Last month we visited an open-ended interview from Stevie Wonder used to help promote his ambitious 1976 “Songs In The Key Of Life”. Having abandoned plans to retire from the music business, Stevie with his signature fresh on a seven-year recording contract with Motown, took a year off to prepare for this double album release. By all accounts, 130 people worked with him, including Gary Byrd (who co-wrote “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”), Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams (backing vocalists), and musicians Herbie Hancock, Mike Sembello and Nathan Watts. Stevie worked around the clock in the studio, not eating or sleeping, while those around him struggled to keep up with him. “Songs In The Key Of Life” was as groundbreaking as it was influential and totally all consuming. Michael Jackson once said it was his favourite Stevie album, while Elton John said “Let me put it this way, wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of this with me. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” Prince called it the best album ever recorded, and Whitney Houston insisted the album was played throughout the photo shoot for her “Whitney: The Greatest Hits”. Every track was considered a perfect jewel or diamond in the raw – “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears”, “Sir Duke”, “I Wish”, “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, “Pastime Paradise” and “Love’s In Need Of Love Today”, are probably the most memorable.
“Songs In The Key Of Life” surpassed all expectations. It shot straight to the top of the US album chart, becoming only the third album in music history to do this, and the first by an American artist, after Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “Rock Of The Westies”. Then, the industry accolades poured in. In 1977, Stevie was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year, an award he’d previously won twice in 1974 (“Innervisions”) and 1975 (“Fulfillingness’ First Finale”). Stevie was absent from the 1977 Grammy ceremony, so was hooked up by satellite link from Nigeria. Bette Midler announced the results but due to a poor video signal, the audience was only able to see Stevie holding a phone and smiling. Andy Williams then went on to make the huge public blunder by asking Stevie – “Can you see us?” In the end, Stevie won four of the seven Grammy nominations.
As it was rather lengthy, we’ll continue with it now; besides, his interviews are few and far between, so, despite its age, being able to print this is rather special, don’t you think?
After covering ad hoc subjects, Stevie then spoke about his family life and career. “The life of Stevie Wonder began in 1961, but I’ll go back about eleven years to say I was born May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan. I guess shortly after my birth my family moved with my two older brothers and myself to Detroit. In 1971 I moved to New York but in between Detroit and New York is when the life of Stevie Wonder began with me – through a very close friend of mine, Mr John Glover, with whom I had formed a group – of having the pleasure of meeting Ronnie White of The Miracles. John Glover, who was a cousin of Ronnie White, had formed a group of myself and him called Steve and John. I would play bongos and sing, and John played guitar. This was before Stevie Wonder. This was Stevland Morris, which is my real name.
“We lived on Breckinridge Street in Detroit, which is on the west side, with very beautiful people and a very warm atmosphere. I did all the things that the normal boy did, like climbing trees or we used to hop barns. They were where you’d keep different parts of cars or whatever. They weren’t really large enough for cars to fit in but they were in the back of the houses.
“We lived in what you’d call an upper/lower class, or a lower/upper class. We had enough to get by and me not knowing what being poor was like. Whatever we did receive as a family, we were appreciative of. Sometimes, we would go without eating. I can prove it to you by the pain that I felt in my stomach, but my mother raised us in the early part of that time by herself.
“She was fortunate enough to meet my second father who, with them being married, she gave birth to two other children. Timothy, who is a Libra, and Renee, who is a Cancer. My next youngest brother Larry, is a Capricorn and two older brothers Calvin is Aries, and Milton, a Virgo.
“They were very beautiful years. I know it was a part of my life that wasn’t yesterday but I can see it crystal clear in front of me as being a very special part of my life, and if I had to live it again, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. If it was still my destiny to be Stevie Wonder again, the people that I met I’d still owe a lot to. Like my neighbours, to John Glover’s mother, Ruth, who actually was responsible for us getting to Motown, and dealing with a lot of the many things that we were not aware of, and many times my mother wasn’t aware of either.”
Stevie then moved on to talk about the music that influenced his writing, saying there were many different artists that he’s heard and met in his life that he considers to be unbelievable. “There are songs that have influenced my writing. For instance, ‘It’s All In The Game’ is one of my favourites. ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ is another, and that influenced ‘All In Love Is Fair’. It’s no problem for me to say that there have been many people that have influenced my music. Music is a world within itself, of a language we all understand, with an equal opportunity for all to sing, dance to and clap their hands. So it doesn’t belong to any one person or one people. Music is a gift of life; is a toy that our Supreme Being gave us to express our joys and our sorrows, and even in moments to sorrow, to give us the peace and ability to be strong enough to enjoy the peace that it sometimes brings. I really love the songs of Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, Ray Charles. I feel there will never be an award great enough to give to hm [Ray Charles].. He has opened the door to so many hearts, has made the bridge possible to fill the gap that was between many different kinds of music. You know, I can’t believe, for instance, that he received an award from a song I wrote, ‘Living For The City’. That song was alright but he deserves something even better than that.”
Dealing with the demands of public life, was something Stevie adjusted to because he said he knew what the job was before I took it. “So you have to hash out all these things in your mind. Amongst the excitement you are feeling…you know, you are going to have moments where there will be personal things that adhere just to your life that are significant only to yourself, but you still have to face your audience and do a performance. “
And, finally, he spoke of his plans for the future. “I hope to do a book about myself. There have been people that have set out to write different things about Stevie Wonder in book form, but I believe that the book I’ll write – which will take a great deal of (time) – will kinda speak of things that many people don’t know about, and definitely would not know about, if they haven’t heard any of my music. But, my music actually speaks in the closest way to me than anything else I could ever do. If you listen to the ones I’ve written, or those of others that I will record, you’ll hear how I feel, and it is the only way that …..it’s the deepest me, and I sometimes feel that people that listen to the music, or my fans are much closer to me than some who are my close acquaintances or friends.”
So, there you are. Interesting stuff eh? And it was only by chance that I happened to come across the 1976 interview while looking for another piece of research that was totally unrelated. I’m guessing my filing system needs a huge, dedicated overhaul!
In between writing last month’s blog and this, I flew to New York for a short break, combining both work and pleasure. Once again, I’d quite forgotten how I suffered from jet lag following these long hauls, and, true to form, it took me about a week to feel anything like my normal self. Lightweight I hear you say….and you’d be right! Combined with that, I returned with a New York head cold which has now gone the same way as the jet lag – thankfully. Anyway, while in the city that never sleeps, I was invited to visit Andy Scurow at Universal Music Group’s offices. Although I was there in 2013, it’s always a thrill to walk into his extremely disorganised office (“But I know where everything is,” he laughed. “Much like my office at home,” I said with eyebrows raised) because of the history contained within the reels of master tapes relocated from Detroit. There are shelves of them, crammed alongside his reference books (clocked two of mine) and other items. A few corridors down from his office is the studio where he and others work on potential re-issued projects. His last, as you know, was the extremely lavish expanded edition of “The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland” which was welcomed by fans. One of Andy’s biggest thrills was when Diana Ross endorsed the release. They met, chatted about it, and when he gave her a copy, she agreed to be photographed with it. However, he told me, securing further releases is rather sketchy at the moment, and, when I pressed him about it being Motown’s 60th anniversary next year, and shouldn’t we all be working towards ensuring the event didn’t pass by unnoticed, we ended up in stalemate.
On the upside, we relocated to the studio where, under guidance, I had the huge thrill of being instrumental in lifting a lead voice from support vocals and individual instruments on the computer. Choosing the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, I was able to hear unencumbered, the raw, soulful voice of Levi Stubbs, then added Obie, Duke, Larry and the Andantes into the mix before bringing in the music, practically instrument by instrument. By being able to do this in the grander scale of things, means that singers and musicians are easily identifiable when a particular track is being considered for re-issue, ensuring the correct credits are included with the release. It’s a long and assiduous process that bites heavily into personal time but which, in the end, is so worthwhile. Of all the Motown artists, there’s a gigantic demand for Diana Ross’ unreleased titles, and although Andy and I spoke of several canned albums’ worth of her material – and I daren’t give any more details here – it seems unlikely her fans will have ‘ear’ of them in the near future.
Before closing, I’d just like to say that I hope our most significant and influential re-issue labels like SoulMusic Records and Kent are able to help us celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary next year. If there’s a way, I know the guys will find it!