In 1959 a nine-year-old kid began hanging around a fledgling Detroit music company called “Hitsville Studios.” His name was Steveland Morris. He was black and he was also blind.

Songs in Every Key: Stevie Wonder

The “Wonder” kid could play bongos, drums, and the harmonica, and he was becoming expert at the piano. But he was a damned nuisance. He was always underfoot and he even started to butt into recording sessions. Still, he had an infectious way about him and the Hitsville people let him record a few songs. the first being “You Made a Vow.” Nothing happened but the kid wouldn’t go away.

Then in 1963 Stevie surprised his benefactors. He recorded a 45 disc called “Fingertips” which became a smash hit. He was just thirteen years old. By that time he had been re-named Stevie Wonder and Hitsville Studios had been renamed Motown. America was about to be treated to a revolution in pop.

Last summer — twelve years later — Stevie renegotiated his Motown contract and was promised $13 million over a seven-year period, the highest guarantee given any musical artist in history.

Stevie was born blind in Saginaw, Michigan on May 13. 1950, the third of six children whose father had wandered away. Times were tough, and he learned early that his other senses would have to make up for his lack of sight. Actually he developed such confidence that at the age of six he would give his mother fits by jumping from one roof to another. He was playing the bongos at four, the harmonica at six. By the time he was twelve he had written two concertos, but his first song, at the age of ten told the real story behind this little dynamo. It was called “Lonely Boy”.

Following his 1963 hit with “fingertips” he had some good ones and some bad ones before “Upright” hit the million mark in 1966. The next year, at the age of seventeen, he produced his first album, Signed, Sealed and Delivered. Stevie’s early success should have made him lose perspective but it didn’t happen. He was kept away from drugs and Motown saw to it that he had private tutors when he toured with the Supremes and the Temptations. He was taught stage choreography by the very expert Martha Reeves. When he wasn’t on the road he attended the Michigan School for the Blind and studied classical piano.

As Stevie was ascending, Motown was standing still. The company, grown fat and comfortable, resisted all efforts to change its formula. Some of Motown’s biggest stars left or just wilted under the inflexible packaging.

Stevie knew what was happening. In 1971. when he turned twenty-one, he col­lected a million dollars from the trust fund the company had established for him. That’s a lot of money, but on the other hand he did have twenty-one gold records. And that’s a lot of records. He informed startled Motown executives that he wanted out of his contract. Then he left for New York City, set up do-it-yourself sound equipment in his apartment, and spent several months working, thinking, and experimenting with new vocal and instrumental ideas.

That same year he brought Motown the results. It was an album called Music of My Mind. They weren’t impressed but they did agree to release it. To their amazement it became a hit and they immediately agreed to renegotiate Stevie’s contract. He came away with a phenomenal 20 percent royalty rate and with the virtual right to record when, where, and what he wanted. With as tightly paternalistic a company as Motown this was the musical equivalent of the French Revolution. (A second renegotiation has since guaranteed him almost $2 million a year for the next seven years.)

Since 1971, Stevie has had four consecutive gold albums with hit singles from each. In 1974 he won five Grammy Awards. He gave one of them to his engineer because of his brilliant work on the lnnervisions album.

A turning point in Stevie’s life came suddenly on August 6, 1973. on a North Carolina road from Greenville to Raleigh. He was on a record-breaking tour with the Rolling Stones, when the car in which he was riding attempted to pass a logging truck and one of the logs went through the windshield.

He was in a coma for three days with a severe concussion and was left with two facial scars. His recovery was complete but spending several months in a hospital gave him time to think. “I felt God was really telling me to slow down,” he said. “I came out of it believing that life is really lovely. More lovely than I had ever imagined.”

Slowing down isn’t easy for Stevie. He gets high simply from the reactions of his audience. His bursts of energy make him want to reach out, embrace the world, and make everybody feel better. For example, he wants to live in Africa for a time. He can lecture you at length on the problems there and what he would like to see done about it. “Forty percent of the blindness in Ethiopia, for example, is caused by a fly that carries a fungus to the cornea. We have to do something about that.”

Stevie is a pushover for benefits and kids. He gives away a lot of money. He’s on the Board of Trustees of Shaw University and has donated scholarship money.

Stevie’s first attempt at marriage failed. He is now divorced from Syreeta Wright, a former Motown secretary and a rising Motown artist. But they’re good friends. In fact, Stevie produced her first album.

His second marriage, to Yolanda Simmons, has been a happy one and has resulted in a son. Penthouse interviewer Ken Kelley traveled on tour with Stevie in Texas and New York to obtain this interview which covers various aspects of his life, his music, and his philosophy.

Andy Warhol once said, “Everybody should be a star for fifteen minutes.” Is the experience that great?

Wonder: It depends on how you mean it. In the record business, being a star for fifteen minutes could be a real nightmare. Some people are really stars for — oh, at the most — six weeks. It takes two weeks to get the record recorded and four weeks for the record to climb the charts and then come back down. Within those four to six weeks you can become a monster. In your own mind you say, “Wow, I’m really ba-ad!” and you may never have another hit.

Another thing, you may not have kept the same kind of rapport with the friends you had before your six-weeks success and you may destroy those friendships — as well as meet new friends who really turn out to be enemies. I went through that kind of experience right after my first hit, “Fingertips,” came out in 1963. I didn’t consciously go through any ego thing, but people push you into being that way. They go through this routine of “Well, oo-ee-e! Wow man! You are ba-ad! Get out of his way. He’s coming; this is Him — move! He’s the ba-adest moving driver, he can drive faster than anybody around, and if you get in his way he’ll run you over.” This business really gets under my skin, sometimes. All I ever wanted to be was a disc jockey. Even now I fantasize about that — “WBMB, Blind Man’s Bluff Radio.”

Was it hard to handle — going so quickly from being a Little Stevie Wonder to a super-star?

Wonder: Well, I always tried to just roll with the punches. I never did expect any of it to happen, and I’m still amazed by all the things that have happened to me. But I also remember that nothing is guaranteed. You just can’t let all that glitter get to your head.

I did go through a phase when “Fingertips” hit — it was the first time I ever went to California. Hollywood, man! While “Fingertips” was popular, I was very big for a while — “Fingertips” was the fourth thing I’d done for Motown. I was a star and it was amazing. I was thirteen years old. We had the Stevie Wonder Show, and the Temptations and all the other Motown stars toured on it. We used to do finales that were out of sight. Martha Reeves used to show me these dances to do — she would say, “This is ba-ad, this will make you look sexy up here.” I tried to do splits and I did the “Hitchhike” and all the latest stuff. Martha would always show me the latest steps. But when I didn’t have another hit for a couple of years — well, let’s just say that I experienced the phenomenon that when you’re hot, you’re hot and when you’re hot they cater to your every whim. But if you don’t have a winner, it’s “What do you want, kid?”

A lot of people lost confidence in me when they thought I was only a one-hit single — not ,so much the Motown people as people in general. There’d been great expectations of Stevie Wonder on drums, Stevie Wonder on this and that — and I found that I was becoming more into myself. I’d get ideas for my music and spend a lot of time just making my music, messing around with tape recorders and exploring ideas. There were always things I wanted to do musically that I wasn’t doing. That kept a lot of whatever was happening away because there was always something more to reach for. You never reach that final peak, I guess. Basically, no one really knew what I was going to do at Motown.

What music turned you on when you were growing up?

Wonder: One of the first tunes I ever heard in my life was a Johnny Ace song — he was a blues singer with a kind of country blues. The song was “Pledging My Love.” Johnny made a great impression on my life because I was such a little boy when I heard it. I was maybe two years old then or even younger.

The Newsweek cover story on you last year compared you to the Beatles. What’s your reaction to that?

Wonder: If I could be as inspirational as the Beatles, I would be very happy. But it’s different times and it’s a different place. I will always admire the Beatles — individually as well as as a group. I’m not going to compare myself to them — they made an impact on all music. They are, in fact, my all-time favorites, and the thing I really like about them is they were very, very modest and they were nice enough to include people they had admired throughout the years and to acknowledge it. They brought all different cultures together. They made white Middle America wake up about those old black artists — the Beatles brought them to people who had never heard of them. And it gave those artists — who were sometimes starving — some money.

Did Bob Dylan influence you at all?

Wonder: I just admired him tremendously. But as far as listening to his songs and taking this or that out of it — well, maybe the country feeling on “Uptight.”

What did you think of the Newsweek article, in general?

Wonder: It didn’t really get into me as much as I wanted. Particularly since it reaches so much of Middle America who don’t really know what I’m all about. My goal is to reach the minds of people in a positive way and change them. The most expressive thing of mine is my music — and I can’t get into talking about things unless someone knows about my music. The article was the standard pap — “Although he’s blind, Stevie is a spiritual outburst — very emotional, very sensitive, he comes on with orgiastic songs.” My mother wasn’t very happy with the reference to the fact that I stole coal when I was young. I’m not ashamed to talk about it, but my mother felt very bad. I tried to explain to her that I told the story only because it’s sad that in a country that is as wealthy as the United States stealing for survival is a necessity as well as a crime. You know, the Newsweek article didn’t get into the politics of this country-they were much more interested in the politics of the record business, making me the center of some bullshit that I don’t even care about.

What exactly did happen?

Wonder: I knew what my rights were and what I had to do if I wanted out of a particular situation. When you have signed something when you’re under age with a guardian and later you become of age, you have the right to change it — if you give a statement in advance.

When you renegotiated with Motown, you obtained your own publishing rights. Why is that important?

Wonder: When you own your own song, you get royalties as the writer and owner whenever that song is recorded. In that contract I was thinking more of my child, my wife, my family …. I was never really concerned with the money end of it myself, but I know that in this business if you can’t sing or play there is no reason to have you around. If I lost my voice — I’d have to have other things to be secure. And it’s only fair for you to get what has been given for you by the public. Then, I love to give the money back to communities that are doing things I really believe in. The people make you happy and you give as much of yourself as you possibly can.

There are things wrong in the record business, and I could bring out all of them, but I’m really not about that. I’m not out to do anybody — I’m not even out to be a part of doing anybody. The politics of Motown are no different than the politics of every company in this world.

When you go back to Detroit, do a lot of your old friends accuse you of abandoning the city?

Wonder: Yeah, but you know, I don’t listen because I know why I left, and it was before Motown ever decided to move. I tell my friends I had to do what I did to bring back as much as I could to Detroit and to the world. To people — period. When I left the church and started singing that rock ’n’ roll, they said I was backsliding then, too. But I do go back to Detroit. Last year I did a benefit for the mayor’s program for busing children into different communities to visit places they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to go — different art exhibits and movies. I have a lot of respect for Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, and I told him that he should encourage a special screening of a movie I’d seen that can explain the situation in the ghettoes to a lot of people. That movie is The Education of Sunny Carson — I loved seeing that movie. It touched me. The “blacksploitation” movies, on the other hand, have basically only two approaches — either “Yeah, boy! You’re so ba-ad you can beat the law, just go out and do it,” or the” If you go out and do it, you’ll get what’s coming to you.” Both invite crime. The white movie companies portray very unprogressive images of black people — it’s not good for young kids. The same with radio and television. I remember in Boston seeing a news item on television, “Twelve black kids jumped on one little white boy today…” What happened, I later found out, was that a black kid got beat up by a gang of white kids first. But if I were a Middle American and I’d seen that on TV I’d be angry as hell and I’d want to go kill every n***** that ever existed. Things like that pull people apart and make conditions ripe for mass violence.

Do you think that’s going to happen?

Wonder: I wouldn’t be surprised. because there’s so much hate happening. There’s a lot of love happening, too, right now, but built-up hate can be so damaging. And it’s not that hard to love — the supreme being or whatever has given you the mechanism for being kind.

What’s your definition of love. and of “supreme being”?

Wonder: Love is really giving and the glory you find when what you give is positively appreciated. There’s the intimate kind of love — a close kind of family love — and the passionate kind of love that’s essentially between two people. Love is also respect, and it comes from respecting yourself. When you learn to love and respect yourself, that’s when you respect others. As for “God” or a “supreme being” — I guess a lot of people feel God is in heaven, or somewhere. I don’t believe that shit. I guess I used to when I was younger, but I didn’t understand even then how you could goto heaven — like, just how did you do it? They told me Jesus left the earth with his hands up and he just flew away. So when I sing about “God” in my music, I am really expressing a beautiful spirit deep down inside me.

When you talk about “seeing” something on television or in the movies, what do you mean?

Wonder: You can tell by the sounds and just from relating to the pictures to doing things in your own life. It all connects. I have concepts of colors that are different from those of most people when they explain colors to me.

How do you “see ” colors?

Wonder: I think of clouds as white, and a cloud to me is something that is invisible yet visible — though you can’t see through it. It’s fluffy, it moves around, but it still is a sheet that covers. A black-cloud is heavier in texture, and the wind might have a little more trouble getting through it. Black is mystical, it’s magic — to me it’s the color of curiosity. A lot of white people don’t understand black people because they relate black to things they commonly know. If you had never seen a black person before, you might think of black magic or the things that leave you very curious.

Red, to me, is fire — something that is burning. Shimmering flames, sparkling, the hottest hot. Blue is very, very cool, distant….

Was it difficult getting an education, because of both being blind and becoming a star so young?

Wonder: When I was thirteen, I was enrolled in the Michigan School for the Blind. Dr. Robert Thompson, who was the super-intendent, was very nice, and worked out a way that let me attend the school and tour also. We traveled on the road for two weeks out of the month, and the other two we would spend either at the school or at home in Detroit. Dr. Thompson introduced me to a gentleman who worked at the school, and who had traveled extensively and was partially sighted. His name was Ted Hall. He worked as my private teacher and went on the road with me.

Have the audiences changed much in character since the old days of the Motown Revues?

Wonder: Well, screaming seems to have come back — they did that a lot back in the old days. When I toured with the Rolling Stones in 1972 it was the real beginning of my hearing that kind of stuff. I like it — it’s nice. It kind of shows that the audience is enjoying what they’re hearing, especially when they’ve anticipated a certain song. The people in the Rolling Stones audience didn’t know me then, but a lot of them remembered the earlier stuff — “Uptight,” “Fingertips,” “I Was Made To Love Her.” In fact, a lot of people asked for “Fingertips,” though we didn’t do it then. It’s amazing to see the kind of response we get from doing that song, now that we do do it again.

This last tour was the first since your auto accident. How did it go?

Wonder: I think it was the best of the shows that I’ve ever had a chance to get together. It was the first time I’ve really done what I wanted to do on a show, creating some kind of order to it.

Why don’t you do encores?

Wonder: I think that if you give all that you really have to an audience, they know that. When it’s time to end, it’s time to end. After an hour and fifty-five minutes or two hours — they’ve had enough, they’re ready to go home. I probably will always end the show with “Superstition,” just because it is such a funky tune.

It’s a lot easier to tour when you have some days off. I’ve been on tours where it’s like thirty days straight, but we spaced ourselves on the last tour. We took ten days off because, I must confess, the moments of bliss on the road are few-sometimes very far apart, sometimes very close together or all at once. Some of the best times we had were playing to sold-out crowds. Considering the economic conditions in this country that’s really good. What’s most beautiful about touring is that I’ve met some friends in every place I’ve gone. It always feels to me like I am just playing in someone’s living room.

What makes you angry?

Wonder: I get angry when people misquote me or don’t understand what I say and take it out of context — or when people think that because of my easygoing attitude I don’t know what’s going on and try to use that against me in some way. But I don’t display my anger in a nasty way; I just let them know that I’m completely aware of what was or wasn’t said. My temper rarely gets the best of me. I’m never really storming around, and if I border on it sometimes, it’s only because I’m getting ready to get down to straight business.

Have you ever thought what it would be like to be an average person rather than a celebrity?

Wonder: It’s funny — sometimes I just pretend not to be a star to see what happens. I just say to somebody that I’m Steveland Morris. The person doesn’t know who that is and they say, “Yeah, yeah” — very cold, very negative — “Yeah, well what do you do?” And I say, “Well, I’m an artist and I’ve done some things.” And they say “Really? Your name’s Steveland Morris?” Then I say I’ve done some tunes — have they heard “Sunshine of My Life”? They say, “Yeah, I heard Frank Sinatra do it on TV.” And I say, “Yeah, well I wrote that.” “Steveland Morris?” “Yeah,” I say, “my professional name is Stevie Wonder.” “You’re Stevie Wonder? Son-of-a-bitch, man!” And all of a sudden they’re real nice.

One time I had to take my woman to a hospital, it was an emergency in Washington. It was dragging along until they recognized me and then it was immediate service. The doors were open — flowers, everything. It’s really jive — every human being deserves the same respect just because they’re a human being. I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, what if my lady had been there just by herself?”

Egoing yourself up — what good is it? I am happy about certain things that happen and I get excited when I do something I really like musically, but I don’t brag because, you know, you can always do better. I can’t get into people who have the big limousines and things — I’ve met too many people like that during my career, from politicians to disc jockeys. But people try to push you into it. Too much luxury frightens me. When you can’t touch the ground. it’s a kind of funny feeling — fucked up. Too much furniture, for instance, is cumbersome. You bump into things and you’re not free — you’re not free if you have things in the way. Like, I sleep in a small sleeping bag when I’m on the road, because it’s simple and I always know where I am inside it. It’s probably because I’m blind, but not wholly.

Were you pleased that Frank Sinatra did “Sunshine of My Life”?

Wonder: It was out of sight. I always wanted him to do a song of mine and put it in an album. I really dig his version. As a matter of fact, I listen to it as often as I can — listen to the texture in which he does it. The R & B of the fifties is some of my favorite music, too, and the jazz of the late sixties is great. Otis Redding was really tremendous — the best albums he did were the live ones, they really have a lot of spirit. And — funny thing — the one after he died was a good one too, Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. Johnny Mathis did a lot of stuff in the earlier days that was really great. “Misty” for instance. That album stayed a long time on the charts — eleven years or something. I doubt I’ll ever do an album that will stick around that long.

Who do you listen to, now?

Wonder: I listen to a variety of music these days. I’ve been listening to a lot of Herbie Hancock, a lot of Chick Corea. I listen to the radio a lot, and if I hear a particular song I like, I’ll buy the album. Everybody influences me, I guess. Lately I’ve listened a lot to people who have done my songs. To me, every time I listen to one it’s like opening a Christmas gift, you know, because a lot of times it’s people that I never expected would do them.

How do you translate your inspirations into new songs?

Wonder: Well, if I am really into a tune I just go and do it immediately. That’s how a lot of the albums come about — just me doing all the parts and playing around. I barricade myself in with my instruments and just work the music out with the help of my band — Wonderlove.

Some people say, “Stevie thinks he knows everything; Stevie’s middle name is Ego. Why else would he play all the instruments on his album?” I had to do that because there was no one around me that felt the way I did about what I wanted to do. It was a necessity for me. A lot of people presume that it’s ego, but what they don’t understand is if you know how you feel and what you want to do, if you know what you want out of a particular instrument, then you just have to go and do it. It’s really amazing to me that my subconscious grasps so many things.

I do realize that I’m only one of the zillions of people that have existed. I realize that and accept it. When you think like that, then you hardly have time for being conceited. How can you even think of being conceited — with the universe as large as it is? When my record is playing somewhere else in the universe — that’s when I’ll feel I’m going somewhere.

Is it true that you have more than two hundred new songs, all recorded, waiting to be released?

Wonder: No. We don’t have any two hundred songs. We do have a lot of material but a lot of it isn’t finished. I have some things from awhile back and a lot of tunes I’ve never really finished because they’re still not presentable compared to what I’ve done since. A great example of that is “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away” on the Fulfillingness First Finale album — the title for that album came to me in a dream, by the way. Anyway, I did the basic track of the song in 1972 — I even talked about it in print. I said look for this song on the Talking Book album, but it didn’t come out in that album because it wasn’t ready. And “Ma Cherie Amour” — I wrote that In 1966, but it wasn’t released until 1969.

How do you get your ideas for lyrics?

Wonder: Once I’ve formulated the idea in my mind — I have the track or just the melody on tape — maybe just me playing and singing, moving in words every once in a while, then I’ll come up with the basic idea. When I wrote “Smile Please” I was in a very down mood, but I felt that maybe things were going to be better. At the same time I had written a song called “Future” — both these tunes were written during the time of the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patricia Hearst. That affected me very negatively, especially when the policemen slaughtered some of them in Los Angeles. The song “Future” — it’ll be on the newest album — concludes that it’s easy to be pessimistic when you read this week’s spiritual statistics.

Why don’t you appear on television more often?

Wonder: Because television can exploit you if you’re not aware. If you don’t get the right kind of time spot, the right kind of show — if everything isn’t working for you, it can be a minus. Being on certain shows puts you in a certain category. There have been shows which have had all different kinds of acts on, a star-studded night of this person and that person, and I was offered a slot and didn’t do it because I felt I didn’t want to be limited. The next time I do television, I’d like all the money to go to some cause I support.

Do you feel pressure from an audience when you walk out onstage?

Wonder: I don’t look for it. It only creeps up on me if I let it. If you’re onstage, you’re supposed to be in control of whatever’s happening. The people are there to really help you do what you came to do — which is to have a good time.

Are you often asked to appear at fundraising shows?

Wonder: I turn down quite a lot of them. UNESCO had a fundraising thing last year. They had a bunch of stars — Paul Newman, Shirley Maclain, Ringo Starr — and I would have been the only black person there other than ambassadors from various African countries. A woman from UNESCO called me on behalf of President Ford to invite me, and I said, “Oh, no, miss’” And she said, “But this is from the president of the United States’” “I know, miss, I know who he is. I know exactly, and that’s why you’re getting this opposition.” She thought I should be overwhelmed by the fact that it was the president!

Where do you stand politically these days?

Wonder: I never vote for anybody until after they’ve done something I know about. I wait till they get through with their thing, then I’ll see. I remember when Malcolm X was around, he had a lot of positive things going with what he was saying. He talked about pride and I know that kind of pride. I feel it, and, as a people, I think black people have got to feel it. I’m very proud of what I am — very, very proud of it, very happy. And I respect those that respect themselves, who are able to appreciate other cultures and also appreciate what’s inside people. I want to travel through Africa because African culture can introduce me to the roots of our music. I want to understand the whole sound that we, as blacks, have.

How about the media?

Wonder: Through the media you can convey a particular thought to more than just one person. You can create hate through the media — you can encourage someone to go and fuck up a bunch of people, like in that Boston news thing. I mean — we all know what the mass media and mass technology are capable of doing. So it’s really up to us to get off our asses and express the truth — to give people all there is to be given — and then to make a choice between what we want to do and what we need to do.

I would like to make my next tour a prison tour and I’d like to record it. I know some people who have gone to jail for draft evasion. It’s really amazing now — because Vietnam was never a declared war and, whatever it was, it has ended — yet it’s still punishing those who wouldn’t die and those who wouldn’t take part. The one thing I most want to say to people — and I think Dick Gregory says this too — is that both middle-class black and white people must realize that they have basically the same struggle.

It would be important to remember that this interview published originally in 1976, and many, many things have changed in the last 50 years. Because under mandate we try to avoid partisan conflict and obstain from cultural editorialization, we will leave that comment right there. Mr. Stevie Wonder made music then that still sounds just as wonderful now, however, and he may even have made many “important” musical statements in the years between this interview and now. (Sorry about that word “important” there, boss.) … Spend some time looking at Wonder’s impact, and you might be surprised at how much of the music you know. He has been the sunshine in a lot of lives.

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