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.