"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."
"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...
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."
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.
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.
My lady friend, one thing we have that's good is she can feel people like I do, when you meet all the phony bullshit people, she's able to sense that, so I feel there is someone that is there with me.
I've never dealt with a woman on the "Stevie Wonder" level. When you meet someone and begin to like them, then you do let them know you even more personally than the public knows. There's not really a difference between me and "Stevie Wonder" — only thing is I'm not singing "Fingertips" or "Big Brother" or "Superstition" all the time. There's other things, listening to other people, and going to the park or seeing a movie or going bowling.
But the public Stevie Wonder is a lot of ideas and images that people have of you, regardless of what you actually are.
I know there are thousands of images of me. There was a guy one time, I heard: "Hey, uh, Stevie Wonder told me to come and get this grass from you, so where is it?" He said, "Stevie Wonder told you? He didn't, man, 'cause I'm his guitar player, and he doesn't even smoke grass. He doesn't even get high." I guess people expect or figure me to be a lot of different things.
You never got into drugs?
I smoked grass one time and it scared me to death.
Put images into your head?
Well, things just got larger. It was something new and different, but I found I'm so busy checking things out all the time anyway that I don't really need it.
Are there times when you wish you could see?
No. Sometimes I wish I could drive a car, but I'm gonna drive a car one day, so I don't worry about that.
And fly, too?
I've flown a plane before. A Cessna or something, from Chicago to New York. Scared the hell out of everybody.
Who was your copilot — God?
No [laughs], this pilot was there, and he just let me handle this one thing, and I say "What's this?" and we went whish, whoop...
You've actually said that you considered your blindness to be a gift from God.
Being blind, you don't judge books by their covers; you go through things that are relatively insignificant, and you pick out things that are more important.
When did you discover that there was something missing, at least according to other people's standards?
I never really knew it. The only thing that was said in school, and this was my early part of school, was something that made me feel like because I was black I could never be or would never be.
So being black was considered to be more a weight...
I guess so. [laughs] This cat said in an article one time, it was funny: "Damn! He's black! He's blind! What else?!" I said, "Bull shit, I don't wanna hear that shit, you know."
So you wouldn't even bother having people describe things to you. Colors and...
Well, I have an idea of what colors are. I associate them with the ideas that've been told to me about those certain colors. I get a certain feeling in my head when a person says "red" or "blue," "green," "black," "white," "yellow," "orange," "purple" — purple is a crazy color to me....
Probably the sound of the word...
Yeah, yeah. To me, brown is a little duller than green, isn't it?
Yes, you got it...What about sex?
What about it? [laughs] It's the same thing, Jack! As a matter of fact it's probably even more exciting to the dude. Ask my woman what it's like.... No, no! [laughs] I mean you just have to get in there and do that shit, you know. That shit is just fantasticness!
I used to live on a street called Breckinridge. They just tore my house down. I wish I could've gotten a few pictures of it, too...but...
So you didn't miss a thing.
We listened to Redd Foxx and did all that stuff! We tried to sneak and do it to little girls. I used to get into a lot of shit, Jack! I got caught trying to mess with this girl. I was about eight years old. It was the play house trip. And I really was like taking the girl's clothes off and everything, I don't understand how I did that stuff, you know. I mean, I was in it! I had her in my room with my clothes off. And she gave it away 'cause she started laughin' and giggling 'cause I was touching her.
I used to hop barns with all the other dudes. You know those small sheds they used to have in back of houses; in the ghetto where I lived, we'd hop atop them from one to the other. I remember one time my aunt came and said, "OK, Steve, Mama said don't be doin' that," and I said, "Aw, fuck you," and there're some neighbors out and they said, "Aw, child, you oughta be ashamed of yourself, I thought you was a child of the Lawd, you out there cussin' 'n' everything." That was like back of our house in the alley, you know, so I just kept on, just hopping the barns, jumping around and everything, till all at once I jumped and fell right into my mother's arms. The ironing cord, the whipping. The Magic Ironing Cord Whipping.
You've mentioned in various interviews that you feel like you haven't paid a lot of dues. You were talking about Ray Charles, about how you can sense the pathos in that man's voice.
I heard a lot of things, you know, the way people really did him in, but I think he's doing a lot better now.
People did him in?
Well, they knew like when he was on drugs. A lot of people would like bust him, just to get money, or they would put him in jail in some of the Southern places just to get some bread.
In school, what subjects did you like best?
History, world history, but it got kind of boring. And science. The history of this country was relatively boring — I guess because of the way it was put to us in books. The most interesting to me was about civilizations before ours, how advanced people really were, how high they had brought themselves only to bring themselves down because of the missing links, the weak foundations. So the whole thing crumbled. And that's kind of sad. And it relates to today and what could possibly happen here, very soon. That's basically what "Big Brother" is all about.
I speak of the history, the heritage of the violence, or the negativeness of being able to see what's going on with minority people. Seemingly it's going to continue to be this way. Sometimes unfortunately violence is a way things get accomplished. "Big Brother" was something to make people aware of the fact that after all is said and done, that I don't have to do nothing to you, meaning the people are not power players. We don't have to do anything to them 'cause they're gonna cause their own country to fall.
"My name is Secluded; we live in a house the size of a matchbox." A person who lives there, really, his name is Secluded, and you never even know the person, and they can have so many things to say to help make it better, but it's like the voice that speaks is forever silenced.
I understand that when you don't hear anything and you hear this very high frequency, that's the sound of the universe.
Or a burglar alarm, which takes some of the mystery out of it...Tell me about your experiments with electronic effects and music. First, have you listened to Beaver and Krause, or Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake and Palmer, or Walter Carlos?
Walter Carlos, yes, but for the most part I've listened to just what's in my head, plus Bob Margoloff and Malcolm Cecil — they just built a new synthesizer you should see — they have their own company, Centaur, and they did an album, Tonto's Expanding Headband. They are responsible for programming and I just tell them the kind of sound I want.
I hadn't got tired of strings or horns or anything, it's just another dimension. I'd like to get into doing just acoustic things, drums, bass, no electronic things at all except for recording them.
How about the Bag [a throat-sound amplifier made by Kustom]? What does that do for communication?
It creates an emotion in that the voice is low. And it frightens you a little. We used it on Syreeta's album, "She's Leaving Home," I was just playing the ARP, not really singing, but playing the note and moving my mouth.
What else are you checking out these days?
There's this string instrument made in Japan. You tune it like a harp to a certain chord scale. It takes you somewhere else that's sort of earthy and in the direction where my head is slanting — like going to Africa. Maybe I'll take a tape recorder over there and just sit out and write some stuff.
In concert, your opening number includes African scatting.
I got that from this thing called The Monkey Chant that we used in different rhythms, and we came up with [chop-chants, in speedtime] ja-ja-ja-jajajajajaja...
And there are three pairs of drumsticks going.
It's like fighting. I'd love to go to Ghana, go to the different countries and see how I'd like to live there.
Do you know Sly Stone?
I've seen him a couple of times. I haven't heard too much about him lately, just rumors.
He influenced you to a degree.
...Ah...I think there's an influence in some of the things I've done, like "Maybe Your Baby." But I can hear some of the old Little Stevie Wonder in a lot of his early things [Stevie sings a bit of "Sing a Simple Song"]. It used to tickle me...
You've said that your writing was influenced by the Beatles.
I just dug more the effects they got, like echoes and the voice things, the writing, like "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite."
Did it make you feel that you could be more loose yourself?
Yeah. I just said, "Why can't I?" I wanted to do something else, go other places. Same thing about keys. I don't want to stay in one key all the time.
I understand that in the old days at Motown, groups had to compete for tracks. Writers would come up with a song and a track, and artists would all sing over it, and the best would get a single released.
I could see why that would happen, though. It's kind of crazy. But then again you think the writer, whoever the writer is — the music, the sound wasn't really Motown as much as the writer. I think for the most part they should listen in advance and know the artists. Holland-Dozier-Holland usually would sing the melodies themselves and say, "This is how I want you to do it."
What about you? Did you always have more independence?
I had the independence because I was somewhat distant, because I was in school, and I would just come back home sometime and do some singing.
"Blowing in the Wind" and "Alfie" were unusual songs for a Motown artist to be doing back when you did them.
Most of them came about from doing gigs and wanting certain kinds of tunes. Clarence Paul, who was my arranger and conductor when we had the big group — we would work out doing tunes, ridin' in cars like in England around '65. We'd think of different songs like "Funny How Time Flies Away" or "Blowin' in the Wind."
Writers are so important. I think a lot of our artists could have been more sustained if they had other writers, besides Holland-Dozier-Holland, because then they would have found their identity — and that's what everybody needs.
So you can understand why groups like Gladys and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, the Tops, the Spinners, left.
I do, when you become just one of the others, it's difficult to be a sustaining power for a long period of time. It's like a person comes out with a beat, and you keep on doing it and doing it and driving it to the ground.
Did you hang out around Studio A at Motown?
I did when I was younger, but like when I was 12 or 13, I couldn't 'cause I was in school. I used to play on a lot of gospel sessions.
Did you play in sessions outside of Motown?
No, but I have now, recently.
You were working with Jeff Beck last year; then he got angry at you because you put out "Superstition" as a single before he did.
Well, I'd written a thing for them — they wanted "Maybe Your Baby," and I said no, do this, this is even better, and I wrote "Superstition" that same night. And they wanted the track, which I couldn't give them, 'cause of Motown, so I said, "I'll give you a seven [a 7-1/2 ips tape] and you all work on it and I'll play on the session, 'cause he said he'd play on a thing of mine. And I wrote another thing for them which was even more like Jeff Beck, a thing called "Thelonius" which they haven't done anything with, it's really bad [Stevie sings, scatting with triple-timed kneeslaps]...but I told him I was using "Superstition" for my album. The tune I wanted to release as a single was "Big Brother," but that was done too late to come out as a single. Motown decided they wanted to release "Superstition." I said Jeff wanted it, and they told me I needed a strong single in order for the album to be successful. My understanding was that Jeff would be releasing "Superstition" long before I was going to finish my album; I was late giving them Talking Book. Jeff recorded "Superstition" in July, so I thought it would be out. But I did promise him the song, and I'm sorry it happened and that he came out with some of the arrogant statements he came out with. I will get another tune to him that I think is as exciting, and if he wants to do it, cool.
After the Stones tour, there was a story in a magazine where the Stones — Keith Richards — was yelling about you, calling you a "cunt" when you couldn't make a gig because of your drummer. There were claims that you'd been partying instead of working.
If Keith did say that, he's just childish, because I love people too much to just want to fuck up and miss a show. And it's crazy, the things he said, if they were said — and if he did not say them, he should clarify them, because I will always hold this against him; I can't really face him, I'd feel funny in his presence.
Was Keith pretty friendly throughout the tour?
I had mixed emotions about where he was comin' from, you know, so I wouldn't be surprised if he said it, but I'm really not too surprised about anybody saying anything about anything. What really bugged me about the whole thing was that our drummer was in a very bad situation, mentally and spiritually, and that's why he left. What climaxed the whole thing was, we got into an argument. I told him he was rushing the tempo — this was in Fort Worth, Texas — and he said, "I tell you what: You know how to play harmonica, you take the mike, you sing, and play drums and all that shit at the same time, 'cause I quit," and he split. I called up the Stones and said, "Look, man, our drummer left, and we might not be able to make the gig, so we'll try to make the second one but we won't be able to make the first show." And they said "OK, that'll be cool." The next thing, I saw the Stones and they heard the new drummer and said, "Oh, out of sight!" Then the next thing was I read all this shit.
Were you treated fairly, financially, for the tour?
It wasn't a money-making thing, that wasn't the idea — exposure was the thing.
I want to reach the people. I feel there is so much through music that can be said, and there's so many people you can reach by listening to another kind of music besides what is considered your only kind of music. That's why I hate labels where they say This Is Stevie Wonder and for the Rest of His Life He Will Sing 'Fingertips'...Maybe because I'm a Taurean and people say Taureans don't dig change too much. I say as long as it's change to widen your horizons, it's cool.