Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Living For The City: Stevie Wonder's Lansing Legacy

March 3, 2024
Photo from: United Nations
Photo from: United Nations —

The Lansing community was once home to many cultural icons who found their start within its city limits. Among the most well-known is Stevland Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder

Motown legend, Lansing’s very own; Wonder found his roots in this city, attending Lansing School for the Blind in the '60s. During this time, he was a young rising Motown star, finishing up his high school curriculum before entering his place in the global music spotlight.

Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Wonder moved to Detroit before eventually relocating to Lansing, President of the Greater Lansing Historical Society Bill Castanier said.

“His family had broken up. He had a single mother. I know that he went to a special school in Detroit in his early days because he was blind; they had a school in Detroit that helped younger children,” Castanier said.

Living in Detroit, young Wonder was raised in the heart of the city's newest sound: Motown music. Soon after, he would go on to represent Detroit’s signature resonance.

However, he wasn’t signed to Motown in Detroit, but rather in his high school years in Lansing.

“He would have been going to School for the Blind when he was signed by Motown. He spent his high school years at the School for the Blind. He is very popular there. He often played the piano in the director of the School for the Blind’s house, which was on campus. He would do impromptu concerts for the students.” Castanier said.

The Lansing School for the Blind was not only a place where Wonder completed high school, but also served as an inspiration for hit songs such as “My Cherie Amour” and “Fingertips”.

“He wrote ‘My Cherie Amour’ about a girl who he was infatuated with at the Lansing School for the Blind. He also wrote 'Fingertips' as a play off for him learning braille,” Castanier said.

While already being musically talented before attending the Lansing School for the Blind, he did receive further musical instruction and was able to perfect his capabilities at his time there. Eventually going on tour, Wonder was required to have a tutor assigned to him in finishing his education. Ted Hull, an MSU graduate, was assigned to help him continue his studies while on tour. 

Apart from receiving his education in the city, Wonder would also perform in Lansing along with other rising Motown stars at the time

“He did a concert in the early 60s: either 63’ or 64’ at the Lansing civic center with a group called the Motor Town Revue,” Castanier said.

This live concert featured top Motown artists like Marvin Gaye, The Vandellas, The Miracles and The Contours. 

Aside from live performances like these, Wonder would occasionally stop by local Lansing radio stations to perform a song, which was not uncommon for artists at the time.

“He and several other Motown stars came back and did a fundraiser for the boys Industrial Training School, which was a school in Lansing, no longer here. The school was for juvenile offenders,” Castanier said.

The last time Wonder was in town, he was welcomed back with a memorial Walk of Fame in downtown Lansing. As far as his alma mater, the Lansing School for the Blind still stands today, but with another motive, Castanier said.

“It's been repurposed. It's senior housing. They took the former library and made it into a community center. The superintendent's house is still there and is being used by a private business. The campus itself is still there, almost totally intact,” Castanier said.

Wonder became one of the most recognized Motown artists of all time. He returned to his Lansing area roots with a performance at the MSU auditorium on April 26, 1971.

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