The tiny lobby at WETA-TV's Shirlington studios started filling a little after noon. The children were barely well-behaved, and the adults were very much so. Nobody wanted to miss the chance to see Stevie Wonder -- in the flesh and no more than 50 feet away -- talking and playing his music for Oscar Brown Jr., the host of WETA's new black music series, "From Jumpstreet," to begin broadcast in the fall.
About a hundred people had come after phone calls from friends at the station, which only learned of Wonder's planned visit yesterday. Many of those lucky enough to become part of the audience for Wonder's taping had paper and pen tucked ready for autographs, though one 7-year-old wanted only one hit of information: "Where does he buy his shirts?"
"He's given us so much." said Postal Service employe Alice Johnson, who'd brought her two children. "All I'd want to do is to give to him, to see if there's something that I can give and share with the world."
"We grew up together, I can relate myself to him," said Robert Reeder, 29, a clerk at Howard University Hospital who came with his 9-year-old son Robert.
Wonder's youngest fan was 2 1/2-year-old Rashaun Esposito. Asked if he liked Wonder's music, Rashaun merely nodded, waited a second, and then gradually spread a grin from one side of his face to the other.
There were no smiles on the faces of the technicians in Studio A, how ever, as the normally frenetic pace was accelerated by Wonder's apparent last-minute decision to limit his appearance with Brown to an interview -- without playing the piano that was centered on the stage. Wonder had given the show's producers only 24 hours notice of his appearance in the first place, and suddenly spirits were falling.
When Wonder finally arrived -- delayed by his appearance downtown in the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration -- everyone breathed more easily. He did move to the piano, settling in for small talk with Brown while cameramen circled. After last-minute recording levels and camera lines were straightened out (Brown at one point said, "TV is a lot of hurry up and wait"), the audience started drifting in.
A few lucky children, including the host's 7-year-old daughter Africa Pace Brown, grabbed Wonder's hands, but most sat in front-row awe, watching the musical phenomenon doodling idly at the piano.
"From Jumpstreet," the 13-part series now in production aims to tell the story of black music by tracing it from its African roots to jazz, disco, blues and other contemporary idioms. Brown had merely to hint at questions for Wonder to take off on long, relaxed recollections of his career, which enters its third decade in May. That's when Wonder himself enters his 30's, and the stories were plentiful.
Wonder was at ease at the piano, his original objection to playing had been that though his songs were written in a simple setting, they weren't performed that way. But as he reminisced, his hands, which kept gravitating from his lap toward the keyboard, punched out familiar melodies, which in turn provoked little snippets of lyrics in Wonder's honeyed cadences.
Frequently given to a sly, self-effacing humor, Wonder talked about his most recent LP "The Secret Life of Plants," and shocked a number of fans used to long waits between albums by saying he had already finished a new one, "Hotter Than July."
Wonder told about his first recordings as an 11-year old, ("Everyone at Motown over 11 was my parent.") His 1961 song, "You Made a Vow," Wonder said, was felt to be too precocious -- and was rewritten as "Mother Thank You." He also rubbed it in a bit for a long-lost love named Marsha who was the original girl in what eventually became "My Cherie Amour."
"Marsha was my sweetheart, but Marsha found another boyfriend and I found out about it. Marsha blew it."
At the taping's end, Brown asked Wonder to "sum up musically just who Stevie Wonder is." A smile crept across the singer's face and he started to sing a very gentle melody: "I can't really deal with what I am to you/But I will with what you are to me . . . " (the slightest of pauses)" . . . You are the sunshine of my life.. . "
At this point, the audience, which had heretofore only laughed and enjoyed, broke into rhythmic clapping that gave Wonder's best-known song the jump-start it demanded.
Wonder had given everyone a gift summed up by one fan later in the parking lot: "I got my hug and I got my kiss."