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Song Stories: Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday”

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Stevie Wonder’s awards and achievements speak for themselves. He has received 25 Grammy Awards, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sold more 100 million records worldwide, and he even earned an Academy Award for best original song for “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (from the 1984 film “The Woman in Red”). Lest we forget, he was also the 2009 recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress. However, these accolades only speak partially to the impact of his incredible career. As we celebrate Black History Month, let us take a closer examination of one of Wonder’s most important songs, “Happy Birthday.”

Stevie Wonder plays the harmonica in the premiere performance of “Sketches of a Life” at the Library of Congress in 2009. From https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2009/02/stevie-wonder-sketches-of-a-life-webcast-now-live/stevie-wonder-harmonica/

According to Charles Safiya, who wrote about Stevie Wonder for the Montgomery Advertiser in 2021, Wonder called Coretta Scott King—widow of Dr. Martin Luther King—in the summer of 1979 to tell her about a dream he had. He said, “I said to her, you know, ‘I had a dream about this song. And I imagined in this dream I was doing this song. We were marching, too, with petition signs to make for Dr. King’s birthday to become a national holiday.'” The song was Wonder’s 1980 release, “Happy Birthday,” now lovingly known as one of his most iconic works.

Wonder learned about King early in his life, having first heard him speak on the radio when he was five years old. In a video he posted on King’s birthday in 2021, Wonder mentioned a later encounter with King, saying, “Dear Dr. King, I met you when I was 14 years of age. You were a hero and you have become an inspiration. More than any award I have ever received, I want you to know that I am thankful for how you influenced my place of love, which allowed me to push the needle of love and equality forward.”

According to Safiya, Wonder performed at a rally at the Georgia Capitol on King’s birthday in 1979. He encouraged the onlookers to write to their congressional representatives to demand passage of the bill. In August of that year, he appeared in an interview with Barbara Walters on “20/20″ and announced a four-month tour across America to campaign for the holiday. Originally, Bob Marley was supposed to join the tour, but later Marley learned he had a rare form of cancer that would lead to his untimely death. Gil Scott-Heron joined the tour in his absence.

Stevie Wonder’s work in the studio on his 1980 album release, “Hotter Than July,” paired his vintage sound with his renewed purpose. The tracks contained his trademark sounds and catchy lyrics, but he also included a picture of Dr. King and a note imploring his fans to support the bill. The 1980 release of the single “Happy Birthday” was the apex of the campaign.

On January 25, 1981, Scott-Heron, Diana Ross and Jesse Jackson joined Wonder at a 1980 rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. According to Scott-Heron’s 2012 memoir, the crowd chanted: “Martin Luther King, we took a holiday.” This would lead into a singing of “Happy Birthday” as Wonder spoke. He kept intensifying his efforts, financing an office in Washington to lobby for the holiday’s passage and working with Congressional Black Caucus members to achieve the goal. Wonder also held two more rallies at the Capitol in 1982 and 1983. Despite a 16-day Senate filibuster, the bill would pass. Congressman John Conyers (the bill’s sponsor and Wonder’s Congressional Representative from Michigan), Scott King and Wonder were all present when President Reagan signed the bill into law on October 19, 1983.

On the evening of January 20, 1986 — the country’s first official Martin Luther King Day—there were three concerts that commemorated the occasion. According to The Washington Post there were gatherings at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and Atlanta’s Civic Center. Wonder even took out a full page ad in The Washington Post that day to share the lyrics of “Happy Birthday.” At the end of the evening, Wonder, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Dylan, and renowned producer Quincy Jones took to the stage for a rousing performance of “Happy Birthday.” The three concerts raised funds for the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and Malcolm-King College in Harlem.

In a 2017 interview with National Public Radio, Wonder was asked about his push for the MLK holiday. He responded, “I never saw it as being political – I just saw it as being the right thing to do. I just felt that a man who had fought for the economic, social and civil rights for all people should be recognized for the greatness that he did, and for those like himself who lived and died for that, should be recognized.”

Stevie Wonder’s determination for the bill’s passage is a great lesson for all of us. As he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1986, “I had a vision of the Martin Luther King Birthday as a national holiday. I mean I saw that. I wrote about it because I imagined it and I saw it and I believed it. So I just kept that in my mind till it happened.”

We hope you enjoyed learning about the amazing impact of Stevie Wonder’s classic song, “Happy Birthday.” If you would like to learn more about the material discussed in this post, then please consider these selections from the NLS Music Collection. Please note that all materials listed below are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

Audio

Brown, Bill. All in Love is Fair. Bill Brown teaches the Stevie Wonder piano solo All in Love is Fair without the use of music notation. Includes orchestrated backing tracks. Intermediate level. (DBM03000)

____ For Once in My Life. Bill Brown teaches how to play For Once in My Life on piano by Stevie Wonder without the use of music notation. Cartridge only. (DBM03719)

____ Isn’t She Lovely: Flatpick Solo for Guitar. “This arrangement takes the Stevie Wonder hit and makes it into a great sounding Intermediate level Jazz/Rock guitar solo. The lesson starts off with a full demonstration of the solo and then teaches the rhythm guitar parts as well as the solo guitar part. The entire lesson is taught in short phrases, describing every note and finger used, totally “By Ear” without tab, music or video. At the end of the lesson there are backing tracks in three different configurations for you to play along with.” –Publisher’s website. (DBM04476)

____ My Cherie Amour. Bill Brown teaches how to play My Cherie Amour on the piano without the use of music notation. (DBM03319)

____ Ribbon in the Sky. Bill Brown teaches how to play the Stevie Wonder rhythm and blues song Ribbon in the Sky on the piano without the use of music notation. Includes backing tracks. Intermediate level. (DBM03378)

Library of Congress Music Division. Stevie Wonder: Sketches of a Life. Stevie Wonder talks to Norman Middleton of the Library’s Music Division about his Library of Congress commission, “Sketches of a Life,” and his thoughts about composition and music. Then, Wonder, the awardee of the second Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, premieres “Sketches of a Life,” a sprawling, hybrid pop-classical concerto, written between 1976 and 1994. The work was unveiled through a commission for the Library of Congress in the Coolidge Auditorium in 2009. (DBM04282)

Braille

Popular Music Lead Sheets no. 106. Includes Stevie Wonder’s song, “Part Time Lover.” Includes melody, words, and chord symbols in lead sheet format. (BRM35729)

Wonder, Stevie. Happy Birthday. For voice and piano with chord symbols in line by line and bar over bar format. (BRM30706)

____ Lately. Keyboard accompaniment with voice outline in bar over bar format. (BRM36194)

____ Sir Duke. For voice and piano with chord symbols. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM24701)

____ Songs in the Key of Life. Includes words, melody, chord symbols and piano accompaniment. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM26034)

Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for this great post. I’ve been a Stevie Wonder fan for years, and I hope he continues to make music long into the future. Besides being blind, I think Stevie and I have another thing in common: we both had kidney transplants.

    • Thank you so much for sharing! We are so proud to highlight these stories.

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