"If I sing about it and write about it, I have to DO about it". It was an hour or so after the gentle giant addressing us had left Olympia and the hysterical multitude, and that statement was offered to the representatives of the various news media as an explanation of why, in fact, Stevie Wonder had done this concert in Detroit and, morever, had donated his earnings to the City to be used to help ghetto children.
Apparently this explanation is by way of a credo for this exemplary musician whose sincerity and forthrightness are so rare as to inspire, initially, outright skepticism in people who've worked in the music business for any length of time and whose daily bread is dishonesty, cynicism, and the propagation of illusion. Elton John's statement in a recent "Creem" that his success formula consisted of "Vitantin E, quaaludes, heroin, plus intercourse with sheep", for all its offhand jokiness, was a criminally irresponsible thing to say and gives a pretty accurate idea of the consciousness of the average rock superstar.
Now Stevie Wonder is unquestionably at the top of the rock pile these days. His last three albums- Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfilligness First Finale (FFF)-- have all won platinum records. He was awarded five, count 'em, five Grammy awards last year including ones for "Album of the Year" (Innervisions), Best Pop Vocal Performance ("You Are The Sunshine Of My Life"), and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance ("Superstition"). In June, 1972, Stevie toured with the Rolling Stones and won over a mass white audience that hadn't been his before. At this point in his career Stevie, like the Beatles before him, is more popular than Jesus Christ, let alone a used Ford, and is hip to the fact that his every word and action is gospel to the millions of young people who buy his albums. The fact that four of his last five concerts have been benefits, the proceeds of which were directed to the local black communities, is proof to the skeptic that Stevie Wonder is, indeed, about doing. (Stevie also played at the benefit to Free John Sinclair in Ann Arbor, Dec. 10, 1971).
The musical story of the making of this remarkable citizen begins early. Born blind on May 13,1950, Stevie asserts that it didn't matter, that his blindness "never realty separated him from other kids". Like Ray Charles and José Feliciano, Stevie's overcome any disadvantage by denying the fact of his blindness- "I never knew what it was to see, so it's just like seeing." According to a recent cover story in Down Beat, Stevie's uncle gave him a four-hole harmonica at age five and Stevie was off and running. He would sit by the radio and play along with bluesman Little Walter and Jimmy Reed. He began piano lessons at six and started playing the drums at eight. He was almost there. When Ronnie White of the Miracles introduced him to Brian Holland of the Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown writing team. Holland took him straight to Berry Gordy, Jr. the big cheese there. Gordy signed him, changed young Steveland Morris' name to Wonder, and a superstar was born.
When he was 13, Stevie set the world afire with "Fingertips, Part 2" and never looked back, beginning the endless tours-- hotel to hotel, city to city --that are part of an aspiring musicians dues. Of that period he says, "When you are traveling on the road, you have to learn to know yourself, what your likes are. I had to learn this at a young age, and fast."
A more conventional type of learning was required by law and when he was still 13, Motown suggested he attend the Michigan School For The Blind, in Lansing, from which he graduated. "They taught me all the usual things," Stevie says. "but what I liked was the swimming pool and the wrestling team. They had a music department, too, and that exposed me to all those classical dudes, like Bach and Chopin. You can hear some of that on "They Won't Go When I Go" on FFF.
When Stevie turned 21, he battled for months with that patriarchal giant, Motown Records: the formula sound, the iron-fist controller of royalties, publications, production, publicity and direction. Stevie slashed loose and established an unprecedented Motown deal. He emerged with his own publishing company, Black Bull Music, his own production company, Taurus Productions, 50% of the royalties, the right to record whenever and however he chooses, and just recently, the power to decide which album cuts will be released as singles.
Also at 21(1971) Stevie legally received his childhood earnings that had been held by a state-appointed guardian. He moved out of his family's home to a NYC hotel, and got married to singer Syreeta Wright (he discovered her musical talents when she was a secretary at Motown. They have since divorced.)
During this time Stevie was also developing his talents as a producer. Besides producing (and writing much of) both of Syreeta's albums, he also did the Spinner's single "It's A Shame", David Ruffin's "We'll Have It Made", and "Afrodisiac", by the Main Ingredient. In addition, Stevie has produced every one of his own albums beginning with Music of My Mind.
On August 6, 1973 Stevie got in a car crash and was in a coma for three days. a semi-coma for seven more. The brush with death made for some serious reflection and Stevie sees the accident as a sign from God, "to slow down, to take it easy. I still feel l'm here to do something for God, to please people, to turn my world into music for God, to make it possible for people to communicate with each other better". He sees himself today, like John Coltrane before him, as a man with a mission.
Two of us from the SUN went down to dig this missionary live on Friday, September 29. We were backstage when the long black Rolls Royce floated into the building with Stevie and we watched the graceful way he bore the adoration of the folks who just had to talk to him. We watched as a mother brought her young blind son to Stevie and how Wonder, bent in half so as to be head to head with the kid, managed, with infinite charm and gentleness, to loosen the tongue of this boy spastic with shyness.
We went out front, finally, and saw The Commodores open the show. They are a black quintet from the South built along the lines of Warlots of stone raunch and a thin veneer of Motown polish. They covered Roberta Flack's "That's The Time", Seals and Crofts "Summer Breeze", and tore up McCartney's "Live And Let Die", adding a "Star-Spangled Banner" feedback finale ripped straight from the Hendrix performance at Woodstock, that brought tears of crazed laughter to the eyes. Simply psychedelic.
"Wonderlove", Stevie's touring ensemble-- full band and vocal arsenal of ten musicians-- came on and continued to heat things up. Each of three woman vocalists got a chance to solo and each was a star in her own right, firmly in control, great range, deeply expressive. And then Stevie was led on and we all went wild.
I should add here that the arena was only about half full due to the fact that the advance publicity was scant because the date wasn't confirmed until only a week ahead of time. Even so, it was an inspirationally heterogenous crowd and uniformly enthusiastic.
Stevie opened with "Bird of Beauty" from FFF and it was a revelation to learn that all the sounds we hear on his albums could be duplicated live. I've also got to emphasize that Stevie's music is wildly happy, as high as it gets and it took no more prompting than his asking, "Are ya havin' a good time" to get back a blast of assent. After "Higher Ground", "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours", and "Looking For Another Pure Love", Stevie began to rap down some of his ideas about world harmony and brother/sisterhood, openly wondering about the possibility of any of it coming together. He then launched into "Visions", the song he's said he hopes to be remembered by. In it Stevie describes a Utopia -
People hand in hand,
Have I lived to see the milk and honey land
Where hate's a dream and love forever stands,
Or is this a vision of my mind?
He then asserts that he is in full control of all his faculties, eminently sane-- "'I know just what I say, today's not yesterday"-- you may say that he's a dreamer, but he's not the only one and yet the question remains: can this "milk and honey land" ever exist or "'do we have to find our wings and fly away, to the visions in our minds?"
Well, Stevie Wonder did his considerable best to share with us his vision of heaven on earth throughout the concert. There were no low points but when that man started blowing his harmonica on "You've Got It Bad, GirI" I almost jumped out of my skin. The entire crowd was up and dancing in that dead hull of a building and would not sit down for the last half hour of the show. We left that evening marveling that, despite Olympia's pitiful acoustics, anyone could be so good, so positive.
Stevie is unique because he's sincerely concerned about communicating. "I feel everyone should be able to grasp what you're doing. I shouldn't be so complicated that it's beyond everyone's capabilities, nor should it be so simple that you cannot use your mind to think about it.
"I would like to feel that as my albums change, my people-- meaning all people-- will come with me, that we will grow together. Everything that I experience is in the songs that I write. You see, my music is my way of giving back love."
It's part of the SUN's vision that musicians like Stevie Wonder become the rule and not the exception, but since that isn't the way 'tis yet, we take this opportunity to celebrate the progressive stance of the Wonderful One.
We are amazed but not amused
By all the things you say that you 'II do
Though much concerned but not involved
With decisions that are made by you
But we are sick and tired of hearing your song
Tellin how you are gonna change right front wrong
'Cause if you really want to hear our views
"You haven 't done nothin "
[photo caption: Stevie Wonder in Detroit last Friday, receiving a platinum record from the President of Motown for selling 3 million copies of his latest album. Unlike most top-selling musicians, Stevie is putting some of his income to positive social use.]