Stevie Wonder, having taught Bob Dylan how to sing like Bob Dylan in the recording sessions for "We Are the World," is relaxing in his dressing room and dictating the lyrics to "The Bell for Freedom Still Rings," one of two songs he and Dylan will perform tonight at the Kennedy Center during the gala tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
With Dylan having just arrived, the rehearsal is still to come, and Wonder, sipping a honey-lemon drink, is doing a little bit of editing, leaving space for a possible new verse from Dylan. Elsewhere around the Opera House, it's rush hour, a swirl of cables and lights, a conjunction of sets and instruments, a convention of dancers, singers and musicians.
Wonder, who is executive producer, host and beating heart of this concert and simultaneous ones in Atlanta and New York (they'll be edited together and aired tonight as a two-hour special at 9 on Channel 4), seems unperturbed by the apparent confusion surrounding him. He trusts in others as much as he trusts in himself.
"It's like with a song," he explains. "When you imagine something in your mind and you're really clear, then it's just a matter of putting it together."
Kinetic, charismatic, spirits of anticipation and good humor uncontained, Wonder is counting down, not just for the show, but for the end of this first official national holiday in King's honor, which he was instrumental in helping to establish.
"It's a great thing that it happened," says Wonder.
"But people really needed it to happen and they wanted it to happen," he says. "I only think of myself as the catalyst, bringing those energies to the forefront of people's minds, as opposed to talking about how much it's going to cost, or saying that this is just a black holiday. It's not just a black holiday. I think that anyone -- whatever color they might be -- who looks upon it that way because of [King's] being a black man is doing a disservice to the growth of America."
The holiday, Wonder adds, "is for people like Martin Luther King. It is for people like Steven Biko. It is for people like John Kennedy. It is for the black and Jewish civil rights workers who went down South and were found in a ditch. It is for all those people who in their hearts saw America as being the spearhead, the leading force of getting people in the right place."
He leans forward and continues. "We have so many different elements in our culture, and we still have so many lessons to learn. But if we really put our energies into the highest and better part of ourselves, we can achieve things that have never been achieved in any other culture in the world.
"I really believe that. I have lots of confidence."
Or as he said when the holiday legislation was finally passed, "A goal set, a goal met."
As Wonder talks, it's apparent that just as there is no separation of music and man, there is no difference between his imagination and his conscience. As with his recent campaign against drunk driving or his powerful antiapartheid song "It's Wrong," you sense that Wonder's work on behalf of the King holiday was not something apart, but a part of something special, a holistic overview. And in recent years, as musicians have surprisingly become a bridge between information and action, Wonder has been both a role model and a participant.
In a way, his "Happy Birthday," the song that six years ago became the anthem of the King holiday movement, foretold much of what happened this past year, when pop artists used their art as a call to action. Where politicians had previously used artists as fundraisers to support their legislative systems, artists in 1985 began using music to direct their constituencies to change and influence society.
That idealism is sometimes seen as a '60s revival, but Wonder rejects that typecasting "because [the idealism] is real. What's different -- and what's a credit to the young people, who probably got it from the people who lived in the '60s and were involved in the various movements of positive means -- is that in the '60s people talked about 'someday this will happen,' hoping. In the '80s people are saying, 'Look, forget about the someday thing, let's do it now.' And that's how you're able to have a Band-Aid or USA for Africa, Live Aid, Farm Aid, the [AIDS benefit] song we did with Dionne [Warwick] and Elton [John], 'That's What Friends Are For.'
"And everything good that's happening now, I imagined it," Wonder recalls. In 1979 he had done a benefit for Atlanta's King Center and performed "Happy Birthday" for the first time in rehearsal. "I told Coretta [Scott King] that I imagined doing a march in Washington and demanding that there be a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. I just really believed that people would come out, because I feel the pulse of the people in me. I cannot explain how it is that I feel that, but I really do feel people and I feel them at the point when they let the best part of themselves come out. In performing, your soul, the better part of you, comes out, both in myself as well as in them."
"Happy Birthday," if not planting the very first seeds of a national holiday for King (that had been done in 1968 by Rep. John Conyers Jr.), finally brought it to fruition. For five years, Wonder ended his concerts with the song; it was on a smash album and was absorbed into many schools' social studies and King anniversary programs.
And Wonder took his campaign to the streets, with a first march in 1981 that drew 50,000 people to Washington.
"I was so happy in '81 when all those people came out," Wonder says. "I remember when I walked up on the stage, the sun came out -- it was real cold, it was freezing -- and everyone was ready, everyone was there."
It would take three marches, the last coming in 1983, the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, but Wonder says he never lost faith, never felt discouraged.
"The first march was interesting," recalls Ewart Abner, former president of Motown who is Wonder's business manager and has been with him since 1978. Abner was involved in all three marches.
"Nobody really knew or understood what was happening. Here's this writer and composer, this entertainer, talking about a political action, a people action, and I don't think anyone took him seriously, I don't even think the political forces took him seriously. Until they saw 50,000 people that day. Even before that, in the momentum of the two weeks before, when they heard buses were coming fron New York and Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, Louisiana and Texas, and the congressmen's offices were being inundated with phone calls. I remember with the platform, we had to have the police say, 'No more!' All the political figures -- I'm not saying they were against it, but they just didn't take him seriously -- were now clamoring for an opportunity to get up on this platform and speak to the people about this holiday. It was an amazing, wonderful thing."
The 1983 march, commemorating the March on Washington, was a combination of the peace and labor movements, or as Abner points out, "really a march encompassing the same amalgam of interests Dr. King had put together" in 1963. That year, the holiday legislation was passed.
Adds Wonder, "You have to use your mind, but you have to lead with your heart because evil can never, never do anything to destroy a heart that's in the right place. Never."
And hearts and minds both need to be in the right place, which may explain why Wonder remains both involved and committed, in his life as in his music, to key issues ranging from drunk driving to apartheid.
"Sometimes we'll say, 'I guess that was God's will.' Along with, or even before, putting all the weight on God, we have to say, 'It's my responsibility as well.'
"You don't want to beat anybody in the head with anything. If they showed things like 'We Are the World' on TV every week, people would get bored with it. You've got to give them the inspiration to move on it themselves."
He will remain, Wonder concedes, more effective as a musician than as a politician. "If I were a politician I'd get myself in trouble because I'd have to say what I think," he laughs. "Then again, being a Taurus, a bull, maybe I would use strategy and I would think of ways of doing things. All of this is a strategy as well," he says of the King holiday. "It was something that could be done, people were thinking about it, feeling it, but nothing was being done. It was time."
It doesn't necessarily mean Wonder will have more time for making albums, though he says, "I'm probably going to do 'In Square Circle 2' soon." There's the constant assimilation of new technology, including many devices for the blind. There's a new label/production deal (probably not with Motown, though Wonder remains an artist with the label) and plans for a musical headed for Broadway in a few years.
But for now, there is today's holiday, tonight's concert, tonight's television special. And there's tomorrow.
"Even though this will be the cap of a whole week of events, this is really just the beginning," Wonder says emphatically. "We have a day now. Let's see what we're going to do with it, with each other. How are we going to treat each other? How are we going to make yourselves looked upon with joy in the Creator's eyes? Because if you believe in the Creator, if you believe in destiny, and you can determine how and where you fit in the positive grace of that Creator, it will come.
"Next year I'll be at home. I'll be wherever there's going to be a celebration and I'll be one of the attendants of the celebration, as an American citizen. And if I'm not there, I'll be with my family, enjoying that day and recommitting myself to my responsibility to fulfilling the dreams of Dr. King and others like him."