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Stevie Wonder still reaching for higher ground

R&B legend-turned social activist continues to make music
/ Source: Billboard

Nearly 45 years after Stevie Wonder’s live harmonica workout “Fingertips, Pt. 2” topped the charts, the soul visionary’s musical charm still enthralls.

From preteen wunderkind to adult visionary, his musical evolution embodies a “What’s next?” curiosity that still burns brightly as fans anticipate his first new Motown album in 10 years, which he hopes will come out in April.

“Hopefully, that little boy will always stay in me,” Wonder said in a recent interview with Billboard. “The part of me that’s still eager to discover; who welcomes new, unbroken ground. When that ground is being broken, there’s a place that says to me, ‘Take the you in there who is aware, but let the youth in you that remains curious lead the way.”’

That dictate has served him well in an illustrious career that includes 22 Grammy Awards, an Academy Award for best original song for “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (from 1984 film “The Woman in Red”), the Recording Academy’s lifetime achievement award in 1996, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.

Wednesday, he will receive the Century Award at Billboard’s annual music awards in Las Vegas, which will be telecast live on Fox.

Since he first began making music, Wonder’s life has taken on almost mythic proportions. He was born Steveland Morris on May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Mich., though his biological father was named Calvin Judkins.

'Truly God's gift'
Six weeks premature, Wonder, by most accounts, was blinded when he was administered an excess of oxygen during the 52 days he spent in an incubator. Though his mom, Lula Hardaway, sang in the church choir, Wonder calls his talent “truly God’s gift” since none of his other siblings — Milton, Calvin, Larry, Timothy and Renee — were musically inclined. That gift manifested itself in Wonder learning the harmonica, piano and drums by the age of 9.

The family’s hardscrabble life improved somewhat when his mother moved the family to Detroit in 1954 and she began working in the fish markets there. In 1961, fate stepped in when the Miracles’ Ronnie White finally agreed to his brother Gerald’s entreaties to listen to one of his friends. White then introduced Wonder to producer/songwriter Brian Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland fame. From there it was an audition for Motown founder Berry Gordy, who Wonder recalls was more impressed “by my harmonica playing than by my squeaky voice.”

Some remember Gordy rechristening the preteen as “Little Stevie Wonder.” Others say it was Gordy’s sister Esther. Whatever the scenario, the moniker and the music grabbed people’s attention in 1963 when “Fingertips, Pt. 2” hit No. 1 on The Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B singles chart.

Concurrently, “Little Stevie Wonder/The 12 Year Old Genius,” the album that spawned the hit, also went to No. 1.

Working with producer/mentor Clarence Paul and with songwriter/producers Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy soon made Wonder one of Motown’s most reliable hitmakers. Among the achievements are two classic R&B/pop crossover beacons, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “I Was Made to Love Her.”

Hints of his future courseSandwiched between those was a hint of Wonder’s future course, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” His later teaming with singer/songwriter and future wife Syreeta Wright yielded such Wonder hits as 1970’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and fueled his desire for more hands-on control.

Wonder, then 21, formally acted on that desire in 1971 when he renegotiated his Motown contract to accommodate the then-rare inclusion of his own production and publishing companies (Black Bull Music) plus a higher royalty rate. With that came full artistic control of his recordings — and a quintet of albums that forever sealed his creative legacy: “Music of My Mind” (1972), “Talking Book” (1972), “Innervisions” (1973), “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” (1974) and double-album “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976).

Wonder’s vision shattered the hit-single mold of his earlier albums. Having taken music theory classes at the University of Southern California and having built his own studio, the reinvigorated artist began writing, arranging, producing and playing nearly all the instruments on albums that became cohesive, complex rhythmic treatises on love, life and racial and social issues.

Experimenting with the Moog synthesizer, Wonder also stretched beyond his smooth, gospel-infused R&B/pop confines, morphing into funk, rock, reggae, jazz, African and other world rhythms. And riding those rhythms was a voice that evolved from “squeaky” to versatile.

The experimental and issues-conscious personas reflected in the mid-’70s manifested themselves on such subsequent albums as “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” (1979), the Martin Luther King holiday-driven “Hotter Than July” (1980) and “In Square Circle” (1985), which addresses apartheid. Further examples include his work on the charity singles “We Are the World” and “That’s What Friends Are For.” Along the way, he has crossed paths with the Miracles, Aretha Franklin, the Spinners, Rufus, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Spike Lee, Minnie Riperton, Whitney Houston, Babyface . . . the list goes on.

There have been a few bumps along the way. A near-fatal 1973 car accident that left him in a coma; a plagiarism suit filed over “I Just Called to Say I Love You”; the commercial disappointment of his last studio set, the 1995 release “Conversation Peace”; and Wright’s death in July 2004 of cancer.

But it’s an easygoing, soft-spoken Wonder — sans dark shades, with his trademark braids pulled back by a black scarf — who took time out from working at his nondescript Koreatown studio to share his thoughts.

Q: You're coming up on 45 years in music. Did you ever think you would come this far?A: I’ve never thought about it. I just let life do what it did. And it did. I’m thankful, because there was a time when my future was in question after I had the car accident in 1973.

Last year was 30 years since the accident, and we were celebrating my son Kwame’s 15th birthday. He was born on the very day I’d had my accident, Aug. 6. That’s a pretty amazing thing.

Q: Did you remember anything about the accident after the coma?
Some things. We had just finished “Innervisions.” The question has always been, “Did you write ‘Higher Ground’ (from that album) because you thought something was going to happen?” I think the accident happened on a Monday. We had done a show that Sunday and stopped at this Radio Shack to get a cord to plug my tape recorder into the car, a reel-to-reel that I carried around with me, and I had two-track mixes of “Innervisions.” I had my headphones on. We were on our way to North Carolina to do a performance to raise money for a black radio station when the accident happened.

I remember we left, and you’re never supposed to leave the scene of an accident. What happened was my brother picked me up, put me in a car and drove the back roads to the highway to get to the hospital. At the hospital, the doctors said that if they hadn’t moved me, I would have died, because help was taking too long to get there.

Q: Were there any residual effects?
I lost my sense of smell a little bit; my sense of taste for a minute. But I’m pretty straight. I suffered a brain contusion and some lacerations on my right side of my forehead.

Q: Is the new album, "A Time 2 Love" still a single CD?A: Yes, although in these nine years I’ve done more than just the songs that will be on the album. And it’s going good. In these nine years I’ve found the songs that feel most comfortable for me. One song, “If the Creek Don’t Rise,” is something I wrote a while back that I recently revisited. My daughter Aisha is also on the album.

Q: Are you concerned about competing with your artistic legacy?A: I don’t think about competing against myself. But I am my best critic. “Best” is better than saying “worst,” because you can be one’s best critic if you’re given constructive criticism. Obviously, I can take my criticism better than anyone else’s, but I’m open to some feedback. If it feels right, I receive it. If it’s a challenge to do something different, I receive that.

I think I’m a perfectionist to the point where it’s got to be real but not forced. I’ve kind of loosened up on myself a little bit, because you’ve got to keep the naturalness of it in there. As long as you can perfect keeping it natural, that’s OK.

Q: You mentioned that you revisted an earlier song. The popular theory is you have a hidden vault of songs from the last 20-30 years that you can pull music out of on an whim.
The vault travels in my head. I have songs in various forms of incompletion and completion.

Q: You have worked with relatively few outside producers. Do your future plans include collaborations with your production contemporaries?
I’ve thought about it. When I was younger I worked with Clarence Paul, Henry Cosby, Norman Whitfield, and I think Holland-Dozier-Holland did something on me. Then there’s Quincy (Jones) on “We Are the World,” and Babyface and I did something together. So I’ve worked with people, though not recently. There are some young contemporary producers who I think are good.

Q: For example?
Raphael Saadiq is very talented. For a long time, I’ve talked with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis about doing something together. They’re exceptionally talented.

Q: Besides the messages in your lyrics, your album covers from the '70s onward tell their own stories. How do you conceive your cover concepts?
A lot of it really happens just from me talking to people when I come up with the title. “Talking Book” happened between myself and Malcolm Cecil, one of the engineers. We were just talking about the whole deal with him asking me about the different songs. “Innervisions” came from the song “Visions,” which was there before the “Innervisions” title was there.

“Fulfillingness” was just me working the word: the idea of fulfilling and fulfilling is like a female. The other part of that title, “the first finale,” was sort of referencing an ending of the period after “Music of My Mind” and these three albums.

“Songs in the Key of Life” was like the beginning of another kind of place. Its title came from a dream I had where I was asking, “How many songs are there in the key of life?” Then it became the challenge of starting again and doing it a different way.

Q: What three albums represent the quinessential Stevie Wonder?
You’re asking for three, but honestly all of my albums are different versions of me. But to answer the question, I’d say “Songs in the Key of Life,” “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” and a tossup between “Talking Book” and “Innervisions.”

I chose “Songs” because its 21 songs represent a complete set. “Secret Life” was an experimental project with me scoring and doing other things I like; challenging myself with all the things that entered my mind from the Venus’ flytrap to Earth’s creation to coming back as a flower.

With “Talking Book” I had a California thing going on with songs like “Maybe Your Baby” and “Superstition.” I was doing different things with backgrounds. Then I like “Innervisions” because of the acoustic feel to it. 

Q: Then limiting yourself to three quintessential songs would be more difficult?
That would be really hard. Let me explain my thing about songs. I might have a “Superstition” day, a “You and I” day or a “Visions” day. I might have a jazz day, a blues day; things happen at various times, so I can’t really limit myself like that.

Q: You were instrumental in using techniques like the Moog synthesizer to enhance your music. Do you think there's too much reliance on machines in contemporary music?A: I think we’re living in a time where that definitely to some degree has peaked. You’re hearing more people playing live instruments, and some soul artists like India.Arie are playing acoustic guitar or playing the piano. So it has become a combination with drummers playing along to some sequenced tracks, along with the live stuff, marrying the two together.

And there’s a growing desire to hear live music again. I know that live performers are touring more because there’s nothing like hearing a band play live or hearing someone acoustic play live like Norah Jones.

Q: What inspired your epiphany at 21 when you restructured your contract to include your own publishing?A: I just thought as I began to understand more about the business and artists’ rights, it was only right for me to have my own publishing company and to really secure that part of my life.

My lawyer at the time and I met with different people, like Curtis Mayfield, to get a sense of what other writers had been able to do in various situations. When you think of record companies, well, it’s really almost like a stable. You have all these different artists; they sing and do their thing. But at the end of the day, they don’t own their masters.

There has to be something that is given to artists to continue their livelihood. It’s imperative that artists have the right to be able to own their masters after a period of time. Artists and record companies can work out something where they mutually agree that after the companies have made back the money (they) put out on the product, the artists should have the right to ownership.

Q: Do you own your masters?A: No. But we’re going to work out some things up and coming.

Q: What is missing in today's music culture?A: I’d like to see my culture and my people have a greater appreciation for all of what we’ve done musically and not limit it to just one particular time and space. We’ve done so much and created so many things, yet we’re constantly moving to the next thing and what’s next after that. We throw away those gifts.

If you don’t cherish the gifts you’ve been given, what happens to them? They’re taken away. Not enough people really understand how incredible B.B. King is and what he has done in his life. And how many people understand the significance of Chuck Berry, the Dixie Hummingbirds or Clifford Brown?

Listen to a lot of the music from West Africa, the rhythms and vocals. You can hear how the blues thing started. But you can only know that if you check it out.

There’s also a lack of appreciation in terms of downloading. In one sense it has cheapened the value of an incredible art form. In another sense, it’s a reflection of where society is: lack of respect for an art form . . . for women . . . for life itself.

Q: Your music has been sampled, most notably "Pastime Paradise" for Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise." What are your criteria for allowing your songs to be sampled?A: Sampling is OK as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. I’m not really feeling when someone samples a whole song and puts a whole other melody on it. I’m also not going for songs that call women out of their names. If I want to OK a song, it’s got to be for something that at the end of the day it won’t be so crazy that the parent can’t supervise it or explain it to his child.

Q: Let's talk about your post-"Songs" albums. Would you say "Hotter Than July" launched your activist alter ego in earnest?A: I was focused then on the Martin Luther King Day holiday, and we, in part, did the Hotter Than July tour to promote that idea and get petitions signed to demand a national holiday. And Berry supported that.

I think it was 1980 when I told Coretta Scott King about this song (”Happy Birthday”) I had written and that I thought it was possible for there to be a national holiday. She wished me luck but didn’t think it would happen under that current administration. The numbers on the signed petitions had to be half a million, but we got more than that.

Q: Would you say you're more musician or more activist now?
I’m more musician. My way of expressing how I feel when I’m talking about political or social positions is better served when I do it through my music. It’s not to say I can’t express myself verbally. But music is the vehicle I’ve been given as a way to do that.

Q: Research on your career shares one assessment: That you peaked in the '70s. Your response?
Obviously, sales help with your livelihood. But my focus really is on working with music and doing different things. The ’70s was my first chance at total expression; being able to do things the way I felt. But I am as excited now as I was at the beginning. For me to say I’ve reached my peak is to say that God is through using me for what he has given me the opportunity to do. And I just don’t believe that.