orn sightless, Stevie Wonder quickly discovered the pleasures of the radio at an early age. "I was greatly influenced by radio," he has said. "Detroit had the best cross section of music (and) different cultures." Among those early influences were the Coasters, the Five Royales, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Del Shannon, the Staples Singers and the artists recording for Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown Record Corporation, especially the Miracles and Mary Wells.
In 1964, Stevie suffered the second great trauma of that year (the first was when his voice changed) by missing the opportunity to meet another strong influence in his life, Dinah Washington. "She had expressed a desire to meet me," he explained years later, "but when I got off the tour in the South, she was performing. She passed away soon after..."
Stevie recognized another influence in 1968 when he recorded an instrumental album under the reverse name Eivets Rednow. That LP was a set of instrumental arrangements intended for a collaboration with one of his idols, legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. But Montgomery died in June of that year, and the dual effort was never realized.
The second single from Songs in the Key of Life was the latest in a series of musical acknowledgements to his heroes. "Sir Duke" was a tribute to Edward Kennedy Ellington, the jazz genius who gained fame at the Cotton Club in Harlem during the '30s. Known for pop hits like "Mood Indigo," "Solitude" and "Sophisticated Lady," "Duke" Ellington passed away in 1974. Stevie's single also paid reverence to other important forerunners -- Count Basie, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
"Sir Duke" was the highest new entry on the Hot 100 for the week ending April 2, 1977, coming in at 74. When it hit the top seven weeks later, it was the second consecutive number one single from Songs in the Key of Life and the sixth chart-topper of Stevie's career.
A month after the song hit the chart apex, Stevie discussed it at a UCLA symposium sponsored by Billboard. "I knew the title from the beginning but wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us," he explained. "So soon they are forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation."
"Sir Duke" was not the last Stevie Wonder song to pay tribute to an important figure in the artist's life. "Master Blaster (Jammin')," a number five hit in December 1980, was written about the leading exponent of reggae music, the late Bob Marley. Another track from the Hotter Than July album was "Happy Birthday," a plea for a national holiday to commemorate the birthday of civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King. Stevie's wish came true in October, 1983, when the United States Senate mirrored the House of Representatives' majority vote to establish the third Monday of January as a holiday honoring King.
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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