The difference between the ’60s and the ’70s is that the only buildings students now threaten to occupy are discotheques. Whether pop music is the cause or a function of the changin’ of the times, what is being hymned these days is not the horror of nuclear holocaust but the peaceable alternative of the nuclear household. The predominant cry of persecution and defiance has mellowed in this self-oriented decade. The message is “survival through love.” And the sunshine king of this new life view is Stevie Wonder, 26. Every other superstar is, by comparison, a jukebox Rev. Moon.
In his relentless fashion, Stevie worked two torturous years on his new album, Songs in the Key of Life. It took just one week to top the pop charts—the first double LP (it has 21 cuts) ever to arrive in such a rush. It was the final affirmation of Wonder’s overpowering genius as composer, lyricist, musician, singer and producer. It showcases his awesome ability to overdub into most of the songs the full sweep of his talents: his surging bass; the growling electronic keyboard lines; the richly textured vocals; the sly flurries on snare and bass drums. Lyrically, the LP expresses the Wonder of it all, Stevie’s still-innocent yearning for the universe of love: “If it’s magic Why can’t we make it everlasting…there’s enough for everyone.”
With a retail list price of $13.98, Songs will quickly justify the staggering $13 million, seven-year deal he signed with Motown Records this spring, the largest in music industry history. Conceptually and technically superior to Innervisions and Fulfillingness‘ First Finale, both of which were Grammy albums of the year, Songs displays his vastly imaginative range, from jazz and samba to soul and Top 40. It has already been crowned by one critic as the LP of the ’70s. That is the one deadline Stevie made. The release was a year late—largely because of Stevie’s tedious perfectionism, and because of a prodigious stream of 200 works in progress in the cassette player of his mind. He announced—and missed—a “Taurus” release to vibe right with his astrological chart, but did beat (by mere hours) the cutoff date for 1976 Grammy eligibility.
Blind since birth, Stevie has never been burdened by the reciprocating vanity that binds other acts to their fans—sexual or ghoulish caricature onstage, fawning frenzy in the seats. Instead, Stevie seems to aim deeper, and elicits a quiet joy. “Music can measure how broad our horizons are,” he says. “My mind wants to see to infinity. ‘Stevie Wonder’ is a camouflage. Through my music, I, Steveland Judkins Morris, my real name, have been able to express my deepest feelings, and those of other people.”
For Stevie, those feelings now include his lover, Yolanda Simmons, 25, and his other proud creation since he was last heard from, their daughter Aisha, 18 months. Stevie found “Londie” (as he calls her) in 1973, the year he broke up with his first wife, Syreeta Wright. “We met on the phone,” he remembers, when she was looking for a secretarial job with his New York publishing company, Black Bull. “I liked the way she sounded, and we became friends. Then it turned into other feelings, which made our friendship more beautiful.” One of those other feelings was a desire for parenthood. “I’ve always wanted to be a father,” he says. “But I knew I had to wait till I met the right woman who would give my child the love it needs.”
Though they once declared marriage plans, Stevie now says it never seemed essential. “We didn’t have to do a ‘marry me’ and ‘I marry you’ thing. Love is free—it’s not about possession.” That ground rule has definitely facilitated his long absences from home. Londie and Aisha nested in Wonder’s four-story Manhattan townhouse while he spent most of the past two years in his L.A. recording studio or in a modest rented flat nearby. “Yolanda has her thing to do too,” he says. “It’s not just me.” Her thing includes TM and fashion design, which she’s studying four nights a week.
As for Aisha, Stevie glows: “She is f-i-i-i-ne. I can sense Yolanda and me in her. Like me, she is inquisitive about the way things work. She will open a drawer, stick her hands in and lean on it. She’ll cry, then feel around until she finds the handle.” He adds, with a laugh: “I’d like 24 kids, a whole bunch, but I don’t know if I’ll ever make that.”
There wouldn’t be time. Stevie’s stamina and compulsive creativity leave those around him wasted. He’ll awake in the middle of the night to lay down a track. Once he consented to record a three-second “tag” (call-letter radio spot) and didn’t leave the studio until 6 a.m. “There were times,” says bassist Nathan Watts, “he’d stay in the studio 48 hours straight. You couldn’t even get the cat to stop to eat.” “My rhythms go by my moods,” Stevie explains. “I can’t tell time by looking outside. People see night fall and prepare for it. If my flow is goin’ I keep on till I peak. Then it’s time to move on.”
Wonder can get around unaided with a cane or guide dog, but is invariably accompanied by his 27-year-old brother, Calvin (who chooses the singer’s wardrobe). Stevie travels incessantly, between coasts in commercial jets and, on the ground, either in his own Mercedes 450 SEL or, when in New York, by taxi. He seems not to actually arrive and leave but rather to materialize and vanish, moving with solemn sleepwalking smoothness. His head twists around like a 180-degree radar scanner, tracing an eerie horizontal 8, an infinity symbol—”blind-isms,” which he explains as a release of energy that would ordinarily be spent by eye movements. His ears and hands calculate the terrain and his spatial relationship to moving or still objects with amazing precision. “Stevie can hit you with a roll of tape from across the room,” says his L.A. engineer, John Fishbeck. “He’s not blind, just sightless.” Indeed, he roller-skates, swims, bowls (he recently scored a 122) and is a tiger taking on anyone in Air Hockey, which is played with paddle and a puck that’s kept afloat by air currents. (“Any time,” he challenges.)
He recognizes anyone familiar by the size, texture or grip of his or her handshake. “Y’ ever notice,” he smiles, “how people assume that because you’re blind you’re deaf too? They stick their face up to yours and shout, ‘HEY STEVIE. OVER HERE, STEVIE.’ Man, to me that’s like an alarm clock goin’ off in the middle of a deep sleep.” So, instructs his aide and confidant Ira Tucker, “approach in a low tone, and never invade Stevie’s space.”
The third of six children (including step-siblings), Stevie grew up in a Detroit slum, blind, he believes, because of a poorly regulated flow of oxygen into an incubator after his month-premature birth. He grew into a wiry, mischievous kid—”the fastest tree-climber in the neighborhood,” a roof-hopper and girl-chaser. “I always have loved my mother for giving me that independence,” he says. “To let me feel the breeze of riding a bicycle…”
Music soon began to link Stevie’s senses (“Jazz guitar,” he recalls, “always made me think of butter, soft, warm”). By 10 he had learned bongos, drums, piano and harmonica. Introduced to Motown by a playmate’s older brother who was a member of the Miracles, Stevie landed a recording session and a contract. By 12 he had his first hit, Fingertips, and a stage name—Little Stevie Wonder. His lucrative succession of ’60s Motown-sound smashes (“I Was Made to Love Her”, “My Cherie Amour”, “Uptight”) gave him the clout at 21 to resist the label’s paternalistic confinements. The result was his landmark LP, Music of My Mind, which signaled Wonder’s germinal influence in the booming fusion of r&b and classy synthesized production.
Wonder’s show-stealing sets as the Rolling Stones’ opening act on tour in 1972 helped make his 1973 LP, Innervisions, a commercial success. It also won him mass acceptance by both black and white audiences and critics—not to mention artists. His tunes have been recorded by a powerfully flattering bunch from Sinatra and Streisand to Feliciano and the Boston Pops.
That same year a car in which he was a front seat passenger ran into a logging truck in North Carolina. A log crashed through the windshield and into Stevie’s forehead. For a week he wavered near death in a coma. Tucker, according to his own legend, muttered Wonder’s inspirational lyrics to Higher Ground for hours at his bedside, and Stevie recovered consciousness, muttering along. The accident left him with two nasty scars over his right eye and a buoyant fatalistic spirituality. “It was God tellin’ me it was time I figured out who and where my friends were. Life has to be positive—we learn from experience. Gotta keep rollin’ forward, not rewind.”
Refreshingly free of vanity, Stevie refused cosmetic surgery to erase the scars. His lifestyle is similarly humble, although he’s sold upwards of 45 million records. His only indulgence is the boggling configuration of keyboard equipment and recording electronics that he stocks in his Manhattan playroom. He’s set up his mother and younger siblings in a five-bedroom house in the San Fernando Valley. He has also supported his devoted studio and touring musicians and singers (Wonderlove) for two years on salaries, says one of them, “whether we’ve been workin’ or not. How many cats’ll do that?”
A keen business mind helps Stevie oversee the complex details of his publishing operation. (Callers even hear his taped voice on the office’s message machine.) He confers with his inner circle of advisers once a week in loosely structured brainstorming sessions. “His computer’s clicking all the time,” says accountant John Ritter. “He often takes his time making decisions, because he’s got umpteen things on his mind. But then he’ll unload an answer to a problem from months back you assumed he’d forgotten about.” Also seemingly forgotten are some appointments—he stands people up for weeks (especially journalists).
Wonder has placed his capital, says Ritter, “in conservative straight-up ways to keep up with inflation. He has no elaborate tax shelters. Any dealings he makes are never merely to make money but have to be esthetically valuable to him—mostly things with a social impact like helping minority businesses get started. He has donated quite a lot,” adds Ritter, refusing to identify his beneficiaries. Stevie, he says, “gets touchy about talking money.” Notes Tucker, Stevie is often approached by “vicious trips where the charity is already hooked up to another trip—pluggin’ the hole in the brother’s pocket with the bread from the concert.”
Stevie’s strongest political statement in music was his searing anti-demagogic “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”: “We are amazed but not amused by all the things you say that you’ll do.” Wonder says, “I think leaders in power should fight our wars. They’d all be over immediately. Why should people die just because some man wants more land? The powers that can change ghetto situations don’t live in them.” Wonder once planned to set up a studio in Africa and work on an anti-malaria project in Ghana, but didn’t go. “There are people here I would like to help. This country makes me very angry sometimes,” he says. “It’s the closest to being right—but it could be outtasight.”
Hypocrisy is to Stevie the greatest evil. Truth is determinable, he has found, “in the tentativeness of a woman’s lips, the voice of a person lying or a handshake. Eyes,” he senses, “lie if you look into them for the character of a person. Man,” concludes Stevie Wonder, “if that’s what sight is all about, I never want to see. Never.”