Motown Spotlight - August/September 2018

Motown Spotlight – August/September 2018

Something different this month I thought, and maybe a little off-beat, but here goes. Let’s talk about one of the most significant albums in Motown’s history – Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key Of Life”, his 18th studio album, released in September 1976, some forty-two years ago. Originally scheduled for October ‘75, but delayed because at the last minute Stevie decided some tracks needed re-mixing. Needless to say, this plunged Motown’s marketing department into sheer panic: it desperately needed to keep news of the pending album in the public arena so, among other things, produced t-shirts saying “We’re Almost Finished”, with Stevie himself wearing one for promotional use.

Then, as if to placate his fans frustration at having to wait, Stevie included a four-track seven-inch extended play single, “A Something’s Extra” within the package. This double album release was also a time of indecision for Stevie as he considered quitting the music business to emigrate to Ghana to work with disabled children. In fact, plans were actually put in place for his farewell concert. Something changed his mind; perhaps the offer of a new recording contract with Motown, said to be worth $37 million. Anyway, whatever the reason, Stevie re-signed in August 1975 to a seven-year deal, worth seven albums.

“Songs In The Key Of Life”, with the working title of “Let’s See Life The Way It Is”, was exclusively previewed by the media at Long View Farm, a recording studio in Massachusetts. Those attending left with an autographed copy of the album. Meanwhile, without the artist in attendance, Motown in London held its own media preview in one of the reception rooms at EMI House in London’s Manchester Square. It was there that I, and other journalists, with wine and nibbles on hand, heard the album for the first time. We left with an unsigned copy of the album.  However, journalists and radio deejays not on guest lists weren’t forgotten because Stevie had previously recorded an open-ended interview which was used across the world as a promotional aid. And it’s this that now forms the basis of this month’s blog.

Naturally, the first question he answered concerned the long wait for the album. “It’s just me not being satisfied with it. I get into the thing where I want to give the public the latest feeling that I have experienced, and that takes time. I have to make sure that I am completely satisfied with the material, and with the title of the album being ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’, that is a very broad statement. I think if I can just accomplish one fraction of dealing with life – my life and the lives of people that will be aware of me over this album – I’ll be happy.”

In this 1976 interview, Stevie also openly talked about random aspects of his life, including his blindness, and how he’s accepted his disability. “It’s a reality. The only way you can look at it is, as being the truth, and I think when you accept that, your soul is then free of anything else. Being blind is not a handicap really. There are many things you can’t do but there are many things you can. It’s all in your state of mind, and how determined you are to do as much as you possibly can.” As for a concept of what sight actually is, he explained he has certain pictures in his mind that he can draw upon from what people have told him. “From my understanding …when you say ‘blue’, there is a kind of feeling that I dig. Blue, in my mind, is a very fresh colour. In black there is a great mystery. When I think of green, I think of a very flat surface, very straight ahead. When I think of pink, I think of something as a human’s colour. Now, I don’t know if that is what it’s about, but that is what I get.

“There are mental shapes and colours that I am able to perceive only because I have been given, at some previous time, an understanding verbally of what the colour is about. Therefore, if a person closes their eyes, they would think of what they saw or what has been recorded in the subconscious, and you will be able to picture things as how you see them. I think that’s part of life, like, the imagination of an artist who has a picture in his mind, and no-one else can see it but him. Some people say they are able to see in their dreams. There is no way possible for a (blind) person to see in their dreams because if they’re able to do that, then they must have been able to see at some early part of their life. So, I don’t miss it. It’s not like an absence of something because I never knew what it was like. Therefore, I feel very normal.”

Say, if the Devil approached him with a bargain: his voice for his sight, would Stevie agree to the swop? “No! My voice is my vehicle. I’ve been fortunate enough to be given the ability to sing and write, and I believe the words of the Supreme Being’s message will enable me to reach people during my lifetime. So I couldn’t give that up: it’s my mission, my purpose on his earth. I believe that everything happens for a reason, no matter how sad or how joyful the occasion, and we are to learn from it. For instance, I learn from the songs I write. Sometimes I say, that’s not me writing that because I don’t ever think that I have the ability to write the poetry of a song. In the album, there’s a song called ‘As’, and it’s for Yolanda, the woman who gave birth to my daughter, Aisha. It’s for my mother and father, and Yolanda’s mother and father, and all the people that I have loved, and all the loves of my life that I have had the pleasure of meeting. They all helped me to another level of consciousness, so I couldn’t give that up for my sight.”

From here, Stevie moved on to talk about drugs and religion and, once again, it was plain talking all the way. “I have experienced marijuana before because I wanted to know what it was about, but I was with a group of people that were very honest and not jiving. They said ‘let’s see what this is about, check it out,’ and I didn’t like the experience of it. I was very paranoid; the music started getting louder and my mind said ‘Oh, this is a drag’. I didn’t like it. But I know that it can be positive for some people, but for me it’s not necessary.”

Although Stevie was raised in the Baptist faith, he stated he didn’t now belong to any specific church. “I believe that I speak to God any time I want to, and I feel that He is in my mind, my heart and my soul. I respect all religions. I believe that some are searching, or disagreeing to find the answer to agree. In my mind, the true religion is that we all are one, and I think if we remember the one code of life – which always sticks in my mind – is do to others as you would have them do to you. That is like the greatest giant step that man will ever make.”

Switching to Motown, young Stevie signed with Berry Gordy in 1961 and, while in awe of his extraordinary talent, Gordy was unsure how to record and market him. As history tells, the youngster was tutored and nurtured for an eventual career that nobody could have anticipated, reaching stratospheric levels as a singer, composer, performer, and man of the people. “Motown was a studio out of nowhere. No one ever expected there would be music coming out of Detroit. I think it took everyone by surprise. The thing is when you are a new artist, having never sung before a microphone in the studio, you have no technique. You only have what you feel and the process has taken me so long. The delay with ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ is because in the previous album ‘Fulfillingness First Finale’ some of the demos turned out better than the final performance. A great example of that is ‘Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away’. I hope that some day, people may be able to hear some of the stuff that was never released to get an idea of what I mean.” Of the songs he was totally at ease with, he said. “’Visions’ and ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ which speaks of my first love to a girl named Angie. She was a very beautiful woman. She’s now married and has three children. ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’, I had fun doing that with Syreeta. We were travelling and had gone to England and we were having fun. ‘Superstition’ and ‘Living For The City’. I also like the ‘Talking Book’ album and ‘Innervisions’. I think the words to ‘As’ are the best I’ve ever written.”

The interview is quite extensive – and my thanks to whoever typed the transcript from Stevie’s audio interview (suspect Noreen Allen undertook the task at some point) – so will continue with the remainder next month. Because…..

I’d like to now include a few words about the passing of our Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Not my words, because I’ve found it so very difficult to put my feelings into print, but those of others. However, if it’s of interest, I dedicated a radio show to her which, I believe, hopefully says it all.

First, from Berry Gordy. “A national treasure to everyone. But to me personally, Aretha Franklin was my dear, dear friend, my home girl, and I loved her a lot. From seeing her as a baby singing and playing at her piano at her father’s home, to her giving a rousing performance at the White House, she has always been amazing. No matter how the music has changed over the years, she remained so relevant. Though never signed to Motown, Aretha was considered part of my family. We always shared fond memories of the Motor City, life, and just things. Her passing is not only a tremendous personal loss for me, but for people all over the world who were touched by her incredible gift and remarkable spirit. Aretha Franklin will always be the undisputed Queen of Soul, and her legacy will live forever.”

Next up, Smokey Robinson. “We had a wonderful friendship that lasted throughout her life. They called her ‘the Queen of Soul’ but Aretha could sing anything you put in front of her – opera, soul, gospel, jazz, whatever it was. I will miss her so much but I know she’s at peace.” And, Martha Reeves. “I celebrate the gifts she gave to the world of music and to the world in general, to society, and to the city of Detroit which we both loved. We are sisters in song and sisters in faith, so I look forward to the day when we will be together again.”

The last word rightly belongs to Stevie, with whom she planned to record an album this year. In fact, they had spoken about it two months before Aretha died. “There was a song I had written called ‘The Future’ and we were going to sing it together. …She touched every genre. Every singer was influenced in some way by the way she sang, and they will forever be influenced by her, because of her voice, her emotion and her sincerity. When Aretha sings your song, she takes it and you don’t get it back. And that’s what she did with ‘Until You Come Back To Me’.

I love you Aretha, and that’s a forever thing.