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The Wild Stevie Wonder: Rolling Stone's 1973 Interview

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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.

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Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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