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

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For Stevie Wonder – too young in the days of "The Sound of Young America" to be so integral a part of the family – the price for staying at Motown was security and freedom. Now, he writes and produces for himself; he books his own concerts; he manages himself and he can freelance at will. He is producing an album by his group, Wonder-love, a second LP for Syreeta, and one for the Supremes. He has worked in sessions with Eric Clapton, Graham Nash and Jeff Beck; on tour, he jammed with the Stones.

On the road and off the stage, Stevie spends his time in his hotel room, composing on a clavinet wired up to an ARP synthesizer, writing two or three tunes a day. He also explores, walking through Chinatown in gold lamé, head swaying from side to side as he passes the stores and smells the fish, the ducks, the pickled greens. And he loves to talk. He establishes rapport on the basis of astrological signs and otherwise talks in black-hippie fashion, zigzagging, sometimes, from Pollyannish to apocalyptic. He sees the earth zigging towards a destructive end; he can see himself dying soon and he hopes, by his music, to be able to leave something for the rest of us – even if we ain't that far behind him.
Ben Fong-Torres

* * *

It's amazing, I been in the business ten years, going on 11 now, and I look back and see so many things, changes, it's almost like I'm an old person sometimes. . . . The musical changes, how different eras have come and gone, a lot of people that I thought would be major people have died. Otis, Jimi Hendrix . . . you know Michael Jeffery was killed just recently, goin' from Spain to London. Two planes collided, one exploded, the other landed safely. I heard there were some bitter things that went down, that Hendrix was ripped off fantastically by Jeffery, but I don't know how true those stories are. . . .

It's heavy, and I guess you could say if he did the things that I heard he did, then that's his karma, but again, what about the other people on the plane? That's the question I always ask.

It's been really amazing . . . like when certain things I felt were gonna happen, I'd have dreams. I had a dream about Benny Benjamin [Motown's first studio drummer, who died of a stroke in 1969]. I talked to him a few days before he died; he was in the hospital. But in my dream I talked to him, he said, "Look man, I'm . . . I'm not gonna make it." "What, you kiddin'!" The image . . . he was sitting on my knee, which means like he was very weak. And he said, "So, like I'm leavin' it up to you." That was like a Wednesday, and that following Sunday I went to church and then to the studio to do a session; we were gonna record "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover," and they said, "Hey, man, we're not gonna do it today, Benny just died."

He died without notice. I mean, nobody really knew who he was.
Man, he was one of the major forces in the Motown sound. Benny could've very well been the baddest – like [Bernard] Purdie. He was the Purdie of the Sixties. But unknown.

Why unknown?
Well, because for the most part these cats'd be in the studios all day and as musicians they weren't getting that recognition then, you know. People weren't really that interested in the musicians.

Couldn't they also have had jobs with performing groups?
They'd do clubs, but they all were basically . . . Benny would be messin' up all the time. Benny'd be late for sessions, Benny'd be drunk sometimes. I mean, he was a beautiful cat, but . . . Benny would come up with these stories, like [in an excited, fearful voice]: "Man, you'd never believe it man, but like a goddamn elephant, man, in the middle of the road, stopped me from comin' to the session so that's why I'm late, baby, so [clap of hands] it's cool!" But he was ready, man. He could play drums, you wouldn't even need a bass, that's how bad he was. Just listen to all that Motown shit, like "Can't Help Myself" and "My World Is Empty Without You Babe" and "This Old Heart of Mine" and "Don't Mess with Bill." "Girl's All Right with Me," the drums would just pop!

Did Benny teach you a lot about drumming?
Yeah, you can hear it, you know. I learned from just listening to him.

Is it true that you put out a drum album once?
Well, I put out an album that I played drums on, called The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. I did another album which was called Eivets Rednow about '68, an instrumental with "Alfie" and a few other things . . . "Eivets Rednow" being "Stevie Wonder" spelled backwards.

Everybody knew who it was right away. . .
Some people did, some didn't. As a matter of fact there was a cat in the airport that came up and said, "Hey, man" [laughs], he said "Man, these whites takin' over everything," he says, "Look, I heard a kid today, man, played 'Alfie' just like you, man!" "Oh yeah, this cat named Rednow?" "Yeah, that's it!" I said, "Ooooh, man, that cat is – well, don't worry about him!" [laughs]

You've said that the first song that you ever wrote was "Uptight," but the credits were given to Sylvia Moy, Henry Cosby and a "S. Judkins." Was that you?
Well, Judkins is my father's name. But it's crazy to explain it. Morris was on my birth certificate and everything, but Judkins was the father. I took his name when I was in school. We just signed the song contract like that.

Why didn't you sign Stevie Wonder?
I don't know.

You signed "Wonder" on songs like "I'm Wondering" and "I Was Made to Love Her."
Well, that was later; I decided I wanted people to know that I wrote those songs.

How did you get the name Wonder?
It was given to me by Berry Gordy. They didn't like "Steve Morris" so they changed it.

Were there some alternatives?
"Little Wonder" . . . "Wonder Steve . . . " I think we should change it to Steveland Morris [laughs]. That would put a whole different light on everything.

You weren't an immediate hit, were you? You put out a record called "I Call It Pretty Music."
It was a thing that Clarence Paul wrote . . . an old blues thing . . . The first thing I recorded was a thing called "Mother Thank You." Originally it was called "You Made a Vow," but they thought that was too lovey for me, too adult.

How did the first records do?
They started after we did "Contract On Love." That made a little noise. "Fingertips" was after that. That was a biggie.

The first production credit you were given was on the Signed Sealed and Delivered album, but that wasn't the first producing you did.
Well, that was the first that was released. I also did a thing with the Spinners, "It's A Shame," and the followup, "We'll Have It Made." I wanted that tune to be big. I was so hurt when it didn't do it.

You also produced Martha once?
Yeah, they never released it. Called [sings, snapping fingers], "Hey, look at me, girl, can't you see . . . "

And one on David Ruffin.
Yeah, [sings] "Lovin' you's been so wonder-ful. . . ." In the midst of all that, I was in the process of gettin' my thing together and decidin' what I was gonna do with my life. This was like I was 20, goin' on 21, and so a lot of things were left somewhat un-followed-up by me. I would get the product there and nobody would listen and I'd say, "Fuckit" . . . I wouldn't worry about it.

This was around "Signed Sealed and Delivered" . . .
It was a little after that. "Signed Sealed and Delivered" was like the biggest thing I'd had.

Then you went into a lull.
Yeah, we did Where I'm Coming From – that was kinda premature to some extent, but I wanted to express myself. A lot of it now I'd probably remix. But "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" came from that album, and "If You Really Love Me" . . . but it's nothing like the things I write now. I love gettin' into just as much weird shit as possible. I'll tell you what's happening. Syreeta's album is better than my last two albums, man, shit! [laughs] No, but it's cool. . . .

How about Syreeta's first album?
For some reason it wasn't accepted. I don't know if it was lack of promotion . . . I told them I didn't want to be associated so much with the album, the wife/husband thing, which I think was not an asset.

What are the difficulties, if any, in producing your ex-wife?
It's still going through things . . . but I'm always a friend. It's kinda hard for friends to understand it; women think, "I know you guys are here, so I know you're gonna get back together." But if your head is really cool . . . like I used to always worry about when I used to go with someone, about them doing something with somebody else. . . .

You were always the jealous type . . .
Well, not really. I wouldn't even show it – but I was. . . . This is like one thing that I've tried to do, and I think successfully, that when you realize that nothing really belongs to you, you begin to appreciate having an understanding of just where your head is at, and you feel so much better.

That's easy to say.
I know, but I'm telling you, I'm doing it, man!

How long did your marriage last?
A year and a half.

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