Stevie Wonder: 'I Love Getting Into as Much Weird Shit as Possible'

After 11 years in show business, formerly Little Stevie Wonder is finally in absolute control

April 26, 1973
Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder

'I remember one time we were in Puerto Rico, and it was a sunshiney day," said Ira Tucker. "And Stevie was saying it was gonna rain. He said he could smell the moisture in the air, and we were all laughing at him. Three hours later, sure enough, it came. A hailstorm!"

What Tucker – an assistant to Stevie Wonder for five years now – was saying was that Wonder wasn't handicapped. Born blind, yes. Hampered, no.

"He can hear," Ira continued, here in his Holiday Inn room across a concrete bridge from Chinatown, San Francisco. "Like when I get stoned and listen to the radio and then I can pick up things. He's there all the time." Tucker sat back in a yellow T-shirt named after Wonder's latest single, "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."

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"He even turns the lights on and off when he goes to the bathroom," said Ira. "What for? I don't know. He said it's 'cause he hears everybody else do it. Click, you go in, click, you're out. So he does it, too. But he goes to the movies, runs from place to place, going out to airports by himself. And on planes people think he's a junkie, 'cause he sits there with these glasses on, and his head goes back and forth, side to side when he feels good. . . ."

Stevie Wonder entered the synagogue for a post-concert party Motown was throwing for him. Half a year after the tour with the Stones, he was completing his show of new strength. He had conquered New York a month ago; here, he was headlining two shows, at Winterland and at the Berkeley Community Theater. He sold out both shows and won over both audiences. For the wider, whiter crowds he now draws, Wonder mixes together an Afro consciousness, a jazz/soul/rock/synthesized-up music, medleys of old hits and bits of other people's hits, and, in one quick exercise in excess, a shot of one-man-band razzmatazz, as he moves from drums to electric piano to ARP-wired clavinet to guitar to harmonica. What he cannot achieve through eye contact is reached by output of energy, by a music that is by turns loving and lusty, that tells how Stevie Wonder cherishes freedom, and how he uses it. And the music, sure enough, reflects the man.

For the party, Wonder put aside his Afro gown and shark's tooth necklace and dressed up in a champagne-gold suit, matched by a plaid bow tie and metallic-copper platforms stacked four inches high. He plopped down onto the floor to talk with people; he played the harmonica; with Coco, his most constant companion since his divorce last year from Syreeta Wright, he explored the building. Upstairs is the old synagogue, complete with balconies and pews enough to hold 1000 worshippers, fixed up with red carpeting, showboat lighting, and stained-glass windows all shaped into colored Stars of David. Stevie and Coco and their entourage sat in a pew, feeling the airiness of the room, listening to the music coming off the speakers on the stage, where the altar used to be. Suddenly, the synagogue was filled with "Superstition." The disk jockey at KSAN had been alerted and she was putting together a string of Wonder hits. Stevie's head snapped up, started to go from side to side . . . You would've thought he was a junkie . . .

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Stevie was born Steveland Morris on May 13th, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan; he was the third oldest in a not particularly musical family of six children. They moved to Detroit in the early Fifties, where they lived a lower-middle class life. Despite his blindness, Stevie was never treated special by his family; in fact, he claims, he hung out more than his four brothers did. He listened to a radio show in Detroit called Sundown and got filled with blues and jazz. He began playing the piano, and by age 11, he was also playing drums, "harmonica, bongos and hookey." He would play with a cousin, a friend of the brother of Ronnie White of the Miracles. White auditioned Stevie and took him to Motown, where staff producer Brian Holland listened. Motown signed him and advertised him as a 12-year-old Genius.

Now in his eleventh year in show business, formerly Little Stevie Wonder is finally in absolute control.

"He feels he's back to making music again," said Ira Tucker. "There was a lull for a time, from the time he was 17 to Music of My Mind (which followed Where I'm Coming From in Wonder's post-Signed Sealed and Delivered progression in music). After two five-year contracts with Motown, Stevie was looking around, stalled six months, finally negotiated six weeks over a 120-page contract and made a deal. He got his own publishing – an unprecedented achievement for any Motown artist – and a substantially higher royalty rate (guessed at 50% by one close associate; Stevie would say only that he felt "secure").

"It was a very important contract for Motown," said Wonder's attorney, Johannan Vigoda (who negotiated contracts for Jimi Hendrix and Richie Havens, among others), "and a very important contract for Stevie, representing the artists of Motown. He broke tradition with the deal, legally, professionally – in terms of how he could cut his records and where he could cut – and in breaking tradition he opened up the future for Motown. That's what they understood. They had never had an artist in 13 years, they had singles records, they managed to create a name in certain areas, but they never came through with a major, major artist. It turned out they did a beautiful job."

Stevie is not, in fact, alone at the top at Motown, still home for Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, and the album-proportion skills of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. But Motown, now headquartered in Los Angeles – in a large office building on Sunset, across from the Soul'd Out nightclub – has moved its estimable weight into TV, films, and even onto Broadway (with Pippin). Berry Gordy recently became chairman of the board for Motown Industries, leaving the presidency of his Motown Records. And in the last year, while black music has moved vigorously into the pop charts, Motown has seemingly lost much of its touch. The label is signing more artists – black and white – and releasing more product, and getting fewer hits. Artists have upped and left; others complain more openly than ever before.

Marvin Gaye is a Gordy in-law; Smokey a vice president; Diana too close to ever leave. When she was pregnant with her first child and waiting to begin Lady Sings the Blues, in fact, Berry kept her busy by naming her head of Product Evaluation at Motown; for almost a year, she had the power of a vice president; in charge of deciding which tunes became singles, which singles got released and when.

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