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Behind the Curtain: Smiles, Songs and Chats with Stevie Wonder
Though the moment is just a barely discernible blip on my memory radar, I can still faintly remember seeing Stevie Wonder when he was still Little Stevie Wonder. He was appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show and I think I wanted to see what he looked like. In fact, I was more interested in looking at him than listening to him.
I was only 11-years old and I couldn’t understand how somebody who was blind could make music. I thought if you couldn’t see that somehow you couldn’t hear or do anything else. I felt so sorry for him. I really didn’t know any of his music but I knew he was this little kid who was blind and black— I don’t know how I knew he was black but I had heard he was on Motown Records and I just assumed everybody on that label was black—and I wanted to watch him on television.
He was only 13-years old in 1964 when he performed on the famous variety show and yet he had already recorded and released his first song. Fingertips was the first live, non-studio recording to ever reach number one on the Billboard Pop Singles chart. It would have been an astonishing achievement for any artist but when that performer was not yet in his mid-teens, it made the accomplishment all the more extraordinary.
While waiting for the show to start, I kept thinking, “This little kid must be the saddest person in the world. He can’t see anything. He can’t see the sky or the ocean or read a book [I didn’t understand about Braille then] or play baseball. He doesn’t even know what the color red is. He doesn’t even know what he looks like in a mirror. I am sure he is going to be sad.”
When I saw him on Ed Sullivan, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This Little Stevie Wonder looked like the happiest and most joyous person in the world. He was smiling and grinning and running around and kept moving back and forth even when he was standing in one place. His head would tilt from side to side and it looked like he was bopping and grooving to some song inside of him that nobody else could hear.
His head never stopped moving and I thought, “This little kid knows something no one else does. I don’t know what that is and I don’t know what he hears inside himself but I wish I could hear it. I wish I could be that happy.”
He was clapping his hands and throwing them up into the air and exhorting the audience to sing along with him. He was the most confident and positive-sounding little kid I had ever seen. I recently went back and watched that performance from over 50 years ago and was reminded all over again how remarkable he really was. At the beginning of his set, he called out to the emcee himself. Sullivan was notorious for adopting a staid and sedate persona. Even when he smiled, it looked like he was grimacing so when Stevie yelled out his name, he must have shriveled up like a dried flower. “Mr. Sullivan, now I want you to clap your hands,” Stevie said while clapping in rhythm to the music. “Stomp your feet. Jump up and down. Do anything that you wanna do.”
The idea of Sullivan even twitching a muscle was impossible to conceive but Little Stevie Wonder didn’t care. He was caught up in the joy of the moment like a revival preacher at a tent meeting. He blew on his Chromonica—I didn’t know what it was at the time and just thought it was some kind of harmonica—and stomped his feet and made the most beautiful sounds come out of that little instrument he was blowing on.
When I watched that show recently on YouTube, I was struck by how long and thin his fingers were. They were like these little snakes wriggling all over the Chromonica and I thought, “What amazing hands for playing a keyboard.” I also saw the lights of the television studio reflecting off his very thick and dark sunglasses. When I first saw Little Stevie Wonder perform on the Ed Sullivan Show over five decades ago, I thought it was impossible for someone who was blind to be able to sing or play music or anything like that. When I viewed that same performance recently, all I could think about was, “Little Stevie Wonder sees more than the rest of us.”
I continued listening to his music and as I grew older I came to truly love and appreciate what he did. After Fingertips—Part 1 & 2 came out, Stevie released Uptight (Everything’s Alright), I Was Made to Love Her, For Once In My Life, My Cherie Amour, Signed, Sealed and Delivered and so many other amazing songs I can’t even begin to list them all here.
Every time I turned on the radio, there was another one of his songs being played. Then in 1972, the then 22-year old Wonder put out the Talking Book album and I heard that Jeff Beck was going to be playing on it. This only supercharged my pursuit of Stevie’s music because there was nobody in the world I was more devoted to than Beck.
About two years after Talking Book came out in 1972, Wonder released Fulfillingness’ First Finale. He was still on Motown [Tamla] and somehow I had developed a contact over there. One day the telephone rang and the publicist said Stevie is giving a group interview to a handful of journalists. Would I like to come? I almost dropped the phone and fell out of my chair. “Y-yes,” I managed to stutter. “I would love to come.”
The interview was scheduled for noon at a restaurant located on the top floor of a very tall building. For the life of me, I cannot extract the name of the place from the memory cells in my brain. But I can remember it was a tremendously clear autumn day—Fulfillingness’ First Finale came out in July so the interview would have taken place a few months later around September or October—with just a hint of briskness in it. I took the elevator to the top floor of this building and stepped through the doors. The publicist came over to greet me and escort me back to the table where the interview was being held.
As I walked by the other patrons nibbling on salads and chomping down on sirloin steak, the music in my mind turned dark and menacing. I suddenly thought, “What if Stevie knew I had pitied him all those years ago when I first saw him on television? What if he thought the only reason I was there to talk to him was out of some strange curiosity about a blind man being able to make music? What if he heard something in the tone of my voice revealing those types of feelings and kicked me to the curb?”
I held my emotions in check and realized what I was feeling wasn’t shame or guilt but simply nervousness and the rush of adrenaline. I walked around the corner and saw several other writers seated at a very long table. There were probably five or six journalists already seated and I berated myself all over again for showing up so late [though it was exactly 12:00 o’clock noon according to the clock on the wall].
Stevie sat at the head of the table—and where else would he sit?—and just to the left of him was a vacant chair. I figured the publicist was going to sit there or maybe one of the musician’s handlers. But no, the seat wasn’t for anyone else. It was for me. I sat down and the publicist announced, “Stevie Wonder, this is Steve Rosen. He writes for Sounds in England.”
Stevie put out his hand and for the briefest second, I was afraid to touch him. What if he got bad vibes from me? What if he hated me? But that terrible thought vanished in a nanosecond and I extended my hand and held his. I don’t remember exactly what he said but he seemed overjoyed to meet me. He was smiling and bopping his head and I was truly caught up in the energy he was spreading.
My first thought was, “This is the same person I saw on Ed Sullivan over 50 years ago. His head is shifting from side to side and his whole body is moving to a song nobody can hear but him.” I felt tremendous in his presence.
Though there were several other writers there, virtually the entire interview was filled with my questions. I had filled pages and pages with questions and things I had always wanted to ask him. Every query was responded to with wit, honesty and insight. He actually answered the questions in different voices. He would take on the razzle dazzle persona of a deejay or business manager or some funky R&B musician and relate his answer with those particular types of inflections and vocal mannerisms.
When I asked him about a song, he’d sing it. It was delightful. He was one of the greatest mimics I’d ever heard and if he never made it as a musician, he would have certainly had a career as a standup comedian.
He had an extraordinary memory for everything he’d done and could recall virtually to the day when he recorded a certain track or laid down a particular vocal. He was self-effacing to a fault, which was not to say he didn’t understand or recognize his own talents. As we spoke, we ate lunch in-between forkfuls of Caesar salad and sips of iced tea.
Of course I wanted to ask him about working with Jeff Beck but I built up to that question by having him talk about the Where I’m Coming From album. Here was his remarkable answer.
“Where I’m Coming From was like an attempt to do what we were trying to do for a long time,” he explained. “Quite naturally when you do something that’s somewhat different than what you’ve done before, you’re not gonna have it the way it’s supposed to be. I think Music Of My Mind was kind of a little more where I wanted to go but it still wasn’t completely there. Talking Book was me checking out the response of Music Of My Mind and Where I’m Coming From. On Talking Book, I knew I needed something that was funky that related. It seemed like I was trying to get too far away from just getting down to the real mmmpph. So we did a tune like Superstition and it’s funny with that song.”
That’s when you met Jeff Beck?
“I had just met Jeff for the second time because we had done a concert with him and he was looking for some material. He listened to the tune Maybe Your Baby and said, ‘Well, I want to do that.’ I said, ‘No, no you can’t do that, Jeff. No way’ because I was excited about it. I said I’ll do a tune for you that’s even badder but I was jivin’ him. I was kidding when I said it.”
Is that when you wrote Superstition?
“We went down into the studio, Electric Lady, late, late that night and I put a drum track down, the clavinet, and the basic melody and then we put the Moog bass on. And I went [Stevie scats melody] ‘Duh duh-duh duh duh-duh/she done come and gone.’ I didn’t even have the words yet, which turned out to be ‘Superstition.’ And I said to him, ‘You can do this because I was going to put it on my album.’ What had happened, we had planned to release ‘Sunshine Of My Life’ from the Talking Book album as the first single which is my favorite and Motown said, ‘No, no, you know what we need?’ They said I needed something that was going to relate and I said, ‘But look, I promised to give this tune to Jeff so he’s going to be really mad if I come out with it.’”
Jeff was mad. Right?
“He was as you know. Motown said we’ll get it straight with Jeff but we want this to be a single I gave him a song called ‘Thelonius’ that I don’t think he released yet [Beck would record the track for his seminal Blow By Blow album in March 1975].”
Stevie spent well over an hour talking about his life. I think I wanted to ask him about his blindness and how that had affected his music but I couldn’t do it. All I knew was this person sitting in front of me couldn’t see a thing—couldn’t see the breathtaking vista of the city and the mountains visible through huge floor-to-ceiling windows or even the keys on his Clavinet—and it had made no difference in his life. Still, I thought, “What if Stevie wonder hadn’t been born blind? Would his music have been even more incredible?” That would have been impossible and these were simply my own inadequacies coming to bear. Stevie Wonder is one of the most gifted people to ever walk this planet. I saw it that day. I saw it in his music.
Oh, one more thing. When the interview was over and the last bite of food digested, I asked Stevie if he would sign my Innervisions album. At that point, I didn’t even think of Stevie as blind and just assumed he knew how to write in normal cursive. One of his handlers placed the record in front of him and gave him this little ruler-like device. Stevie placed it on the album and wrote out a short, personal message to me. It was the most beautiful handwriting I’d ever seen. It put my scrawl to shame.