out of the neighborhood. He began to play it almost immediately. He then added the organ, the bongos and the drums to his list of instruments. He was also blessed with a fine singing voice.
In his native Detroit, he became a familiar sight. He refused to pamper himself or be pampered, so Stevie walked the streets by himself playing the harmonica (his favorite instrument) and doing a graceful soft shoe routine.
One of his buddies in Detroit was Gerald White, brother of Ronnie White, a member of the famed vocal group “The Miracles.” Ronnie heard Stevie sing and brought him to Tamla Records for an audition. Tamla officials flipped over Stevie’s talent and versatility and immediately signed him to a recording contract.
The rest is recording history — the fans snapped up his records and flocked to see him in person.
“One of the things that makes me very happy is that my friends around the country write me. I get about 100 letters a day from kids,” Stevie said. “I receive so many gifts I hardly know what to do with them except to feel thankful for the friendship of those who send them. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”
Stevie is an affectionate, friendly boy who loves to talk to people. This accounts for his favorite “toy.” It is a walkie-talkie set which lets him talk to people almost any time he wishes.
He started a traffic jam in New York when he let some of his fans take one of the walkie-talkies down the block and carry on a conversation with him. Hundreds of kids jammed around the set to take their turn talking to the popular singer. Soon the corner turned into a mob scene.
Major television dates are in the offing for the little genius this fall. Following an extensive national tour he will travel to Europe. When he’s home he attends school, but on the road he has a private tutor. “He’s a good, bright student,” she reports.
Stevie said he likes to make people happy. Actually he does more than say it. Today in Detroit, a beautiful, new home is under construction for his parents. “Boy Wonder” may sound too much like a publicity man’s term, but those who have met him have their own phrase — “wonderful boy.”
Top photo of Stevie Wonder in 1963 by David Redfern