Singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder

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In part two of a fascinating conversation, music icon reflects on getting his start at Motown, putting his life into his lyrical content and making a positive difference in the world.

Stevie Wonder's songwriting genius and legacy continues to provide music that permeates pop culture. Since his first #1 hit—"Fingertips - Part 2," recorded live when he was only 12—he's won 25 Grammys (the most ever for a male artist) and a Best Song Oscar and been inducted into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame. Blind since shortly after birth, Wonder was skilled on piano and other instruments by age 8 and has recorded more than 49 Top 40 singles. He's also an activist and philanthropist, who was named a U.N. Messenger of Peace in '09.


Tavis: Once Stevie Wonder and I got it going, there was no way we were going to fit our conversation into just one show, so here is part two with the iconic musician and songwriter, Stevie Wonder.
Over the last year, we have had everybody from Mr. Gordy, the chairman, to Smoky to Lionel, you name it, and now we close this year with Stevie Wonder. Motown, 50, and we all know that Motown would never have turned 50 without Little Stevie Wonder. When you look back on that 50-year journey, what do you make of your contribution to Motown as we know it 50 years later?
Stevie Wonder: Well, I don’t know. I mean, to me, it’s an amazing story, just a story of Berry Gordy who needed $700 and some dollars to do this first record that he did, and going to New York and working with, you know, Jackie Wilson, working with Barrett Strong, writing some great songs back then. I mean, obviously, meeting Smoky Robinson and what a great songwriter-lyricist he is and the incredible contribution that he’s made to American music. I don’t know. I just feel, again, it’s a blessing.
The way it all started for me was I was outside playing with my friends. I heard these kids playing some guitars some little ways away and I wanted to go where they were. My mother had a rule, obviously, that I couldn’t go across the street by myself, but I had to find a way of doing it.
I think that particular day, me and my friends we did this thing where we go in an alley and, you know – call it snappin’ now, but play the [unintelligible] mama and it’s crazy [laugh]. There was this family that owned this kind of car repair shop a couple of blocks away from where I lived and the alley was right in back of their place. It was the Heinz Brothers repair shop.
I guess they heard us making noise in the back and saying some bad words and all that kind of craziness, so he came back there and said, “Oh, boy, why do you use your mom for such horrible things? You have so much you can do. You could sing spiritual songs and do wonderful things.” I said, “I know, Mr. Heinz, you’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t do that. ‘Lord, I love you, Jesus. Help me, Lord. I love you so much. Oh, help me, Lord. I know I was wrong, but I’ll do it right next time.” [laugh].
So then he give me about a dollar or two worth of change. That’s what I needed to do what I needed to do. You know, the guitars still going a few blocks away. I told my friend, “Okay, I’ll give you a quarter if you’ll walk me across the street over to where we hear this music, and we’ll get some candy.” So we got some candy and we walked over there and there I was.
There was Curtis Truso (sp) and John Glover who were on the front porch playing guitar. I had my little bongos and that’s how it all began. John Glover’s mother, you know, the family was Ronnie White, the late Ronnie White of The Miracles. Ronnie really heard me when they were off tour and worked it out for me to go to Motown to audition.
That’s really how it began and it’s just amazing when I think about that because I think how many nights I would pray that we had a refrigerator, that we had a stove, how many nights I would pray that my momma would hit the numbers [laugh].
Tavis: It sounds like looking back on “when I” [laugh].
Wonder: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, I always wanted my mother to be Queen for a Day. I always used to watch that show that came on television. To think that, in our lifetime, I was blessed to be able to do things for the family and to be Motown, you know, all the things that we experienced. Like right now, just a split second from now, they will just be memories in our minds.
But to have a place where you have many blessings that you can remember, and as much as they are no longer tangible, they’re so deeply imbedded intangibly in our minds that we can remember and just thank God for them. That’s what I do. So that’s what I feel. I mean, I never imagined I’d meet Berry Gordy who told me when he first heard me sing, “You know, your singing’s okay, but I like your harmonica playing better.”
Tavis: Speaking of your beloved mother, the word on the street – the word on the street [playing notes]. Uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, I like it – the word on the street is that you’re working on a gospel record maybe? Is that true?
Wonder: Yeah, I am. It’s gonna be called “Gospel Inspired by Lula.” My mother’s name was Lula, Lula Mae.
Tavis: There’s Lula Mae.
Wonder: Yeah. Boy, so many weapons. I was so bad. Out of control. So glad I turned out to be a nice guy [laugh]. I do believe in women. I really do.
Tavis: [Laugh] For yourself or for your kids?
Wonder: Oh, my kids, no [laugh]. I will blind-handle them in a minute [laugh]. Believe it. That would be a yes.
Tavis: How does a kid like Stevie Wonder – how do you get in trouble –
Wonder: – I didn’t see me doing it, officer [laugh].
Tavis: [Laugh} I was gonna say how does a kid who can’t even see get himself in trouble, Stevie? What would you be getting whupped for? You couldn’t even see how to get into trouble.
Wonder: Come on, you know. Blind don’t mean you can’t, you know, listen. You know, I have seven children, so I guess I know some things about life.
Tavis: [Laugh] I guess you figured it out, yeah.
Wonder: Yeah. I mean, you know, my thing was always trying to do as much as I possibly could do. I wanted to do all the things the other kids did in the neighborhood. So as many things as I could do, I did, and some of those things I shouldn’t have done, I did. I mean, there was this thing – you did the wax, you’d put your hand in this wax and you’d make hands out of that. I did that. The other kid got burnt, but I didn’t get burnt [laugh]. Ain’t none of my blood.
Tavis: You were playing the chord a moment ago to the lyric we all know so well, “Looking back on when I was a little nappy-headed boy.” Tell me how and when – and I think about “Isn’t she lovely?”. Tell me about the process of putting your own life into your lyrical content. You talk about growing up in Detroit in that song, you dedicate another song to your daughter who now sings background with you. I mean, how do you pull your own life into your lyric?
Wonder: I think pulling my life into it really is pulling everyone’s life into it that can relate to that experience. Before Aisha was born, when she was in, you know, in Yolanda’s stomach, I believed that our child was gonna be a girl. Yolanda thought it was gonna be a boy. I was right! But I started working on, you know, [singing] “Isn’t she lovely? Isn’t she wonderful?”
Tavis: Less than a minute old. I can’t believe.
Wonder: [Singing] “I can’t believe –
Tavis: – what God has done.
Wonder: [Singing] “what God has done.”
Tavis: To us, He’s given life to one.
Wonder: [Singing] “to us, He’s given life to one.”
Tavis: Ah, isn’t she lovely?
Wonder: [Singing] “Isn’t she lovely –
Tavis: – made from love.
Wonder: [Singing] “made from love.”
Tavis: “bopita, bopita, bopita, bump.” There you go [laugh].
Wonder: He’s just trying to write a song in here, you know.
Tavis: [Laugh] But I don’t know why you put your life into that, though.
Wonder: Because, I mean, I was just so excited about the fact that I was gonna have my first, you know, child. It was just exciting. I was playing this which we called the Dream Machine. It was myself and Greg Phillinganes who was sitting on this thing –
Tavis: – great keyboardist.
Wonder: We were just playing. He was playing the top or bottom. I was playing the other part and we had the rhythm machine going and I just kept playing that melody and it just felt like isn’t she lovely is what the song should say. I don’t know. I was just really, really excited. Then, obviously, we found out, you know, that it was going to be a girl. Outside of the fact that I won, you know, the bet, it was just a wonderful moment.
So I just took that moment that I felt and, when I sat down to really write words to it, I just tried to put together as best I could the experience that I had had and how I felt. Even today when I hear the song, you know, I think of those things. The exciting thing about a songwriter is that, you know, particularly if you’re a songwriter and an artist and you play the parts and you’re producing it and all that, you have various times you have to critique what you do.
When I wrote the words and I have the music, I felt, wow, you know, this has got to be right. I got to sing it right. So I just sort of took every single emotion that I felt from the moment that I did the melody and the chords when I wrote the lyrics and then when I sang it again, that was another emotion. Then when I was mixing it down was another emotion and, obviously, when I heard it on the radio for the first time, I like, okay, I cried, I cried.
Tavis: [Laugh] And every time I see you, which has been countless times, as you know, and Aisha stands next to you and sings with you, it brings me to tears every time I see that, to see that she’s grown up now and singing with you on the song that you wrote for her when she was in her mama’s belly.
Wonder: And to think that, you know, that song – I mean, there are other songs, obviously, by other songwriters that people can say, you know, I named my child after this song or she or he was born when this song was out. I’m sure, you know, the mothers as well and the fathers felt when they had their son, isn’t he lovely? Again, it’s that place of being loved. You have to be that.
Can you imagine how incredible the world would be? Let’s just start at this nation. If we could come together and say, listen, we have differences, but, listen. Don’t let our differences cause us to spew out hate and negativity and evil things. I mean, it’s okay to have an opinion. You know what opinions are like.
Tavis: Um-hum. Everybody’s got one [laugh].
Wonder: Exactly. So it’s okay to have an opinion, but don’t spew out hate. You know, sometimes I’m very disappointed at some of the people in our family of communicators, whether it be a songwriter or a rapper that’s always talking about negativity or a singer or a columnist or a network that basically gets off on just trying to create the negative.
I think, if we can inspire everyone and encourage them to do the very best that they can, consequently meaning all of us, then we can move forward. Can you imagine the miracles that would happen?
Tavis: Here’s what makes me revel in your genius. Do you recall – and when I get in these arguments about Stevie Wonder being greater than everybody else, this is the card that I throw down on the table. We give these to baseball. Who’s the greatest? Do you recall how old you were when you wrote “Songs in the Key of Life”?
Wonder: When I started writing it?
Tavis: Yes. How old were you when you started writing “Songs in the Key of Life”?
Wonder: I was, what, 25.
Tavis: Exactly. How do you write “Songs in the Key of Life” at the age of 25, Stevie? That’s the coldest thing ever.
Wonder: Well, you’ve got to remember that 25 is a great time because, you know, you’re passed that 21 thing and it’s a high point, a high peak, in life where you’re old enough to say what you have discovered, but you’re still open to discovering more. I think that’s kind of the great thing about, you know, that age.
I mean, unfortunately, we have warring in the world, so the youngest minds, the brilliant minds, are sent off to war. I think that, you know, you have brilliant people with great possibilities and that’s why I really am not really for war. I really am not.
I hope as well that I can get with whatever, you know, whatever leader there may be, whether it be in Iran or whether it be in North Korea, whether it be in South Korea or wherever, and just say, “Look, we have a choice in life. We can perpetuate life and make this world the greatest place as it is meant to be, this world, or we can destroy it. Let’s find a way where we can sit down at the table and really talk it out and work it out.”
Because, you see, here my view is that here’s how incredible to me God is. If you think of every single continent there is, on every continent, there is something, a natural resource that every continent has, or sources, that they can really survive with that, or they can trade with that. But a lot of the developed nations have taken those things from those places and have claimed it and, therefore, they’re dependent on those other nations.
But we have it all. We can really do it all. I think if we could just allow everyone to do and use what they have to trade and really make their nations greater and better, as well as us coming together to say, hey, there’s enough for everyone.
When I talk about “if it’s magic,” I’m saying if it’s magic, then why can’t it be everlasting? Like “Lifetime in the sun, leave no heart undone, ’cause there’s enough for everyone.” I’m talking about love, but love is life and everything that has been created on this planet is a part of that. It’s a chain of that same love that I’m talking about. Am I going too deep?
Tavis: No, no, no. I love it, I love it. I was in Africa some years ago with our dear friend, Dr. Maya Angelou, and we were the guests of the then president, Jerry John Rawlings. President Rawlings was telling Dr. Maya Angelou and I over dinner one night a story that – I mean, I didn’t want to call the president of the country a liar to his face.
Wonder: Don’t do that.
Tavis: You know where I’m going, right?
Wonder: Don’t do it.
Tavis: [Laugh] But I got up –
Wonder: – you’re gonna sit at my table.
Tavis: I got up out of my chair saying, “Mr. President, you cannot be serious about this.”
Wonder: I did.
Tavis: Is it true? Is it true? Jerry John Rawlings, the president of Ghana, told me that he taught Stevie Wonder how to fly a plane. Stevie flew the plane and landed the plane and you’re telling me that’s true?
Wonder: I can say that the former president of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, showed me where everything was in the plane and I said, “I want to fly this.” There was a French crew on the plane and I think they started speaking everything French backwards. But we took off in the plane and I flew it and I landed the plane and it was incredible. It was amazing. It was a smooth landing, but you got to remember something. I was on that plane, so did I want to hurt me? [laugh]
Tavis: [Laugh] That plane was gonna have a smooth landing one way or the other.
Wonder: Oh, yeah. It was fun. It was an amazing experience. I didn’t tell, but my teacher, Ted Hull, when I was a little boy like about 13 or 14, we had to fly a couple times in a private plane from New York to Detroit and once from Detroit to New York and then New York to Chicago. He let me fly the plane because he was sort of an amateur pilot himself. He was partially sighted, but we worked it out. We didn’t run into nothing, not even bad weather.
Tavis: Let me take you back. I got three or four minutes. Let me take you back to your hometown right quick to Motown. I had a brief conversation the other day with our friend, the queen. Speaking of the queen, Aretha Franklin, and without going into the health challenge that she faces now, your thoughts about Aretha?
Wonder: I love Aretha and I’ve loved her all my life. I think she’s an incredible songstress, obviously. She consistently has had this incredible voice. I remember when she was singing gospel in her father’s church.
Tavis: New Bethel.
Wonder: I was very, very little then, but I remember hearing her over the radio in Detroit and when she came up with some of the albums before she signed with Atlantic. I remember those, and I’m just believing again that, if we can get people to stop putting the negative out there and, if they write something or talk about something, let’s write and talk about something that would be encouraging and inspiring to her. Let’s, however way we do it, for those all over the world, pray or chant or whatever you do, meditate, let’s meditate, pray or chant on her getting well.
I’m believing that miracles and blessings still exist and, if we do that, we will see that. I say the same for anyone who’s dealing with any sort of, you know, challenge in life, illness in life. I say it for Michael Douglas, I say it for anyone. If we begin to stop spewing the negative and really move into using our voices and our pens and our abilities that we have to reach millions of people to the positive, we can make a difference in the world.
Tavis: I’m gonna close this conversation where I began, the thing that I know is most important to you, the babies. So in your own words, we’ll give you the final thoughts about the House Full of Toys this year.
Wonder: I really want to see everyone there. We have some more tickets that we need to sell and you all need to buy them. It’s very simple.
Tavis: [Laugh] We got tickets to sell and you all need to buy them. It’s very simple [laugh].
Wonder: It’s a House Full of Toys, the 15th annual House Full of Toys. The proceeds will go to buying toys for the young children as well as some of the older young people that deserve to celebrate this day with being given something by those of us who are fortunate enough to do it. It’s just that simple. So handle it! I love you and I’ll see you there.
Tavis: So you’re gonna play me out while I say goodnight?
Wonder: What do you want me to do?
Tavis: Whatever. How can Stevie Wonder play you out?
Wonder: [Singing]
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight with Stevie Wonder.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm