Books on the lives and music of Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison

By Dave Shiflett
Sunday, June 27, 2010


The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder

By Mark Ribowsky

Wiley. 337 pp. $27.95


Listening to Van Morrison

by Greil Marcus

PublicAffairs. 208 pp. $22.95

The lives of celebrity musicians are a bookseller's dream, especially when there's plenty of sex, detox and perhaps a spin at talking in tongues before the star expires in hideous delirium -- hopefully with cameras rolling. These new books on Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison are a little light on the lurid, but their subjects have produced substantial bodies of work, especially Wonder. Both are also still with us, and both books hold out hope they have more good music up their somewhat frayed sleeves.

Mark Ribowsky's "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered" bills itself as the first biography of the Motown wunderkind -- now 60 -- who has racked up 26 Grammys and 34 top-10 hits in a career spanning nearly a half-century. Wonder's life has its intriguing aspects. Born in Saginaw, Mich., in 1950, he lost his eyesight hours after birth, and there is some dispute over his exact birth name; Ribowsky writes that the name on his incubator may have been Steveland Morris, though other accounts say he was born Steveland Judkins, which was later changed to Morris. There was also a booze-guzzling father who doubled as his mother's pimp and a later trip to a faith healer in hopes of bringing the boy's eyes back to life.

His ears, however, were always top-notch. He played the bongos before he could walk and was a prodigy on another front as well, having his first sexual experience as early as age 8 (his sex drive never seems to have deserted him, as Ribowsky reminds us throughout the book). While there are also plenty of details about Wonder's hardscrabble upbringing and latter troubles, including a residual sadness and a near-fatal encounter with a logging truck on a North Carolina highway, the emphasis is on his music.

It's not always a pretty picture.

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