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The Wild Stevie Wonder: Rolling Stone's 1973 Interview

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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.

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 free-lance 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 lame, 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.

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."

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