Stevie never made it down to the studio that day. Or the next. He was, “uh, still preparing,” as one of his aides put it. He was “sleeping.” He was “meeting with Motown.” But as Wonder associate Birdis Coleman says, “What’s an hour to Stevie?” Or a day? Or a year?
Or five years? That’s how long Motown had to wait for Wonder’s latest album, In Square Circle. “Five years is much too long to spend making an album,” says Berry Gordy Jr., chairman of the board of Motown Records. “We disagree tremendously on that. He could have had two or three albums out in that time.”
But Gordy, like nearly everyone else who finds himself waiting for Stevie Wonder (and everyone does), puts up with it, expects it. After more than twenty years of hits — and with about 70 million records sold — Stevie Wonder is a living, breathing, still bankable legend. Just over a year ago, he wrapped up a little ditty, “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” that is one of the biggest-selling singles, worldwide, in the nearly thirty-year history of Motown Records. So Berry Gordy waits.
The “Brothers” are slumped, exhausted, around the lounge in Wonderland, Stevie’s Los Angeles recording studio. Brian LaRoda, a dapper personal assistant with a pencil-line mustache, is snoring loudly, stretched across a black Naugahyde couch beneath an immense concert photograph of his boss. James Kennar, a hair stylist, is dozing off on the other couch. Barely holding on to consciousness are Bridis Coleman and publicist Ira Tucker Jr., who’s so tired he’s wearing shades to keep the fluorescent lights from hurting his bloodshot eyes.
It’s two a.m. on a Friday morning. Gesturing toward the slumbering bodies, Tucker, who likes to keep things light, smiles weakly. “Perfect pitch,” he says. “Only by being around Stevie Wonder does one learn to snore like that. Listen to those tones!”
This is the usual state of affairs at Wonderland. Stevie often gets by on three or four hours of sleep. He has been known to work in the studio, around the clock, for two and a half days. His staff, mere mortals, struggles to keep up. “When it comes to music, if he decides he wants to do something, he wants to do it instantaneously,” says Mick Parish, one of the technicians who keep Stevie’s collection of state-of-the-art synthesizers and computers, valued at more than $3 million, in running order. “He called me from Africa one time. He wanted all his synthesizers and recording equipment flown to Africa — immediately. Thirty-five of us flew to Africa that day.”
Drifting in from the studio itself comes the muted sound of Stevie playing “Stormy Weather” on a Yamaha grand. He is smiling happily, lost in a melody, oblivious of the fact that people are waiting for him to get back to the task at hand: writing a jingle for Hansen’s natural soda pop. Stevie’s smile is euphoric, childlike. His beaded cornrow braids bounce against his shoulders as he bobs his head — to the right, to the left, to the right, to the left…. He calls that a “blindism.” As he once explained: “When you’re blind, you build up a lot of excess energy that other people get rid of through their eyes. You got to work it off some way, you know, and it’s just an unconscious thing.” Light glints off a large gold musical note that hangs from one braid. He shifts into a jazzy, Keith Jarrett-style improvisation. His whole body sways to the rhythm. Time seems to stand still for a few dreamy minutes. Birdis Coleman calls this “the timeless world of Wonder.”
Then it’s over, and Stevie snaps back to real time. He asks Richard Runyon, president of the marketing company that has put the Hansen’s commercial together, to press a button on his Linn drum machine. As the synthesized beat begins, Stevie’s large hands start working up a melody, and he improvises a lyric: “I like the taste of natural, natural. Give me the taste of natural. Give me the taste of life.”
Stevie Wonder is endorsing Hansen’s soda pop for what is, in the entertainment world, the oddest of reasons: he likes the product. He drinks the stuff all the time. So one day his cousin Damien Smith suggested that Stevie hook up with Hansen’s. Though no one will say how much Wonder is being paid, it is, according to Runyon, “a fraction” of the $5 million Michael Jackson and his brothers got from Pepsi.
Another twenty minutes and Stevie is finished writing the jingle. Giving the advertising people a warm send-off, he enters the lounge. His presence is overwhelming. He is a big man, standing at just over six feet. And hefty. He probably weighs more than 200 pounds. (He’s touchy about his weight; he got a talking scale for Christmas, though according to his secretary, “he turned the volume down.”) He’s also got a scar across his forehead, a reminder of a near-fatal car crash that occurred in North Carolina in 1973, when the car he was traveling in ran into a lumber truck. A log from the truck came right through the front windshield and hit Stevie in the forehead. He was unconscious for more than a week. As the story goes, Tucker sang “Higher Ground” into Stevie’s ear, and he came to. Now Tucker is instantly at Stevie’s side, rubbing his neck. “That hurts,” says Stevie.
“It’s supposed to,” says Tucker.
“Well, dig in, brother,” says Stevie, now welcoming the massage. Hearing the snores of his two employees, he laughs. “Welcome to my studio and dormitory.”
Tucker leads the blind superstar over to a desk that sits beneath a framed poster for one of the marches Stevie led in Washington D.C. a few years back while working to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Judging from the many posters of King around the studio — and the two-hour NBC special that Stevie organized this year to commemorate King’s birthday — it is a victory he still relishes. “I had a vision of the Martin Luther King birthday as a national holiday,” Stevie will say a few days later. “I mean I saw that. I imagined it. I wrote about it because I imagined it and I saw it and I believed it. So I just kept that in my mind till it happened.”
That is Stevie Wonder, cosmic visionary. The soulful seer who is wont to say things like: “Three will make the difference. Three. That other, you know, extraterrestrial kind of whatever that comes along. Or any three. That’ll be the thing.”
But at the moment, another side of Stevie Wonder is presenting itself. Removing his shades, Stevie rubs his pale, sightless gray eyes. He reaches in the direction of the phone, gropes for a half second before locating it, places a call. It is 3:30 a.m. “Bill it,” he shouts at the top of his voice. “If you can’t charge it, bill it. Billy, listen….”
That is Stevie Wonder, practical joker. The lovable boss who calls at any hour of the night or day. “He’ll call me, but he’ll disguise his voice,” says Chrysanthemum James, Stevie’s secretary. “He’ll say, ‘I got your number, and I think you’re swell.’ Obscene calls. Crazy stuff. He’s a clown. He loves to joke and tease. He does something every day, unless he’s having a bad day.”
Stevie has been known to impersonate Berry Gordy Jr. — for a laugh. “He’s called my secretary,” says Gordy, “and said, ‘Send Stevie Wonder a check for half a million dollars right away. He needs the money right away.’ So my secretary says, ‘Wait a minute, boss. Just like that?’ ‘Yes, just like that, and do it right away.’ She says, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ He says, ‘No, Stevie’s my friend, Stevie’s a fine young man, just give him a check. He’ll be in there shortly.’ ” Gordy chuckles. “I don’t think he got any checks, but who knows?”
In the studio lounge, another line rings. For five minutes, Stevie bounces back and forth between calls, carrying on two conversations, occasionally firing a question at Tucker. Stevie Wonder loves the telephone. And it’s not hard to understand why. On the phone, Stevie’s blindness becomes irrelevant. Wonder is constantly struggling to overcome his handicap. He uses a Versabraille address book that allows him to note phone numbers in Braille and find them when he wants to make a call. At his home he uses a Kurzweil reading machine; he can place a book or magazine in it and a synthesized voice will read to him. “He is determined to keep it from being a handicap, to overcome the obvious restrictions it might place on him,” says Ewart Abner, a former president of Motown Records who has been Wonder’s business manager since 1978. “He has devised means to make himself totally independent. He’s been involved with manufacturers in designing things so that the sightless can be independent and free and capable of doing the things that the sighted can do.”
Tucker brings over a Manila folder full of correspondence requiring Stevie’s attention. Some of the letters have been transcribed in Braille. Stevie’s hands touch the dots. “Ah,” he says, laughing. “Trying to butter up the Wonder.”
The phone rings again, and Stevie answers in a weird, high-pitched voice. “Is he up? Stevie? He’s on the phone. He’s busy. Call him back in ten minutes.” He hangs up; those in the room laugh with him.
Tucker starts pitching an upcoming performance at the Statue of Liberty that he claims Stevie agreed to. Stevie doesn’t remember the conversation. “I must be getting senile in my old age,” he says. Though he has been a star for more than twenty years, ever since “Fingertips (Part II)” reached Number One in 1963, Wonder is all of thirty-five years old.
“Man, a billion people will see you,” pleads Tucker, making the case for the concert.
Stevie leaves the subject hanging. He nibbles on a cookie, then addresses the room. “You know I heard this song by Doug E. Fresh: ‘The bitch was strong!’ ” Pause. ” ‘Six minutes! Six minutes!’ “
Kennar, the hair stylist, sits up. “Stevie, you heard that other line, ‘I don’t want no wrinkled pussy’?”
Stevie is incredulous. “Does it really say ‘wrinkled pussy’? You know, I might be for labeling some records.” Wonder isn’t for censorship, but he thinks some acts have gone too far. “You want your five-year-old kid hearing ‘motherfucker’ on a record?”
Four-thirty a.m. Stevie’s on the phone again, fingering one of his braids. “Get down here. I got to cut this Hansen’s thing. Yeah. Not only that, I got to cut a demo for Dionne [Warwick]….”
“And,” says Tucker, grimacing, “be on the set for the Hansen’s commercial by eleven a.m. With his hair braided.”
You know what I said to Stevie?” says Jay Lasker, president of Motown Records. “I told him: ‘Stevie, you were working on two cylinders instead of eight on The Woman in Red. Let’s hear the eight-cylinder job.’ “
That was before Stevie delivered In Square Circle. Now one can practically see dollar signs lighting up in Lasker’s eyes. “This will be the biggest album of Stevie’s career,” he says. “Part-Time Lover,” the first single from the LP, reached the top of the pop charts a few weeks after its release. The second single, “Go Home,” made it into the Top Ten, and a third single, “Overjoyed,” is currently bulleting up the charts. The album itself is selling by the truckload; it entered Billboard’s pop charts at Number Twelve, which, as Berry Gordy Jr. notes, “made it the fastest-moving album in the country” upon its release last October. It has, to date, sold more than 2 million copies.
Ask Stevie why it took him five years to make In Square Circle and he becomes vague: “I was involved with the King-holiday bill and performing, touring, and I was enjoying my family, and I was just living the experiences that would help me write.”
But five years? After all, Stevie cut four of his best albums — Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale — between 1971 and 1974. Just two years later he delivered the masterpiece of his career, a two-record set (with a four-song EP) called Songs in the Key of Life.
Stevie’s problem wasn’t writer’s block. According to his secretary, he writes a song nearly every day. When he travels, he carries a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and a Linn drum machine, so that when the mood hits, he’s ready. “He has 500 songs,” claims Chrysanthemum James. “He could release an album a month for the next five years.”
And despite what he says about “living,” it wasn’t like Stevie was on some extended vacation. He was in the studio “practically every day,” according to Lasker. During the three years preceding the release of the LP, Wonder would periodically show up at Lasker’s office, accompanied by a sound crew that would set up a digital sound system. Then Stevie would play bits of songs — just a few bars or a chorus — for the Motown president.
“He loves to play little pieces and get reactions,” says Lasker. “He’ll never play the whole thing. He loves to come up and tease you. He’ll get everybody here to say, ‘Jesus, give us that record, Stevie. That’s a smash.’ Then he’ll smile and just walk out. He’s very mischievous.”
But something prevented him from finishing the album. “There must have been things going on in his personal life,” figures Gordy. “It could hardly have been a problem with his creativity. I know it wasn’t. He’s written songs while we’ve talked on the phone. It was something else.”
Whatever demons were preventing Wonder from completing his album were chased away by Dionne Warwick. Warwick persuaded Stevie to contribute a song to the soundtrack of The Woman in Red. Before long, he had completed a batch of songs, including “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Stevie claims he wrote the music in 1978, then “modernized” the sound and wrote the lyrics while working on the soundtrack. He won an Oscar for that one.
Working on The Woman in Red got Stevie back on track. “Artists get lost in the studio,” says Lasker. “Sometimes it takes something to get them back in the world. Dionne was a catalyst. She got him out and moving. He got new energy. She got him into the race again. Got his juices going. Got him rolling. Enough is enough.”
When Stevie left his studio and headed for home at about five a.m. Friday morning, this was his plan:
1. Have his hair washed and braided.
2. Return to studio and record the Hansen’s-soda jingle.
3. Record a demo for Dionne Warwick’s next album.
4. Show up at the Culver City sound stage by 11 a.m. to film the
Of course, none of that happened as planned. Instead, Stevie went to bed. When he got up, he decided that rather than cut the jingle at his studio, he’d cut it live, right at the sound stage. And while he was at it, maybe he’d buy himself a mobile recording studio. What the hell?
“At about 10:30 he called me up and wanted to know if he could bring down a sound truck,” says Richard Runyon, who is directing the commercial, as he stands in the doorway to the sound stage. “That was fine with me. Right this very minute, he’s negotiating to buy a mobile studio. I said, ‘Stevie, we’ll see you at 12:30 or 1 ?’ He said, ‘Something like that.’ “
Twenty-odd people — cameramen, gaffers, lighting people, technicians, soundmen and others — stand around the sound stage, waiting. And waiting.
And waiting. Hours pass. “This thing has been a nightmare,” says one woman. “This has been the third time it’s been rescheduled. I can’t understand how he can have no consciousness of the value of other people’s time. This is typical. Sure he’s Stevie Wonder and everyone wants him, but…”
At three p.m., a procession of Stevie’s people arrives. Gary Olazabal, his coproducer. Mick Parish, the sound technician. Aquil Fudge, a producer who uses Wonderland, and Abdoulaye Soumare, one of Stevie’s synthesizer experts. And members of Stevie’s family — his brother Calvin, his cousin Damien — who work for him. “Stevie’s a great procrastinator,” says Olazabal. “He’s the best.”
Sometime after four p.m., Stevie’s chocolate-brown ’79 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow pulls up. Stevie is on the car phone, rapping. “It’s amazing,” says one onlooker. “Just watch. People can be bitching about him all day, but as soon as he shows up, none of it matters. Everyone is totally charmed by the guy.”
Stevie is led to a dressing room where three makeup girls have been waiting since eight a.m. They apply some makeup to Stevie’s face, do some work on his fingernails, then leave. Stevie’s brother Calvin then helps him dress. Beige slacks. Beige coat. Beige boots. “Shirt inside or outside?” asks Stevie.
“Inside,” says Calvin. Stevie tucks in the shirt, then Calvin assists him in slipping on the coat.
“You gonna wear a second bracelet?” asks Calvin.
“It’s too much,” says Stevie, who’s already wearing a gold bracelet with his name written in diamonds on it.
“No, man, you should see Sammy Davis Jr.,” says Calvin.
“You should see Mr. T,” retorts Stevie.
The filming of the commercial will take all night. First, Stevie begins laving down the track with his synthesizer and drum machine. As Stevie works, Runyon motions his photographer to take pictures, then gets Tim Hansen, the owner of the soda company, and finally himself photographed with Wonder.
At about 5:30 p.m., Dick Clark and film crew show up. Clark is putting together an American Bandstand special and needs to interview Stevie for a thirty-second spot. On an adjacent sound stage Clark’s crew arranges some potted plants with blue Christmas-tree lights twinkling among the leaves, a round table covered with a red table-cloth and a couple of wineglasses, and a backdrop that says, AMERICAN BANDSTAND’S 33 1/3 CELEBRATION.
Meanwhile, Stevie is still working on the music. The computer memory screws up twice, forcing him to painstakingly create the track from scratch a total of three times. Hours pass. Dick Clark periodically pokes his head through the doorway. “I’ve had twenty years of this,” says Clark, gritting his teeth.
“I heard he kept Barbara Walters waiting thirteen hours once,” someone says. A thin smile appears on Clark’s face. “Good.”
Five hours after his arrival — and with no interview in sight — Dick Clark calls it a night, has his crew pack up the trees, the table and the colored lights and goes home.
At about midnight, a pizza break is called. Stevie retires to his dressing room. Without being prompted, he starts to talk about his tardiness. “People seldom have a real perspective on what it takes,” he says.” “They just go, ‘Damn, he took so long.’ They don’t realize all the many experiences you have to go through.”
He sips front a can of Hansen’s. “People do not understand lots of times. Which is okay. I mean, I’m not saying people have to change their lives for me. But if I’m what they want to be involved with, if this situation means that, as opposed to being three o’clock, it’s gonna be nine o’clock or ten o’clock, and if during all of that time between when it was supposed to be and the time it’s gonna be, I am honestly dealing with something else, then that’s just what that is. I can’t say that a computer’s going to break down. Basically all you can do is the best you can do.”
He leans forward in his chair. “It isn’t like I’m not sorry, because I am. But then again, if everyone understands the situation, I can be sorry, but that’s the way it is.”
It’s time to return to the set.
Nearly five hours later, at about five a.m., the shoot is completed. Stevie is led back to the dressing room. In the sound stage, at least five members of Stevie’s staff can be seen sleeping. Some of them are awakened; they hurry to take care of the boss. In the dressing room, Stevie collapses in a chair. Calvin pulls off his boots; one of the makeup girls wipes his forehead; a box of fried chicken is produced.
Stevie reaches for a piece, finds it, takes a bite. “Never again,” he says of this night spent making a thirty-second commercial. But that’s just exhaustion talking. He’s already agreed to make a second Hansen’s commercial in just a few days.
Inside his head, Stevie Wonder “sees” things. “Yeah, I think I see … I’m almost sure that the forms I see look exactly like yours,” he says sometime after two one morning, as he sits and eats chicken in a lavish Los Angeles hotel suite. “I mean even with textures of skin, or the different colors of skin, you can touch someone and you can get a pretty good picture in your mind. I assume that when you see something, you see it right in front of you, but you also take that image and it’s in your mind, your mind’s eye. It’s no longer coming from your eyes, it’s coming from inside you.”
He takes another bite of fried chicken. “Well the same thing happens to me. It’s kind of like I touch certain things, so that in my mind that visual thing … It’s closer to being tangible than intangible. Sort of like …”
He interrupts himself. “Which brings me to an interesting thought I was just thinking of while I was saying that. I bet you there is a way where the hands can actually see as eyes, connect to the optic nerves. I really believe that is possible, in a kind of way. Because basically it all gets back to being the same. If you think of a cake and you feel a cake, after a while in your mind you’re thinking about how it looks.”
He wipes his hands with a napkin. “I see it from how I perceived it, from touching it. But I don’t touch it in my mind. I think about how I see it. I see the full shape of the cake in my mind. I imagine the cake. I’m seeing it in my mind now, a round cake….”
Stevie leans forward, his hands outlining an invisible cake on the tabletop. “I see it being round here and layered, and then it curves over to that side, and it has icing, and there’s maybe cream over in the middle. And the candles. And I’m imagining I can see the plate and the little napkin that goes under the cake. Right? Can you see that when I’m talking?”
The first time Berry Gordy Jr. met Steven Judkins (he later had his name changed to Stevland Morris) was at Motown Records in 1961. The eleven-year-old kid sang the Miracles’ “Lonely Guy” for the Motown kingpin. “He was playing bongos, sitting on the ground in the studio,” says Gordy. “He was mainly a little bongo player, and he had a little voice that wasn’t that great. My first thought was ‘Very nice — a blind kid playing bongos and sort of making some sounds.’ I thought he was cute. I had no idea that he was a genius. We didn’t sign him right away.”
Stevie Wonder was born four weeks premature on May 13th, 1950. According to Nelson George’s recent book about Motown, Where Did Our Love Go?, he was kept alive for the first month of his life in an incubator. “Too much oxygen was pumped into the incubator,” writes George, “and as a result Stevie developed retrolental fibroplasia, which creates a fibrous membrane behind each eyeball, and would render him permanently blind.”
His parents separated early on, so he was raised by his mother, Lula Mae Hardaway. While Steven was still a baby, she moved the family from Saginaw, Michigan, to Detroit. For the soon-to-be Little Stevie Wonder, it was a fortunate move, bringing him to the future home of Motown.
By age eight, Stevie could play harmonica. bongos, drums and piano. When he was nine, as Motown was just getting started, Ronnie White, one of the Miracles, brought Stevie down to the label’s offices. It was the first of many visits. “He had something about him that was very nice in terms of his so-called handicap, his blindness,” says Gordy. “He wasn’t really sensitive about it. So we basically would forget that he was blind. He started hanging around the studio. A lot.
“We allowed him to come in and play on the drums,” continues Gordy. “It was always very irritating to me, ’cause he would play very loud. I remember coming into the studio and hearing this noise and always getting quickly to my office, which was upstairs, so I would avoid the pain of hearing it.”
By the time Stevie was thirteen, he had been dubbed Little Stevie Wonder by Gordy, was touring as part of the legendary Motortown Revue and had scored his first Number One hit. Eight years later, with twenty-one Top Forty hits under his belt, Stevie Wonder rebelled against the constraints of Motown. “He sent us a wire telling us he was twenty-one, and because he was twenty-one, his contract was voidable and he exercised that option to void it,” recalled Ewart Abner, who was president of Motown at the time. “We had expected it because he had been chafing at the bit, he had been saying to us that he didn’t think we understood where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. We knew that when he got to be twenty-one, he was going to demand absolute total creative control over his own product, which is what he did.”
He received nearly $1 million, which had been held in trust for him, and he negotiated a new contract with Motown, getting Berry Gordy to acquiesce to a list of demands the record mogul had never before agreed to: Stevie got his own publishing company, complete artistic freedom and an exceptionally high royalty rate.
Stevie took total control of his music, and he considers the results the “body of my work.” The records — Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Songs in the Key of Life and Hotter Than July — are classics, on a par with just about anything else produced during the Seventies.
“The key to your success — not success but being always innovative — is how open you are to change,” says Stevie. He listens to music constantly and at the moment is taken with rap, particularly Run-D.M.C. and Doug E. Fresh. When asked to come up with a group he’s been impressed with, he mentions Culture Club. “I think Prince is incredibly talented,” he adds. “He’s definitely created a style. A very exciting, unique style of chord progressions, as well as kind of innovating some of the older music. Like, if he produced James Brown, it would be incredible.
“Then again,” he continues, “I think that Michael [Jackson] is also very talented. And I say that also because there’s so much of what he does along with Quincy [Jones]…. People don’t realize how involved he is in the actual production.”
Creatively, Stevie himself seems to have reached a plateau. The Woman in Red was a gooey MOR confection; the hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You” a Hallmark card set to an advertising jingle. In Square Circle, though obviously a more substantial record, is a consolidation of what Stevie has done before, rather than a creative leap forward.
Stevie disagrees with that assessment. Asked if he feels the material on his most recent albums is as adventurous as his work in the Seventies, he says: “Technically, yes, I think it is. ‘It’s Wrong (Apartheid)’ is adventurous. See, my thing is, I don’t really think in that sense of asking myself, ‘Well, how adventurous can you get?’ I know how adventurous I can get, and I know what I can do and what I’m going to do. ‘It’s Wrong (Apartheid)’ is really the beginning of the next album. That’s like an indication of the kind of stuff that’s going to be on the next album.”
His mouth forms into a big smile. “I haven’t gone to sleep yet.”
I don’t want to talk about Stevie’s personal life,” says Ewart Abner. “It’s nobody’s business.”
Stevie Wonder is a very private man. He won’t allow reporters in his homes. He doesn’t talk about his girlfriends. Having been a pop star for most of his life, he is skilled at deflecting inquiries into his personal life.
Ask him about women, and he is typically vague. “You meet girls,” he says. “Guys like girls, girls like guys. You know that happens. And for me, it’s not been an exception. But when it gets into what you want in your life and how much of a certain thing you want….letting someone in your life is a personal thing. That doesn’t say that in my life I haven’t hung out. I’d be lying to say that I didn’t. But you can only really live a life with real relationships. Most of my friends are still my friends.”
He’s been married only once, in 1971, to Syreeta Wright, a Motown secretary turned singer. They were married for only a year and a half. “He wakes up with the tape recorder, and he goes to bed with the tape recorder,” Wright said a few years ago. “If you were able to get in between, that was great.”
After his marriage to Wright ended, Stevie had a daughter, Aisha (now 10), and a son, Keita (now 9), with a girlfriend, Yolanda Simmons, who currently lives in a house Wonder owns in Alpine, New Jersey. Two years ago he had a second son, Mumtaz, with another girlfriend, Melody McCully.
In addition to his New Jersey house, Stevie owns a brownstone in New York, two houses in L.A. and one in Detroit, He also owns an L.A. radio station, KJLH; his studio; a publishing company, Black Bull Music Incorporated; and a record label, Wondirection. He employs more than eighty people, including his sister, Renee, and his four brothers, Milton, Calvin, Larry and Timothy.
One recent morning, he sat in the studio lounge and had a long phone conversation with Wright. “I’m friends with them,” Wonder says of Wright and Simmons. “Everybody’s fine with me. It gets into, like, do you love someone, or do you love them because of what they do for you, with you, to you? … And I mean that isn’t to say that situations can’t be bitter, but I think that whole energy of bitterness is something I don’t ever like to have in my life. And I would sacrifice a lot just so that bitterness is not part of my life.”
Wonderboy, he can eat and talk at the same time.” Stevie Wonder grins, picks up another piece of fried chicken and takes a bite. Then he gets serious.
“I knew John Lennon would be the Beatle that would die first,” he says, this particular thought triggered by a question about Marvin Gaye. “I knew that. I feared it for a long time. Because, in my mind, I felt, when I heard the song in which he sings, ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain,’ I knew that somebody somewhere had a problem with that. Didn’t understand it…. You know, when John Lennon died, for a long time I cried every time I heard ‘Imagine,’ because I could feel his soul in that song.
“I still can. If I’m in a certain mood, I will still cry, because, you know, I just don’t understand how someone can just take someone’s life like that. Which brings me to a whole other thing. I have this thing about this society, this culture, this civilization. And that is, I don’t believe that whole thing about ‘It’s God’s will.’ I don’t believe in that. I believe that certain things, yes, are definitely God’s will. The power of the Creator. But I believe that a lot of things are man’s fuckup.”
He hesitates. “Excuse my language. Certain things are meant to be, but those are natural things, things that happen naturally. But any participation that man has, because of man having the ability to think and to reason, makes us responsible. We are responsible. But people become very irresponsible and negligent because they say, well, ‘That was meant to be. It happened because it was meant to happen.’ If someone in this hotel decides that they’re angry with somebody else and says, ‘Look, I’m going to blow this hotel up in two minutes,’ and we are here doing this interview and all of a sudden this place is engulfed in flames and there’s no way we can get out and we all blow up and die, I would not believe that that was meant to be. I refuse to believe that. But a lot of people, ’cause they don’t understand it, say, ‘Well, it’s meant to be.’ People that abuse children or beat their wives or stuff like that. You know, that’s not meant to be. That’s stupid ignorance. People who use guns. People who drink and then drive and kill families or themselves. I don’t believe it. I believe that we are given this life and it really depends on how special and precious it is to us.
“That’s the major thing that concerns me with crime. I understand that a lot of frustration exists. I believe there’s a lot of idle time. They say that idle time is the devil’s workshop. I really believe that. It really gets down to caring, and people beginning to care about themselves as well as other people.”
He is six hours late. Tonight, Stevie Wonder is to be the guest of honor at a $250-a-person benefit for the American Cancer Society being held in the Los Angeles Ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel. Smokey Robinson is the master of ceremonies. Dionne Warwick is to sing with Stevie. Berry Gordy will be in the audience, as will other top Motown executives.
As usual, Stevie is way behind schedule. He was supposed to have rehearsed yesterday evening at a Burbank sound stage. He blew that off totally. Today, the calls from the Century Plaza have been coming since noon. “By about 3:45 this afternoon you’ll begin to see people tense up,” says Stevie, laughing, in the early afternoon. “Panic time,” he adds, obviously amused by the way people react to his tardiness. “People will start to panic.”
He is sitting in the studio lounge, facing two 3/4-inch digital video-playback units. Because of its excellent sound quality, Stevie records his music on videotape. He is putting together a tape of the instrumental tracks to the songs he will sing tonight. But, as usual, there have been technical difficulties. It took hours to locate the master tape to “Part-Time Lover.” A note or two of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” “dropped out” of the tape, and so a new mix had to be made. Then there were the three hours spent recording an updated version of his 1969 hit “My Cherie Amour.” “I’m a marathon man,” says Wonder.
Stevie’s assistant Brian LaRoda is nearby, staring at the TV. On the screen, the Three Stooges fumble through some harebrained shenanigans. “Reminds me of this place,” he says.
Stevie has to go to the bathroom. “Can I have my shoes,” he says. “I don’t want to get done in by our little friends.”
His voice becomes high, squeaky. “Stevie Wonder has rats in his place from the restaurant next door.”
“You got roaches, too,” says one of his aides.
“Rasta roaches, mon,” says Stevie in Jamaican patois.
In a normal voice he says: “Not Stevie, man. He’s too square, man.”
Finally, at about 4:30 p.m., the tape, is ready. Stevie wants to be driven to the cancer-society event. One problem. His personal assistant has disappeared, along with the Rolls. So Stevie stretches out on a couch to wait. After thirty minutes, he gets impatient and asks his brother Milton to give him a ride. They load into a shiny white Mercedes convertible and take off.
At the hotel ballroom, while waiters rush about carrying platters of food to the tables, Stevie runs through a few tunes. Then he goes upstairs to his penthouse suite. As the dinner begins nineteen floors below, he lies down on the bed and falls asleep. While Smokey Robinson and others make speeches honoring Stevie Wonder, Stevie is dreaming.
While he dreams, his brothers Calvin and Milton and other members of his staff change into tuxedos. Shortly after nine, Stevie emerges from the bedroom, and Val and April, his makeup girls, start to work on him. Val smooths makeup onto his face; April rubs something into his hair. The phone rings; Stevie is needed backstage. He is led down the hall, into an elevator, through the lobby and the kitchen and up some stairs into a dressing room.
Dionne Warwick arrives and plants a big kiss on Stevie’s face. “How are you!” she gushes.
“Sleepy,” They embrace for a good minute.
“Well,” she says. “I’ll go down and enjoy myself.”
After she leaves, Stevie says, “I need my headphones.” To monitor his performance, he uses headphones plugged into a pocket-size radio transmitter. One of his brothers hands him a pair. Stevie is irritated. These are not the right headphones.
“Where are they, Stevie?” asks his assistant.
“Things get moved around. You don’t put them in the same place, and they’re lost.” He seems close to exploding. “They were in my bag.” The assistant and a brother run over to a black leather bag and begin searching through zippered pockets. Another pair of headphones is produced. Still not right. And another. “No,” says Stevie. “Where’s that first pair?”
“Stevie,” someone says, “they’re waiting for you.” He slips on a striped formal jacket as he is led into the hall. People crowd around. The hallway feels chaotic, claustrophobic.
“Where’s the transmitter?” snaps Stevie, slowly descending the stairs. It is produced, and he plugs in the headphones as he reaches the stage entrance. “It’s not working.” He’s frantic. “I don’t hear anything. The battery is dead.”
There is much fumbling by his aides as they locate another transmitter. Then Smokey Robinson appears. He throws an arm around Stevie. “We took down the microphones and the equipment.” says Smokey. “No piano, either, Stevie.” Stevie Wonder practically jumps, then realizes it’s a tease. “If anyone can go out there and do it alone,” Smokey says, “It’s you, Stevie.”
Stevie Wonder walks calmly out onto the stage to a deafening round of applause. “I heard all that stuff about Stevie Wonder,” he says. “Stevie Who?”
There is laughter.
He gets serious. “I was listening to all the things you were saying about me… I’m appreciative of what you’ve said about me and what I’ve done.”
Minutes before he had been exhausted. irritable. Now, before the public, all that is visible is a smiling, charming Stevie Wonder. A gracious superstar. No one in the audience could possibly suspect that he slept through the speeches. “When we see people far less fortunate than we are, then we will do all that we can so they can enjoy that which God wants us to have….”
When the speech is over, he is led to a bank of synthesizers. Taking a seat, he begins to sing and play “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” to a taped backing track. “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” follows. At one point the tapes are stopped and he performs the modernized version of “My Cherie Amour,” using the musical tracks that he had played and stored in the synthesizer memory that very morning. It is a phenomenal one-man show.
A few hours later, back in his hotel suite, Stevie speaks to a small group of friends and associates, including Adrienne and Elliott Horwitch, the couple who organized the benefit, about a vision he had after visiting a close friend who has cancer.
Stevie dreamed there was a lake. And near the lake were cedar trees. And in the dream, the sap from the cedar trees was a cure for cancer. “I called up my friend,” says Stevie. “I asked him if there was a lake near where he lives. He said there was. I asked if there were any trees. He said. ‘Yes, cedar trees.’ That really struck me. So I’ve been talking to some doctors. I think there may be a cure there. It’s something I really believe. It’s something I intend to pursue.”