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| June 26-July 2, 2008 firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Wonder Years
Stevie Wonder on his new album, the death of Ray Charles and his hopes for Barack Obama
by Ben Corbett
Stevie Wonder: Good morning. Hello.
Operator: Just go ahead, sir.
Stevie Wonder: Hi everybody. How are you doing? This is different… But it’s good. Happy Friday everybody.It’s a brand new concept, but that’s how a telephone press conference begins. I’d never done one of these things before, and neither had Stevie Wonder. But it amounted to 45 minutes with one of the world’s most legendary and prolific soul musicians at the hub, with spokes stretching out to a dozen A&E print journalists from coast-to-coast, including: Gary Graff with Oakland Free Press, Mark Brown with Rocky Mountain News, Bobby Reed from the Chicago Sun Times, Gene Stout with Seattle PI, Dave Tianen for Milwaukee Journal, Neil Barron with Reno Gazette Journal, Marsha Lederman for The Global Mail, Mike Hughes with Lansing State Journal, Tamara Palmer for San Francisco Weekly, Ernest Jasmin with Tacoma News Tribune, Alex Dobucinskis for Reuters, and yours truly for Boulder Weekly.
Here’s how the interview ended…
Stevie Wonder: I just want to say to everyone, thank you so much for coming on this conference call. We have a holiday coming up, the Fourth of July. Just be safe and continue to do what we, as communicators, must do, and that is to inspire.
The drawback to doing an interview this way is that you can’t get enough personal time to build a conversational storyline. However, the neat thing is in hearing your peers thousands of miles away asking locally flavored questions. From the gushy fanzine-type writer to the music guru looking for a technical edge, and even an investigative reporter easing out loaded questions, the conference ran the gamut of newsroom archetypes. And Stevie, charming as ever, made it feel intimate while getting the music across. The message, as they say, is what it’s all about. And Stevie’s message is about coming together.
If you pulled the staples from Wonder’s resume and laid it out, page by page, end-to-end, it would probably stretch from New York City to somewhere in Africa, with rivulets reaching out to every continent. Twenty-five Grammys on top of 45 top-ten hits in the U.S. and the UK. From playing drums for Jimi Hendrix on the BBC Sessions to playing the 1975 Wonder Dream Concert in Jamaica, featuring the last Bob Marley and the Wailers performance ever, Wonder may be the world’s best-known musician. If Martin Luther King was an internationalist, struggling at home while bridging humanity from all corners of the globe with speeches and inspiration, Stevie Wonder has arguably done the same with music on a different level. Yet with his unique melodic approach to music, the prolific master of soul seems to pull off spreading the word with unmatched grace, while other well-intentioned bands (Midnight Oil, Bruce Hornsby, etc.) have slipped into preaching political themes to a nation afflicted with guilt.
Or maybe it’s Wonder’s genius for communicating with compassion rather than agenda, an artist who can paint with sound. Either way, it all began with Motown Records in 1962, when at 12 years old Stevie got his first record contract after meeting and impressing Motown’s Berry Gordy, the first black American to own a record company. Founded just a few years earlier in 1959, Motown churned out hits by artists such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & The Supremes and Smokey Robinson. By 1963, Little Stevie Wonder had his first hit, “Fingertips, Pt. 2,” with the young singer playing harmonica and bongos and featuring Marvin Gaye on drums. (You can see this early black-and-white performance on YouTube, as well as Wonder’s 1970s performance of “Superstition” on Sesame Street. Both are amazing.) Marvin Gaye’s creative defiance and socially conscious approach to music had a major impact on Stevie by using music as a tool to create social change.
“His life was too short,” says Wonder about Gaye. “There was so much more I feel that he had to say. But he left us an incredible statement with the What’s Going On album. That still sounds like it was done yesterday.”
This landmark album in which Gaye fought with Motown to gain creative control over his products inspired Wonder to seek similar control, an effort that resulted in Wonder’s short break from the label in 1971. But not before releasing Where I’m Coming From, perhaps the most socially conscious record of Wonder’s career, which set the pattern for his future notoriety as a mover-and-shaker in breaking down racial barriers.
“People know my passion,” says Wonder. “It’s consistently been the same since I began understanding social issues and political issues and having a great desire to see a united people in the United States. That’s always been my desire. I think young people in this generation are challenging the other generations. (And listen, don’t just talk about it, be about it.) And I’m excited about that.”
“Do yourself a favor / Educate your mind / Get yourself together / Hey there ain’t much time,” chants Wonderlove, Wonder’s trio of backup vocalists on the chorus of “Do Yourself a Favor,” the politically charged song that became an anthem to a generation. The role of musical ambassador was expanded with his later hits, including “Happy Birthday,” the theme to Wonder’s 1980 campaign with Rev. Jesse Jackson which helped make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. Later, Wonder’s duet with Paul McCartney, “Ebony and Ivory,” followed by participation in the “We Are the World” campaign for African famine relief became staples of a growing fervor of international humanitarianism. And today he continues this legacy with the endorsement of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
“You know we have to get beyond these places of color and cultural boundaries,” says Wonder. “The world is far smaller than ever before. Things that used to take weeks or months for people to find out about or hear about now take just a matter of seconds. So we have this technology, and we’ve moved to that place in the world where it is very important that we do what we need to do to bring not only this country together, but this world together.”
Wonder’s latest release, A Time to Love (2005), is his first album recorded in a decade, following Conversation Piece (1995). From “So What the Fuss,” featuring Prince playing muffled funk guitar with En Vogue in the slot of backup vocals, a duet with India.Arie, the album swings from romantic pop to a message of social responsibility. “We have time for racism / We have time for criticism / Held bondage by our ism’s / When will there be a time to love?” asks the title track. “We make time to debate religion / Passing bills and building prisons / For building fortunes and passing judgments / When will there be a time to love?”
With these kinds of lyrics echoing back to tones of his early 1970s work — although he stayed busy, recording with Sting and playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the 1996 Olympics held in Atlanta — it seemed to be Wonder’s performance at the July 2005 Live 8 concerts that brought him back in force. The death of Ray Charles, an early inspiration to the once-child prodigy was only one of many losses that wracked Wonder, who faded from the spotlight for a decade to get re-centered.
“I met him when I was 11, and he brought lots of people together,” says Wonder. “There are people that listen to only country, but after hearing Ray Charles they are curious about jazz. And there are jazz musicians that may not listen to country and will say, ‘Let me check that out.’ I think any time a musician or an artist can bring people together it’s a great thing, because it opens not only their musical ears, but their spiritual ears.”
“A lot of things happened in the last 10 years,” Wonder continues. “That was a very difficult time for me because within those years I lost Ray Charles, I lost a very good friend, Carl Anderson, to cancer, and then my brother Larry passed away, and I lost Syreeta [Wright, Stevie’s first wife and longtime collaborator]. And my mother. But the truth about life very clearly is however bad you can feel about whatever, there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why it’s important that we love and that we care and that we take advantage of what we can while we’re here. I just prefer seeing a glass of life as being half full more than half empty, and so I got to do what I have to do.”
His 2007 U.S. tour, A Wonder Summer’s Night, was his first broad-based national tour in over a decade, inspired by the 2006 death of his mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, a sharecropper’s daughter born in Alabama in 1930. Suffering poverty and abuse in her youth, Lula matured into an exceptionally strong and courageous woman who not only negotiated Stevie’s first record contract, but is credited as co-writer for some of his hits, such as “I Was Made to Love Her” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Extending the tour throughout 2008, the Wonder Summer’s Night tour will continue in North America before heading abroad to Australia and Europe (where the name will be aptly changed to A Wonder Spring’s Night and A Wonder Autumn’s Night to capture the seasons) where Stevie hasn’t toured in more than 10 years. Meanwhile, Wonder is working on a couple of new ideas.
“The project is going to be called Gospel Inspired by Lula,” says Wonder. “Lula is my mother’s first name. And then the second thing we’re going to do is a project called Through the Eyes of Wonder. What I want to do with our live performances is to create visuals to give people my take on how I see the world and how various things affected me. It will be different songs from both projects that I’m going to do. Some of it is going to be traditional gospel, but I might do something in Arabic. I might do something in Hebrew, just different things I’m going to do differently than what one would expect because the whole thing with the title is spreading the good word, the message. I’ve written a few things on the road, and I’ve had songs throughout the years that I never recorded, and so a combination of those songs and some traditional things will make up the project. I’m excited about it.”
On the Bill
Stevie Wonder will perform at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, July 1, at Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre, 6350 Greenwood Plaza Blvd., Greenwood Village, 800-279-4444.
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