Blind faith

As Ste­vie Won­der heads for Aus­tralia on a tour in­spired by his mother’s death, John Walsh pro­files the mas­ter blaster

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IT takes a per­son of un­usual can­dour to con­fess, late in his ca­reer, that his mother helped him to write one of his most suc­cess­ful songs. Ear­lier this year, on an early- morn­ing tele­vi­sion show, Ste­vie Won­der ex­plained how he was at home one day in 1969 ( aged 19) when in­spi­ra­tion struck. As was his habit, he be­gan with a melody line in search of a lyric. ‘‘ And she was down­stairs,’’ he re­called, ‘‘ and she said, ‘ You should write, like, about some­thing, ‘‘ Ooh baby, I’m yours. I’m signed, sealed, de­liv­ered, I’m yours’’ kind of thing like that.’ ’’

Won­der used the line, had a mon­ster hit with it in 1970, and still reaps the div­i­dends. He’s still a mummy’s boy. It was her death in 2006 that prompted him to go back on the road on a world tour that will bring the Mo­town su­per­man to Aus­tralia, to play sev­eral con­certs next month.

Won­der has been part of the mu­si­cal land­scape for 45 years in a va­ri­ety of in­car­na­tions: as in­fant phe­nom­e­non, teen sen­sa­tion, crooner, mul­ti­in­stru­men­tal­ist, corn- row- haired sage, pro­ducer, ar­ranger, duet­tist and spokesman on black rights. He has also be­come per­haps the most fa­mous blind per­son in the world.

Web­sites are de­voted to jokes about his dis­abil­ity. Peo­ple un­fa­mil­iar with his hey­day in the 1960s and ’ 70s know him as the fa­mous blind black guy. Now the jokes take on a new di­men­sion: pol­i­tics. In March 2002, The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported from a pres­i­den­tial gala at the Ford The­atre, where Ge­orge W. ush sat in the front row and gave Won­der a cheery wave when he ap­peared on stage. The story of the Pres­i­dent wav­ing at a blind man de­lighted the na­tion. Did Won­der mind? Ev­i­dently not. Six years later, he ap­peared be­side an­other pres­i­den­tial fig­ure and made a lit­tle joke about blind­ness. At a Los An­ge­les rally in sup­port of Barack Obama last Fe­bru­ary, Michelle Obama took Won­der’s arm to es­cort him on stage, but they both pub­licly stum­bled on the stairs. ‘‘ I was so busy looking at the next first lady,’’ Won­der told the crowd, ‘‘ that I lost my way.’’

An­nounc­ing a Euro­pean tour — his first in a decade — ear­lier this year, Won­der said of Obama: ‘‘ He’s a com­bi­na­tion of JFK and Martin Luther King. With that he can’t lose.’’ But only a cynic would spec­u­late that the rise of Obama lies be­hind Won­der’s re­turn to tour­ing.

He says he was in­spired by a dream af­ter his mother’s death. His im­pulse, it seems, is grat­i­tude. ‘‘ I want to thank every­one for the con­tri­bu­tion you’ve made over my life,’’ he told the press con­fer­ence. ‘‘ Had it not been for you, I would never have had the chance to get the sup­port for my mu­sic.’’

Won­der was born Steve­land Har­d­away Jud­kins in May 1950 in Sag­i­naw, Michi­gan. Be­cause he was pre­ma­ture, the blood ves­sels at the back of his eyes hadn’t yet reached the front and their aborted growth caused the reti­nas to de­tach.

The fam­ily moved to Detroit when he was four. He started play­ing the pi­ano at seven, taught him­self the har­mon­ica, drums and bass, and sang in the church choir. At 11, he was in­tro­duced to Ron­nie White of the Mir­a­cles who, a lit­tle stunned by his tal­ent, brought him to Berry Gordy, the Mo­town mogul, who signed him up in­stantly. Ste­vie’s sur­name proved a prob­lem un­til Clarence Paul, a song­writer, sug­gested ‘‘ Won­der’’, rea­son­ing that ‘‘ we can’t keep in­tro­duc­ing him as ‘ the eighth won­der of the world’ ’’.

Paul be­came his pro­ducer all through his teens. Won­der’s early records had ter­ri­ble ti­tles such as I Call It Pretty Mu­sic, but the Old Peo­ple Call It the Blues , and didn’t trou­ble the charts. But he got a chance to dis­play his multi- in­stru­men­tal bril­liance in the com­pany’s Mo­tor­town Re­vue. In 1963, part of a live record­ing of the re­vue was cut as a sin­gle. It was Fin­ger­prints Part 2, fea­tur­ing Lit­tle Ste­vie Won­der on vo­cals, bon­gos and har­mon­ica, with a ju­ve­nile Marvin Gaye play­ing drums. The hy­per­ac­tive blind kid was an in­stant smash hit: the song went to No 1 in the pop and rhythm- and- blues charts.

The Mo­town bosses held their breath while their pro­tege’s voice broke. The ma­turer 15- yearold who re­sumed record­ing in 1965 had a proper Mo­town de­liv­ery, but it was too deep for any­one to call him Lit­tle any more. He be­came a clas­sic prod­uct of the Gordy fac­tory: the la­bel’s ex­ec­u­tives chose what songs he’d sing, and al­ter­nated un­de­mand­ing new soul songs with cover ver­sions of pop stan­dards. His Up­tight ( Ev­ery­thing’s Al­right) was a hit world­wide. He cov­ered Bob Dy­lan’s Blow­ing in the Wind and be­gan writ­ing his own songs: Smokey Robin­son’s Tears of a Clown was one of his tri­umphs.

He hit his stride from 1965 to 1970: I Was Made to Love Her , For Once in My Life , My Cherie Amour , Yester- Me, Yester- You, Yes­ter­day, Signed, Sealed, De­liv­ered, I’m Yours were all hits. But Won­der was tir­ing of Mo­town’s stran­gle­hold over its tal­ents and Gordy’s determination to keep ab­so­lute con­trol. So Won­der did some­thing as­ton­ish­ing. He al­lowed his con­tract to ex­pire and left Mo­town on his 21st birth­day. There fol­lowed his most creative pe­riod, when he paid for the record­ing of two al­bums, on which he played all the in­stru­ments, and brought a new se­ri­ous­ness to his lyrics.

Lit­tle Ste­vie had grown up. His songs now dealt with race is­sues and spir­i­tual growth. He started a pub­lish­ing com­pany, Black Bull Mu­sic, and went back to Mo­town to of­fer Gordy a deal: they could release the records pro­vided Won­der kept con­trol over his out­put and the pub­lish­ing rights. He got his way. Mu­sic of My Mind came out in March 1972, a con­cept al­bum rather than a col­lec­tion of songs, and the first of five al­bums ( all of them now re­garded as clas­sics) in five years: the oth­ers were Talk­ing Book , In­nervi­sions , Ful­fill- in­g­ness’ First Fi­nale and Songs in the Key of Life .

Talk­ing Book brought the world the ir­re­sistibly funky Su­per­sti­tion . Won­der per­formed it on Se­same Street , a bril­liant storm of noise with its chunk­ing gui­tars and snarling horns, and Won­der singing through his huge trade­mark grin, wag­gling his head from side to side in ec­stasy. He was on the big­gest roll of his life. He had be­come the most im­por­tant ex­po­nent ( and in­no­va­tor) of black mu­sic. He mar­ried Syreeta, his fel­low Mo­town star, who had sung back­ing vo­cals on Signed, Sealed . He was asked to open for the Rolling Stones on their world- con­quer­ing 1972 tour. A se­ries of sin­gles topped the charts: You are the Sun­shine of My Life , Higher Ground , Liv­ing for the City, Golden Lady, All in Love is Fair .

In­nervi­sions and Ful­fill­ing­ness won best al­bum Gram­mys in con­sec­u­tive years, 1974 and 1975, and Songs in the Key of Life picked up an­other in 1977. He was un­stop­pable. No­body, it seemed, could mix rhythm and blues, soul, funk and schmaltzy pop in one al­bum the way Won­der could. ( And the mu­sic en­dured: In­nervi­sions re­cently came in at No 23 in Rolling Stone ’ s 500 great­est al­bums of all time, and Songs at No 56.)

Af­ter that string of suc­cesses, things were never quite the same. Three years went by without a mu­si­cal squeak while Won­der worked on a mostly in­stru­men­tal sound­track to a doc­u­men­tary called The Se­cret Life of Plants . The ti­tle was deadly, the mu­sic spir­it­less and the re­views bor­dered on the homi­ci­dal. Though he re­cov­ered with some pop­u­lar sin­gles from his next al­bum, the platinum- sell­ing Hot­ter than July, some of the old pas­sion had clearly evap­o­rated. Iron­i­cally, the most suc­cess­ful sin­gle of his ca­reer emerged dur­ing this creative trough: I Just Called to Say I Love You was on the sound­track he wrote for the movie The Woman in Red .

To watch the video of the leg­endary Won­der singing this dull bal­lad, with a tele­phone re­ceiver clamped to his ear, was painful: no won­der the song was de­rided by Jack Black in the film High Fi­delity. Equally galling was his duet with Paul McCart­ney on Ebony and Ivory, a cloy­ingly sim­plis­tic plea for blacks and whites to live in peace ( like pi­ano keys, yeah?).

Won­der went on mak­ing records through the ’ 80s and ’ 90s, but his pub­lic ap­pear­ances tended to be those of a beloved em­i­nence grise of mu­sic and black rights. In the early ’ 80s, he cam­paigned to have King’s birth­day, Jan­uary 15, cel­e­brated as an an­nual pub­lic hol­i­day; pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan said yes, and the first Martin Luther King Day, in 1986, was marked with a con­cert ( star­ring Won­der). He has col­lab­o­rated with scores of artists, from Bruce Spring­steen to An­drea Bo­celli, played har­mon­ica on scores of sound­tracks and ac­com­pa­nied Aretha Franklin singing The StarS­pan­gled Ban­ner at the Su­per Bowl in 2006.

He has be­come a mon­u­ment, a ti­tanic fig­ure in pop­u­lar mu­sic for four decades. A large, ebul­lient, charis­matic man of 58, he is rou­tinely cited as a lead­ing in­flu­ence by Sting, Michael Jack­son, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Jamiro­quai and the Red Hot Chili Pep­pers.

His re­turn to pub­lic per­for­mance will be an oc­ca­sion for cel­e­bra­tion and danc­ing in the streets, as his fans re­call pre­cisely what they used to do to the mel­low back­drop of Talk­ing Book and In­nervi­sions .

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