Near the beginning of the current movie "The Best Man," a woman and a man look back on a night when they were thinking that they might be more than pals. It was a night when Stevie Wonder's voice filled the room singing about the inevitability of life and love . . .
Just as hate knows love's the cure
You can rest your mind assured
That I'll be loving you always.
The mood was hypnotic, and the friends' choices clear if unspoken: Hold on to a rare friendship or give in to the stings of lust. But as passion flared, the record jammed. The Wonder voice sputtered, and the couple were left to think about what might have been.
It's a tender moment for the film, and it captures the alchemy of Stevie Wonder. It's also a moment Wonder missed when he went to the movie.
"Yep, I was late," he says. Yep, he does operate in his own Wonder Time Zone. He was late for the Oscars the night he won. He was so notorious for missing deadlines for his albums that some lively betting has flourished among the record executives about when the songs will appear.
But just now, Wonder has made it to his last appointment of the day, not even an hour late, and is settling into a corner of the Four Seasons Hotel here to talk about all the things that go into being Wonder. It isn't just songs. It's ideas and principles, too. And while we're on the subject of ideas, he has some about "The Best Man": "The movie broke down some ongoing stereotypes about African American culture."
Stevie Wonder on movies? Yep, he devours all forms of culture, and even at the movies his acute hearing helps compensate for his blindness. It allows him to form "sound pictures" about the movies. And thus, he is perfectly comfortable appraising movies. This is not a bashful man.
Being around Stevie Wonder is generally, well, an event because there's usually an event going on: a news conference, a march, a recording session, a protest, a concert.
And at his concerts, his fans stand. They stand for hours. The songs are like so many personal markers, of loves lost yet never quite forgotten, of the last party before graduation and of that first summer in the apartment near the park. His music holds too much of what was sweet about the past 40 years to sit through as if it were a newsreel.
But sitting down with Wonder--with no interruptions, no musical instruments, no gaggle of fans--feels as if you've run into an old friend outside the coffee shop and wind up talking to for two hours. The man has been interviewed since he was 12, but he still has a relaxed spontaneity, and the conversation dashes from subject to subject, song to song, cause to cause. He nibbles on fruit and downs bottled water. But through all the detours, Wonder keeps coming back to his reason for being, his reason for creating. "I haven't touched one iota of what God has given me," says Wonder. Just as he's written: "They say that Heaven is 10 zillion light-years away."
For the last four decades, the tributes have been coming. This weekend Wonder becomes the youngest artist ever to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. He's 49 and the father of five, ranging from the Aisha of "Isn't She Lovely," now 24 years old, to Sophia, 9. There's even a grandchild. "I'm Pop Pop," he says, smiling. Pop Pop Wonder. "Awards and these kinds of things are extensions of the blessings of God. I'm honored to receive them, but it doesn't make me feel better. . . . I'm a work in progress, as they say in church."
Much of that progress started with the Motown Sound, as soul music and rhythm and blues broke through to gain a broad, interracial audience. The political side of that evolution was propelled by the emergence of protest politics.
In the 1980s, he would become a vocal part of public drives, including the successful one to create a federal holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Wonder even contributed a song/anthem, "Happy Birthday." He also joined the fight to free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid, getting arrested during a demonstration outside the South African Embassy in 1985. And the decade also heard "We Are the World," with a plea to end hunger driven by Wonder's soaring voice.
His music has shifted, some, but not too much in the 1990s. He has retooled some of his old songs for symphony orchestras, written the soundtrack for Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" and earlier this year won his 25th Grammy, for his vocal interpretation of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" on Herbie Hancock's album "Gershwin's World."
For four decades, his appearance has always been magnetic, but never static. He wore the Motown formal wear for years, then eased into his kente colors and flowing robes, changing from the Afro of the 1970s into a thick set of long braids. On this evening in Washington, he arrives wearing a long brown Persian lamb coat over a casual brown sweater and tweed slacks. Positively Rodeo Drive.
Looking back, Wonder says he sees his life as one of optimism edged with warning.
Charting His Own Path
Once there was "Little Stevie Wonder," a slight preadolescent with stovepipe pants and a harmonica. Born Stevland Morris in Saginaw, Mich., he was a prankster and music celebrity at the Michigan School for the Blind. Wonder leans forward and tells a story of how daring he was, the tale that shows he rarely lets his blindness get in his way. A boy who climbed up to the top of the woodshed in the back of the house and jumped off repeatedly to see how far he could go. "My friends were giggling, 'Go Stev.' And my brother was whispering, 'Mommy's coming.' I wasn't paying attention. And I jumped, jumped right into my mother's arms. And what can I say? She let me feel the ironing cord she was going to use on me. . . . People think because you are blind you don't get whipped." So "Tryin' your best to bring the/ water to your eyes/ Thinkin' it might stop her/ from woopin' your behind" was not pure imagination.
By the time he was 7, Wonder was playing the harmonica and drums. And around Detroit those who could sing, play instruments and dance were all talking about an upstart record label called Motown. Berry Gordy, the company's founder, began recruiting an army of young singers. Ronnie White of the Miracles asked Gordy to listen to the young talent. Gordy said Wonder's bongo playing was fine, his voice adequate, his sense of humor memorable, but he was bowled over by his flair on the harmonica. In 1962, the lanky youngster with a taste for bow ties signed his first contract with Motown and went up the charts the next year as "Little Stevie Wonder" with "Fingertips--Part 2." What followed were nine years of hit singles: "My Cherie Amour," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)," "For Once in My Life."
Beginning in 1972 he made seven albums that were statements of his vision, as well as unforgettable songs: "Superstition"; "Higher Ground"; "You Are the Sunshine of My Life"; "Living for the City"; "Jesus Children of America": "Are you hearing, praying, feeling what you say inside?"
Wonder was also reacting to his own life as a kid who fell in and out of love. The early Motown classic "My Cherie Amour" has lasted a lot longer than the girlfriend he wrote it about. "I had the song, and it was about Marcia, my, my own Marcia," he says, his voice mocking a love-struck teen. Sylvia Moy, a Motown writer, liked the tune but wanted to change the lyrics to "My Cherie Amour." Wonder shrugs his shoulders. "Well, I'm thinking this is too bad about Marcia, but Marcia and I had broken up."
But when the hit machine turned 21, he decided he wanted to express himself without the filters of the Motown bureaucracy.
Berry Gordy, the label's founder, gave him a birthday dinner. "I told him we needed to talk about some things," Wonder says, but Gordy told him it could wait. Wonder had his lawyers call the next day and demand a new contract. Suddenly, Wonder had no money coming and had to use the $120,000 he'd managed to put in a trust fund to stay afloat. He simply worked on his music while the legal tussle went on. "It was amazing because I did what I had to do," he says. Eventually the company realized Wonder was serious and gave him a contract for $13 million, one of the largest in its history, along with complete artistic control.
Gordy, in an interview last year for the 40th-anniversary television special on Motown, was still shaking his head: "I felt like I was being held up by my own son. But it was probably the best deal I ever made."
Meanwhile, Wonder moved to New York, began working with Moog synthesizers, listened to "Switched-On Bach." He and Motown reconciled. But he was serious about his music's direction. Out of that experimentation came the 1970s, during which he won 16 Grammys, and a focus on social commentary only deepened by a near-fatal car crash in 1973. And Wonder took his time, believing you didn't have to release a record just to have something out there. After all, Wonder not only brought his sound, he wrote most of the lyrics and did most of the producing.
"Berry called me and said, 'You have been working on this thing two, 2 1/2 years. Come over,' " recalls Wonder. He took him a tape of "I Wish." You grow up and learn that kinda thing ain't right/ But while you were doin' it, it sure felt outta sight. "And he told me: 'I can't understand the words. At least when the white boys sing, you can understand the words,' " says Wonder, doing a respectable Harry Belafonte-Marlon Brando growl.
The two remained friends, and Wonder pays a huge tribute to the tightness of those early Motown days. The evening of the interview he had just come from the funeral in Detroit of Gordy's sister Gwen, a key artistic trainer herself. "When I look back at when I was growing up, inside me I knew I was special," Wonder says. "And each child has that. Where there was discouragement by society, there was encouragement by the Gordy family."
But the fans embraced him immediately. He has sold more than 70 million albums. He sees the awards as points of transition. And his memory of the first Grammy, in 1973, is precise. "Receiving the Grammy, the first one, was incredible the way it went. I was thinking of not going, but early on in the day my engineers received a Grammy for 'Innervisions' and I thought maybe I should go. When you receive an award, you might act like you don't care, but you know deep down inside you really want to get that thing," says Wonder. He went on that night to win a slew of Grammys, including album of the year.
He wasn't optimistic about the 1984 Oscar, either. "I didn't think I would win. I was up and Prince was up and I said to myself, 'Well, these two African Americans aren't going to win.' "
He got there--late, he says; his brother Milton got lost--and sat in the back. "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from "The Woman in Red" won for best original song. "I couldn't believe it. Immediately what flashed in my mind was Nelson Mandela, and I imagined Mandela thousands of miles away, and I said I accepted this award for Nelson Mandela, and someone backstage was saying: 'Who is he talking about? What is he doing?' " He was, he explains, "doing what I felt was right from my heart."
And his inspirations are people who opened up their hearts, from John Kennedy to Mandela to Princess Diana to Doctors Without Borders, the organization that was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize. He says he takes what he can from their public expressions and then churns those emotions through the Wonder process. When he writes, which is almost daily, Wonder works out a melody and lyrics on one of his many keyboards.
Wonder looks at his own songs as ways to make a small difference in the promotion of peace, and liked what he achieved in songs like "Love's in Need of Love Today." "Don't delay/ Send yours in right away/ Hate's goin' round/ Breaking many hearts/ Stop it please/ Before it's gone too far." In 1975, he wrote "Sir Duke" as a way of making America's jazz greats a part of the nation's bicentennial. He had been given a recording of Ellington's "Sacred Concert" with Mahalia Jackson. "I had a great appreciation for Ella Fitzgerald, for jazz, for Count Basie, for the Duke Ellington band." He stops, sings a few lines of "Sir Duke": "For there's Basie, Miller, Satchmo/ And the king of all, Sir Duke."
"I think certain songs have to be simple enough to sing them and challenging enough to think about it. 'Sir Duke' has that challenge," he says.
In recent years, he has also revisited his own music. He asked arrangers Paul Riser and Henry Panion, a music professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an expert in music technology, to score his music for a full orchestra. The three of them then went on the road, recording live with orchestras in Japan and Israel, and working throughout the Mideast and Europe. The result was a lush album, "Natural Wonder." Panion says he found Wonder to be the firm taskmaster, creative tinkerer and consumed spirit that everyone had told him to expect.
"We worked on 'Taboo Love,' " Panion remembers, "and I said: 'Let's add a harp.' And he started talking about two harps. I said: 'Well, I wrote it for one harp.' And then he called and said: Can you come to Los Angeles tomorrow? I have the orchestra booked, and by the way I have both harps booked."
Wonder is pleased with this collaboration with the orchestras. "I wanted to go back and use the instruments where I had used the synthesizer, and it was a way of recreating the music," he says.
In the last few days, a compilation of 70 Wonder hits has been released. And that's just the hits, often very distinct from the songs.
Though some of his fans worry about the infrequency of new material, Wonder has had other kinds of projects in recent years: the soundtrack for "Jungle Fever" and an album of new music, "Conversation Peace." The soundtrack had a tight schedule. "We had a heart-stop date to deliver. This was real life, and there was money on the table that Stevie wouldn't deliver on time," says record co-producer Vaughn Hilyard. "Stevie turned it on. He came in, and he cranked it up. We were running around the clock." The sound track was completed in three weeks.
When he's not working, he's listening closely to Miles Davis, Take 6, country radio, rap, hip-hop, Pavarotti, worrying about the Internet and new technology.
"Music has been a place also where I go. I'm a music lover. I appreciate the music," Wonder said. Right now he's working on a gospel album and plans a tribute to Ellington, reuniting with his Grammy partner Hancock. "I'm always in the writing stage," Wonder said.
Is there a line from a song to sum up Stevie Wonder?
No, says the artist. Why? "I recommit myself each day to my God; I think it is because I am not done."