When it comes to Stevie Wonder‘s real birth name, who do you believe: Wonder or his mother? That’s the question.
A few weeks back we profiled the old-school musical giant whose latest album, A Time To Love, has won six Grammy nominations.
There was one sticking point: his name. It’s no secret that Stevie Wonder is a stage name — he got it when he signed with Motown as a child whiz kid and began performing as Little Stevie Wonder. (A few years later he dropped the “Little,” but the Wonder stuck.)
The confusion is over his original name, the name he was first given at birth. Various sources list his last name at birth as Judkins, Morris or Hardaway, or some combination of all three. His first name is given as Steveland or Stevland (both of which look a little like typos). Some sources say he was born Judkins but later took the name Morris, which was his mother’s maiden name, her second husband’s name, or something inbetween. We couldn’t find any original source, or much consensus. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for instance, says Steveland Morris. Yahoo Music’s detailed biography weighs in with Steveland Hardaway Judkins.
Stevie Wonder’s official site is clear on the topic: “Born Steveland Morris in Saginaw, Michigan in 1950, Wonder enters his fifth decade as one of the most prolific artists in music history.” He seems pretty confident, and it’s his own name he’s talking about, after all — isn’t that enough?
While researching a little further we discovered that his mother co-wrote an authorized biography of herself in 2002: Blind Faith: The Miraculous Journey of Lula Hardaway, Stevie Wonder’s Mother. (Simon and Schuster, 262 pages, written with journalists Dennis Love and Stacy Brown.) As a double-check we ordered it up. She details her own struggles as a child of the south and her abusive marriage to a “pure street hustler” named Calvin Judkins, consummated when Lula was 17 and Judkins nearly 50.
Finally, there it is on page 95: “Stevland Judkins was born on May 13, 1950, a Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day, a day framed by a bleak gray sky and a chilly wind off lake Huron, although summer was only weeks away. He weighed barely four pounds.” Well, she seems pretty confident of the facts herself.
Lula left Judkins and moved to Detroit with her three boys (Stevie was the third) and Stevie’s music career took off when he signed with Motown’s Berry Gordy. On page 161 we read, “Lula signed her name as neatly as she could on the last page of the impenetrable contract, trying her best not to appear nervous. Stevie quickly etched an X. (His surname also was legally changed to Morris, an old family name, as a preemptive strike against any attempt by Judkins to cut in on their sudden good fortune.)”
Later, on page 195, there’s mention of “Paul Lynch, Lula’s second husband with whom she would have a long-standing but ultimately unsuccessful relationship.” That seems to rule out the second-husband theory for the Morris name.
So where does that leave us? While we’d like to take Stevie Wonder’s own word for it, we’ve found that official sites of celebrities are not always totally reliable. In Stevie’s case he has little to gain by misstating things — but on the other hand, he might simply want to disassociate himself from a father he felt didn’t treat his mother right. Or maybe it’s just a lot simpler to say “Born Steveland Morris” than it is to explain the whole story.
We feel confident in the claims of Stevie’s mother, and based our final judgment on her biography. She has the clearest explanation of the Judkins and Morris names, confirms that she was married to Calvin Judkins at the time of Stevie’s birth, and seems to have no reason to deliver anything but the truth.
We still wonder where she got the name “Stevland,” though.
[Editor’s note 2018: Since this Who2 research was first published in 2006, most sources have consolidated around the conclusion we reached here: a birth name of Stevland Judkins. Where possible, we have retained the original 2006 links.]