“Listen to that!” exclaims Steve Wonder. “I should tape it.” The blind singer’s amazingly acute ears have picked up a telephone conversation across the room where a friend is telling his girl to get lost. “Oh,” Stevie moans, shivering in his fur coat. “Love is so cold. I just had to say good-by to somebody, too.” Then he crosses the room, sits down at the piano, switches on the cassette recorder he always carries, and begins to compose a song to fit his mood – sad and soulful. Suddenly he stops and heaves a sigh. “I’ve just never been able to find anyone,” he whispers, “to love as much as I love life.”
Ten minutes later the volatile Stevie is over the blues and feeling good. He lurches off the piano stool and goes into a self-parody: “Oooh, you not only born black, boy. You born black and blind!” Then he abruptly switches voice to sound very white and businesslike. “Now, Steve,” he intones solemnly. “I’ve got a proposition for you. We know you’ve been ripped off. Let us manage you, Steve.” Suddenly he’s back to black, street-wise and supercool: “Hey, bro. Like can you dig it, man? We got a program for the comm-unity. You just show up and play. We’ll distribute the bread.”
Stevie doesn’t need eyes to know that everyone wants a piece of his action these days – and why not? The former 12-year-old genius Little Stevie Wonder, now 24, is recognized as the most creative – and popular – pop musician of his generation. With a career that already spans half his life and that has piled up sales of 40 million records (last March he won a whopping four Grammy awards), Stevie is the favorite of young, old, black, white, the hip and the square. He’s a natural who plays almost all the instruments on his own records, which he produces himself, an innovator admired by musicians from Paul McCartney to Henry Mancini. And on his current 30-city tour of the U.S. he’s shown himself second to none as a live performer generating excitement and sheer love in his audiences.
Stevie Wonder’s success symbolizes the vaulting new prestige and popularity of black musicians in America. It was American black music that provided the inspiration – and often the music itself – for the explosion of white-dominated rock in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But with rare exceptions like Jimi Hendrix (who made his reputation in England), it was white stars like Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin, not Chuck Berry or Big Mama Thornton, who got the big money and the white audiences. Now the sheer creative power of black music has pushed it into the mainstream, helped by the breakup of the Beatles and the thinning of the ranks of white superstars, who no longer crowd the horizon, obscuring the faces and sounds of black music. Today the color line is almost completely erased, and the record charts are studded with black names and groups, from great veterans like Marvin Gaye, Dionne Warwicke and Gladys Knight and the Pips to newcomers like Barry White, the Hues Corporation and the Philadelphia sound epitomized by the O’Jays.
The pre-eminence of Stevie Wonder is all the more remarkable because he is only at the beginning of his creative – and personal – growth. Stevie is determined to learn the Byzantine wheels and deals of the music business, trying to figure out whom to trust and how to map his career. He is gaining experience in everything from tour management to record producing, while constantly experimenting with new ideas for music. At the same time he’s coming to consciousness about his own people and their roots. He wants to go to Africa to live for a time, among other reasons to help dramatize the plight of millions there who suffer from a disease called river blindness.
Just over a year ago, Stevie’s life changed radically when the car he was riding in after a performance in Greenville, S.C., struck a logging truck. He was hit with such force that he suffered a brain contusion and remained in a coma for ten days, and today he still is bothered by headaches. His brush with death has given Stevie a new spiritual resolve “to find the Supreme Being living within me.” Because he is blind, not in spite of it, because he is black and singing about the tribulations of his people, he gets an extra dimension into his music. Stevie’s songs don’t just entertain, they inspire.
“When Stevie sings he puts a little sunshine into all of our lives,” says Paul McCartney. And such Wonder songs as “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (sung by Sinatra on his TV special from Madison Square Garden last week) have become instant standards. Elton John admits: “I guess I thought I was the only one totally immersed in music until I met Stevie.” And Roberta Flack states flatly: “Stevie’s music is the most sensitive of our decade, and that means it has tapped the pulse of the people.” At the Grammy ceremonies Henry Mancini rushed up to hug him, saying “God, you’ve got rhythm!”
“The kid’s an international hero,” says his former road manager, Ira Sidelle. “Over in England he’s just like Babe Ruth. They all stop him on the street.” He pauses. “You wanna know about the kid? He plays his instruments all night. He eats when he wants and he sleeps when he wants. It’s always dark to him, so he don’t know from breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
What Stevie knows from is music, as was clear last week at his concerts in New Haven, Buffalo and Boston. The first wonder of a Wonder concert is that it happens at all. Almost always it starts in an atmosphere of chaos – equipment late, sound system not quite right, Stevie and his entourage diddling away on what they call “NAM” time – Negro-American Time. But when Stevie gets out in front of the crowd you see a master at work. He dances out on stage calling, “I love you, hello.” He may go into a perfect mime of a Las Vegas crooner singing one of his songs, complete with all the exaggerated hand and arm movements. He does a bump and grind with one of the singers from his backup group, Wonderlove.
Mixing his songs – soft, sentimental, driving, funky – he brings the audience up to a screaming crescendo and softly coaxes them back down. He constantly talks to the audience. He dances. His left hand plays the bass line of the Moog Synthesizer – Latin, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock – while his right hand could be playing the clavinet or holding a harmonica to his mouth. He’s also a fantastic drummer. And all the while his head is moving back and forth like finely tuned radar scanning the sky. These movements are called “blindisms,” muscular movement that Stevie says are triggered by energy that sighted people release through the use of their eyes.
Toward the end, as the spotlight shines down on the two scars on his face, constant reminders of his near-fatal accident, Stevie reaches out to the audience with his throbbing song, “Living for the City”:
A boy is born in hard time Mississippi
Surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty . . .
His father works some days for fourteen hours
And you can bet he barely makes a dollar
His mother goes to scrub the floor for many
And you’d best believe she hardly gets a penny . . . *
“Sing it, sing it,” Stevie exhorts the audience, “so maybe our Father, our maker, can hear it.” The crowd is dancing in the aisles. Earlier this year, at Madison Square Garden, Stevie climaxed his show by calling Sly Stone, Roberta Flack and Eddie Kendricks to the stage to sing with him. The four black stars stood there together as symbols of just how far what was once called “race music” has come.
Steveland Judkins Hardaway, the third among four brothers and a sister, was born on May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Mich. His father wasn’t around much, and the family, which moved to Detroit while Stevie was still a baby, was raised mostly by the mother. “I would love to do a TV special,” Stevie says, “that would tell many things people don’t know about me – like how when I was younger my mother, my brothers and I had to go on this drydock where there was coal and steal some to keep warm. To a poor person that is not stealing, that is not crime; it’s a necessity.
Blind from birth, Stevie’s earliest memory is a sound – Johnny Ace, singing “Pledging my Love.” He didn’t realize one of his senses was missing until at 4 he was punished for “stepping in dog do in my backyard. I knew something was wrong,” Stevie recalls, “but I didn’t even react to it except I knew I got a whumpin’.” He also got whumped (“with a fantastic ironing cord”) because he did the same naughty things as kids who weren’t blind: he climbed apple trees to steal apples and, in total defiance of his affliction, jumped from the roof of one woodshed to another.
Today, Stevie gets along without a cane or a dog; his brother Calvin, his cousin John Harris or his aide Ira Tucker Jr. all advise him and drive him around. When he goes out by himself – which is rare – he puts bills of different denominations in different pockets so he can pay the taxi. He also goes to movies a lot and “watches” TV. “I remember,” he says, “watching television and hearing, ‘Get this Hostess Twinkie,’ and kids smacking their lips and saying ‘Oooh, it’s good!’ And I remember kids in school saying ‘Look what I got for Christmas!’ It did make me wish I could have those things. But now,” Stevie declares, “I just like the basic things of life – to have an instrument, something really fascinating to the ear or something educational. Or to be warm and comfortable with the person I love.
By the time he was 8 Stevie could play the bongos, the harmonica, the drums and the piano. He learned the harmonica first on a baby four-note instrument his uncle bought him. He kept wearing out toy drums until the Lions Club gave him a real set at a Christmas Party for blind children. When he was 7, a friendly neighbor left her piano for Stevie when she moved away from their housing project. “I kept asking, ‘When they gonna bring the piano over, Mamma?’ I never realized how important that was going to be to me.”
In 1960, when Stevie was 9, he was first taken to the Motown recording studios by the big brother of a playmate who sang with the Miracles – a hot act at the time on the fast-rising Detroit-based black record label. “He was a pest,” says Clarence Paul, Stevie’s longtime musical conductor and mentor. “He’d come by at 3 every day after school and stay until dark. He’d play every instrument in the place and bust in on you when you was cuttin’ somebody.” But Paul was also impressed with his talent. “He wrote two little concertos when he was 12.” People around the studio got to calling him Little Stevie. One weekend, while dubbing his voice, Paul and two other producers decided that henceforce Steveland Hardaway would be known as Little Stevie Wonder.
Stevie was lucky he landed at Motown because it’s unlikely any other record company would have taken a little blind black boy off the streets and given him a chance to record. It paid off, too. By the time he was 12, Stevie had a smash hit, “Fingertips.” He had written his first song, “Lonely Boy,” at 10. Like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland growing up on the M-G-M lot in the golden age of movies, Little Stevie Wonder grew up in the recording studios in the golden age of the Motown sound. If that sound was superslick and glossy, with a frequent trace of plastic, it worked well in terms of sales. Nobody knows how well because Motown (now based in Los Angeles) is a secretive, independent corporation, the only major record company that does not submit to outside auditing in order to have its gold records ($1 million in sales for LP’s, 1 million copies for singles) certified by the Recording Industry Association of America.
When he first started recording, Stevie went to regular public schools. Then he switched to the Michigan School for the Blind, where he studied classical piano and got his knuckles whumped when he played rock and roll. He had a private tutor, Ted Hall, who accompanied him on the road with the Motown Revue, a bus tour of the Motown stars. The record company became his second family, and he became a disciplined teen-age professional with a steady stream of hits: “Uptight,” “For Once in My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Yester-me Yester-you Yesterday.”
From the beginning Stevie loved to perform live and often had to be removed bodily from the stage. “I used to pick him up and carry him off,” remembers Clarence Paul, “until he got too heavy.” “By the time he was 18, Stevie was 6 feet tall,” recalls Ewart Abner, president of Motown. “It was totally incongruous to call him Little Stevie Wonder.” In late adolescence, Stevie began to rebel against the structures of his environment – the tedium of going on the road, trying to finish school, fighting to overcome his blindism so he could get on TV. (Unlike the British, American television producers shy away from using Stevie because they feel it makes the audience nervous to watch him move his head around.)
To Motown’s credit, it took pains to keep him away from drugs. Today Stevie is still very down on dope, especially for musicians. “I don’t see any reason for taking drugs,” he explains. “I think a lot of people feel I do because of the way I move my head. But if I were high it would destroy the character of my music, because I would be tripping out so much on myself as opposed to the things around me, or what I was seeing as opposed to the conclusions I’ve come to within my mind.”
By his 21st birthday, in 1971, Stevie, anxious to break away from the Motown formula sound, reached a crucial decision. “He came to me,” recalls Abner, “and said, ‘I’m 21 now. I’m not gonna do what you say any more. Void my contract.’ I freaked.” Stevie’s decision freaked everyone at Motown. The company, under its mercurial founder, Berry Gordy Jr., had changed the course of pop music with its glittering roster of black talent: Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Tammi Terrell, Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. The ghetto kids became stars – yet few became as wealthy as their white counterparts.
Motown, run by Gordy and his family, acted as a parent for its artists, who were often on the road. It controlled everything from their stage movements to their concert bookings and the copyrights of their songs. Many of the performers were straight from the street and unschooled in finance. Unlike most white performers, they had no lawyers to negotiate their contracts and they accepted without question the royalties they received. When Stevie turned 21 and was eligible for the money held in trust for him – a trust personally supervised by Gordy – he received about $1 million, after having sold almost 30 million records.
Motown, as it happens, has been upset by a recent novel, “Number One With a Bullet,” about a black record company that keeps its artists on a tight rein. Written by Elaine Jesmer, a former girlfriend of Marvin Gaye, the book – which Motown has called “pornographic trash” – details violence and corruption in a fictional family-owned black record firm that has been taken over by the syndicate. “Godfather” producer Al Ruddy bought the screen rights to the book and received money from Paramount to develop the script. But Paramount, which had a five picture deal in the works with Motown, suddenly cancelled the deal with Ruddy. Ruddy says he’ll make the film with independent financing.
That first year after Stevie left Motown was a period of tremendous creative activity for him. He poured $250,000 of his own money into studio time. He learned the Moog Synthesizer, recorded the album “Music of My Mind” that was a remarkable departure from his previous work, and got down on tape all the other music that was stored up in his head. In 1972 he toured nationally with the Rolling Stones and exposed his music to a huge new, mostly white audience. Today, after bringing out three more landmark albums – “Talking Book,” “Innervisions” and “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” – Stevie still has a treasury of 200 recorded but unreleased songs – “I don’t want to be too big too fast.” After finishing “Music of My Mind,” he went back to Motown with a much more favorable contract.
Now Stevie and Marvin Gaye are Motown’s leading moneymakers. “I’m unashamed to say Stevie and Marvin changed our approach,” admits Abner. “They loosened us up. We make a lot of money and we didn’t have to change. They taught us how to have a little fun.” They also added millions to Motown’s coffers, caused the company to alter its promotion system and, most important, opened the label up to the mass white rock audience.
Unlike the Superfly types he disdains, Stevie lives simply, dividing his time between a New York apartment and a house in Los Angeles. Formerly married to Syreeta Wright, a Motown secretary who has developed into a talented singer-songwriter, Stevie now lives with his fiancée, Yolanda Simmons, who is also his secretary and bookkeeper. Women constantly surround him. “I just can’t figure it out,” says one of his aides. “There’ll be ten women in his dressing room, and he picks out the foxiest one every time.” Says Stevie: “I can usually tell about a woman by her conversation, her voice and the way she carries herself. Some women can have a very beautiful outer face and a very ugly inner face.”
The bad and the beautiful bedevil Stevie more than most celebrities – his charisma draws hangers-on and his blindness makes him more vulnerable. Perhaps his new personal manager, Chris Jonz, will be able to sort out his crowded life. Much of this life (when Stevie is not on tour) is now centered in a super-equipped sixteen-track recording studio in Los Angeles, which has quickly become a mecca for musicians, groupies and even superstars who are eager to do business with Stevie.
“The Beatles changed the ‘60s and Stevie has the power to change the ‘70s, but you have to understand the pressure he’s under,” say Robert Margouleff, who with Malcomb Cecil serves as Stevie’s recording engineer. “Unless he’s prepared not to worry so much about his allegiance to the drones, they are going to pull him down and isolate him from the very things that made him good.”
Cecil agrees: “Stevie’s area of genius is music and, in the other areas, though he’s very competent, he’s still only 24. He has to deal with many levels of his reality through the eyes and trust of many other people. I wouldn’t put up one minute with the crap his organization puts me through if I didn’t believe Stevie has the power to be a very, very important figure, and not just musically. His product does more than sell millions of records. It reaches people and breaks down ethnic barriers. All of a sudden there’s money going from the white people to the black people, even if it’s only for their bloody music.”
As increasing success brings increasing pressures, Stevie himself is thinking more and more about those “ethnic barriers.” “People ask me why am I going to Africa when there’s so much to be done here,” he says. “Well, America doesn’t make a lot of people aware of what’s happening in other parts of the world. I hope to bring back an alternative way from Africa.” However visionary Stevie sounds when he talks like this, it is this very quality, a kind of sweetness or grace, that draws so many people to him. He really seems to give off a kind of spiritual glow as he talks with his rich voice and eager hands, grabbing and squeezing people’s fingers and tapping their palms for emphasis.
Watching Steve work out in his Los Angeles studio is akin to watching Muhammad Ali do his shuffle and Ray Charles sing the blues – all at once. Stevie is everywhere. First on the drums, pow, pow, pow. Then the harmonica, whine, whine, whine. Over to another mike to do the voice track: “Would I live for you? Would I die for you? If I was a bird I’d fly around the world for you.” He’s making up the words as he goes along. Finally he’s on the Moog, adding an eerie backdrop. An hour or two of such fantastic versatility and there are the makings of a brand new hit. “Well, that’s one I made up on my cassette on the way over here,” he explains.
Yet he likes to call himself “my own worst critic.” Another day at the studio he’s spending considerable time scatting through a song. He decides it’s no good. “Erase that,” he commands. “Even the ending?” asks one of his back-up singers. “Chile, you should know I can do it again,” he says.
After 2 a.m. he wraps it up and goes with Syreeta to the mixing studio to put the final touches on her delightful new album, “Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta,” which they’ve co-written and he’s produced. The mixing room is an awesome-looking chamber crammed full of $300,000 worth of equipment, including a computer that automatically stores all the different versions of songs done on the sixteen-track stereo control board. The effect of all this technology is not unlike that of the command post of a spaceship.
Although the only sounds are the whirs and clicks of the tapes spinning, Stevie’s ears can pinpoint where people in the room are positioned. He feels the air shift and change when they walk by. Suddenly Syreeta’s voice belts out, “I’m goin’ left . . . (‘til you lead me to the right).” It sounds as if it can hit the charts in about ten minutes, but Stevie’s not satisfied and between takes he mimics the screech of the tape machine rolling back. Finally, near 5 a.m., after countless takes he says, “This is the first time it really moves.” Then he turns to Syreeta and says: “In music the No. 1 thing is emotion.”
Emotion – direct and straightforward – is the key to all of Stevie’s music. His only real weakness is an occasional lapse into sentimentality that comes precisely from his total emotional sincerity – there’s no chic toughness a la Mick Jagger, no metaphysical melancholy, a la James Taylor. Stevie writes and sings exactly what he feels – a very rare gift. And he expresses this directness in an extraordinary variety of musical moods. Nothing could be more lowdown funky than his voodoo beat “Superstition,” or “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” which crossbreeds a dancing rhythm to his scornful lyric (“We are amazed but not amused”) about those who promise much but deliver little.
Stevie’s music has a sweetness both of flesh and spirit, as in his sexy Latin-beat song “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” where he can barely bring himself to say “naked” to his woman. “All in Love Is Fair,” which the great English singer Cleo Laine sang on the Johnny Carson show last week, has all the smooth sophistication of Duke Ellington. In an eclectic time for popular music, Stevie has turned eclecticism into a universality of feeling and form that has touched the widest possible range of listeners.
That’s why it rankled him when the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, at its annual convention last March, awarded Stevie Wonder a plaque for being the “best selling male soul artist” of the year. “I kinda feel,” he sighs, “that after writing all those songs like ‘All in Love is Fair’ [Barbara Streisand’s latest single] and ‘Visions,’ well, that to say I’m just a soul artist is wrong because all those songs are typical ballads of America. I am a black man but music is music. I want to be an inspiration to my people, but I don’t want to be categorized.
At 24, still changing, still growing, Stevie is in no danger of being categorized. The cynical music business is amazed at his universal appeal. Children especially love him, like the group of fifth graders who recently videotaped an interview with him for a school project. After the excited kids left, Stevie moved to his favorite spot, the piano bench, and became reflective. “When I have children,” he said, “When I express all that I will have to say, then my life will be over.”
Ever since his accident, life has seemed a great deal more precious to Stevie. “Yes, I believe in Jesus,” he says – and on the spot he switches his cassette and composes a gospel song. His blindness has also given him a special reverence for the things that can’t be seen. “There are many things to speak about in the world,” he says, “but you can’t deny, neglect or ignore the wonderfulness of love. There’s a love for being alive, a love for music. What’s sad is all that materialism – the values of people in the Western culture who need the finest of this and the baddest of that. I’m glad I don’t see.”
Stevie’s music goes deep down and keeps time with the world’s pulse. “I can feel the cycle of the sun going up and down,” he exclaims. “I can feel the world spinning ‘round. But how can you print that? People will say, ‘Whoooeee! How high is he now?”
*Copyright Jobete Music Co., Inc, and Black Bull Music, Inc. 1973. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
Original Publication: Newsweek, October 28 1974