Singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder

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n the first of a two-part conversation, the music icon talks about advocating for people with disabilities and giving back and shares a few backstories of the lyrics and titles of some of his hit songs.

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.


[Stevie Wonder, on harmonica, jams with the “Tavis Smiley Show” theme music.]
Tavis: Now, I ain’t got to pay you a royalty for that, do I?
Stevie Wonder: I was going to say, “Royalty.” (Laughter) I was going to say, “Payback.” The big payback. So how you been?
Tavis: Yeah. Over the course of these seven seasons on PBS, I have had the honor of sitting across from so many people of note, and as we near the end of another season here I think I can safely say that it doesn’t get much bigger or better than tonight – the incomparable Stevie Wonder.
On December 18th at the Nokia Theater here in downtown L.A. he’s staging his annual House Full of Toys benefit concert. This year marks the 15th anniversary of this tremendous charity and features an all-star lineup of artists. Tickets are going fast, but there are still some good seats available.
Stevie Wonder, an honor to have you on this program, sir.
Wonder: How you been doing, by the way?
Tavis: You doing all right, man?
Wonder: Good to see you?
Tavis: You been all right?
Wonder: I’m good.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Wonder: I’m good.
Tavis: Fifteen years of doing this. Does it feel like 15 years?
Wonder: Each time feels like the first time, and I think that’s because I’m always so excited to again do this and try to do it till the wheels fall off – just make it really incredible. Thanks to all the various people that have participated throughout the years, we’ve had some really, really great talent, great people just working with keeping it together.
The Nokia Theater is where we’ve done it for the last, what, three or four years, and it’s been nice. It’s been a very wonderful thing, just this time of year where we can go and we’ve been giving every single year to the Junior Blind of America $50,000 each year.
But it’s to really make sure that every child, young person, but not just young people but even the teenagers and those who are about to go to college will get those things that they would love to have for Christmas, to be able to enjoy themselves, as well as do something great to help them with whatever they’re doing in their lives.
So we’re open for computers and all the latest technology. We plan to give away some of the iPhones and the iPod touches.
Tavis: iPhones, iPads.
Wonder: Yeah, because you probably know this – the incredible thing about the technology that exists on the iPad, the iPod Touches and the iPhone is one that makes it accessible to those who are blind or deaf, and the iPhone and the iPad as well, the screen has this technology in it, an app that makes it give voice feedback.
So whenever you touch a particular part of the screen it will let you know audibly where you are. That’s just an incredible thing. Obviously, congratulate Steve Jobs (laughter) for what he’s done with that – hey, Steve. But it’s an incredible thing because through voiceover you’re able to know exactly where you are on the screen and be able to navigate yourself no different than you looking at the screen.
Tavis: You’ve said a number of things I want to go back and pick up; two things in particular, Stevie.
Wonder: I just started talking, right?
Tavis: No, no, you –
Wonder: We’re having a little conversation.
Tavis: You’re doing your thing.
Wonder: Like two friends just talking, like we do.
Tavis: Like we always do, like we always do.
Wonder: Yeah, yeah, you. (Laughter)
Tavis: Two things that I want to ask you, though, that you just said. In no particular order, one – and you’ve just touched on it just a little bit – in your lifetime, grade for me on your own scale the progress that we have made, or the lack thereof, for persons who are blind in our society. How far have we come just in your lifetime, and are you happy with the progress?
Wonder: Well, I’m happy that there have been those that have stepped forward and said listen, let’s make a difference. Let’s do something so that the blind and the deaf, those who are paraplegic, quadriplegic, anyone who has a physical disability, can be able to navigate –
Tavis: Navigate.
Wonder: – navigate themselves through –
Tavis: Imagine that – I just gave Stevie Wonder a lyric.
Wonder: Navigate.
Tavis: I’m writing for Stevie.
Wonder: You’re incredible. (Laughter) But you get no writer’s credit. (Laughter) No, but to navigate themselves through anything technologically as well as just through the world, and just to speak on that for a moment before I answer it completely, I recently became a Messenger of Peace for the United Nations and what I do is go around the world and encourage people to make the world more accessible for those who have a physical disability.
Because in actuality, it’s only a disability because the world has not made those things or places accessible, and I’m excited when I hear about the technology that’s happening with different – whether it be apparatuses for those who are paraplegic or quadriplegic, I’m excited when there are breakthroughs for those who are deaf, for those who are blind, whatever, but even those who are just dealing with some medical conditions that cause a kind of disability.
I’m always excited when those things happen, but do I think on a grade of from one to 10, 10 being the best, that we’ve reached even a halfway mark? No, I don’t. The reason I don’t think we have is because I think that people, because they have what they do have, their abilities to naturally do those things, it doesn’t really hit them until something happens where they can’t.
So I think that it does take a combination of obviously the minds that can come up with this technology, but as well it takes people, when the legislation comes to their state, to really vote yes on those things that would make the world more accessible or make this country have accessibility all over.
My goal is hopefully under this administration that I can encourage the various people in the Congress and Senate to – and obviously our great president – to really make this country be the first completely accessible country for anyone with whatever physical disability they may have. I don’t think that’s too difficult. I think it just means that we have to be committed.
Tavis: You mentioned President Obama. Do me a favor – I ask this in love – can you grab your instrument?
Wonder: Ask in love?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, thank you. I’m asking you –
Wonder: You’re talking about –
Tavis: L-O-V-E.
Wonder: You want me to sing – you want me to sing like the president?
Tavis: No, not like the president. I want to ask you a question about the president.
Wonder: Okay.
Tavis: But since I’m going to ask you about Obama, you got to give me a little bit of your song that Obama made his song when he ran.
Wonder: Oh, you mean “Signed, Sealed, Delivered?”
Tavis: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” I’m yours.
Wonder: We might have to start with something a little easier. (Laughter) I’ve got to warm my throat up. My throat is a little (unintelligible).
Tavis: Okay, well, you start with what you want to start here. Give me something, and then I’ll ask you an Obama question.
[Begin musical performance.]
Wonder: (Singing)
Tavis: I’ll take that.
Wonder: (Singing)
(Speaking) I got a cold, but so what? (Laughter) (Singing)
[End musical performance.]
Tavis: Mm. And that’s just Stevie warming up. That’s Stevie in warm-up mode? (Laughs) That’s warm-up mode, man?
Wonder: Just working it out. (Laughter)
Tavis: So back to Obama. As I said earlier, we all know “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” the song he took, your song, made it his campaign theme song, so how do you think President Obama is doing now?
Wonder: I think that considering that we, for the previous eight years, we have a lot to talk about that did happen under the previous administration. People complain about, okay, so we’re in this place now, it didn’t happen overnight. So I think no different then losing weight, you get a little fat, (laughter) you’ve got to work it off; you’ve got to work it out.
So I think that he’s doing great considering what he was confronted with when he came to office.
Tavis: There are a lot of people, as you know, and I say this respectfully, a growing chorus – nobody is more in touch than you are. Your blindness does not keep you from being in touch with everything in the world.
Wonder: I would hope not.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly. (Laughs) So you know this as well as I do, that progressives are getting a little – and I’m being kind here – a little restless with this president, thinking that he is not being progressive enough, mad at him about this Bush tax cut deal, mad at him about giving up on the public option for healthcare, mad at him for not moving fast about gays and lesbians.
Wonder: Can I be honest with you? Can I be honest with you?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Wonder: Honestly, I think a lot of people are mad at him because he’s a Black man.
Tavis: Okay – you said it.
Wonder: I think that I can say that seeing nobody, I just keep it real with everybody. I think that first of all, people have to get beyond their insecurities, their fears, and they have to understand that we have to become a united people of the United States of America. We can’t just be hung up on things that have nothing to do with what we’re dealing with.
If we can still, even though we know how crazy it was those last eight years, we embrace President Bush, former president, a lot more warmer than our president, Obama. I think that people have –
Tavis: Wait, wait, wait, hold, hold on, Stevie, hold on, Stevie, hold on, Steveland Morris. You honestly believe –
Wonder: I think that people –
Tavis: Bush left town with a 22 percent approval rating, Stevie.
Wonder: I’m just – I’m just telling you that the approach – I’m not talking about what he may have done and how he left. I’m just saying to you – you have people being very disrespectful, far more than ever I’ve heard before.
Tavis: I’m with you on that.
Wonder: So I think that people have to really –
Tavis: More death threats than ever before.
Wonder: Yeah. I think that people have to get beyond their prejudices and just deal with where we are as a nation and support our president. I don’t care if he was purple, red, green, orange, whatever that is. I think that we have to get beyond the color barrier and say listen – it’s almost like this.
It’s like this – it’s like some people – I’ve heard people say this – “Okay, we elected this guy. Okay, now.” (Laughter) “All right, now, it should be done.” Or you’ve got those who said, “Yeah, he’s going to mess up.” Just craziness. Obviously we are in a place of a few challenges. We have wars, we have countries taking positions.
My concern is that to some degree I feel that we are just too divided as a nation, is what I feel. I think that we started off with the spirit of okay, we’re going to reach out to make a new nation, united for everyone, and it’s gotten into some craziness.
How do we have someone saying, “We want to take our country back?” From who? (Laughter) Who we taking it back from? So the reality is it’s okay to disagree. I’ve got my feelings on certain things that we’re confronted with and what the president is doing, but I think respectfully, I’m open to giving a chance to a new approach, a new way.
I think that either way you would have looked at it, they would have complained. If we hadn’t have done this – you’ve got people complaining all the time. We’re complaining about healthcare. Come on, how can we complain about healthcare? How can we do that? I think that we need to have healthcare. I think that it’s overdue, and I think that obviously, yes, we need jobs as well.
But there has to be some kind of place of compromise because we have people that say, “Okay, listen – we’re not going to do anything unless you do this.” What is he supposed to do?
I think either way you look at it, people are going to complain about whatever he would have done.
Tavis: We agree on that.
Wonder: So I think we are in a place where we have to find the best approach. I think that people, even some of those in his own party, took crazy positions. You have to be together on things, and I think you have to get beyond people’s insecurities and their fears.
Tavis: Speaking of getting beyond people’s insecurities and fears, we have the first African American president. Hillary Clinton made a good run at being the first woman as president. In my lifetime, the last person who ran for president who had a shot at it who had a visible physical disability was Bob Dole, with his arm.
FDR, of course, famously disabled, but hid it from the public back then; hid his being in the wheelchair, hid his polio.
Wonder: Are you trying to find out would I want to run for president?
Tavis: Yes, that’s what I want to know. Does Stevie Wonder want to be president, and how long will it be before someone with a visible physical disability could convince the American people that they’re competent to be president? A Black man’s done it, what about the disabled?
Wonder: I think that the key is that we have to do and be what is on my jacket here. We have to be love, and I think that if we look at life in the spirit of it being for the good of everyone, then we can move forward.
Why not have a person who’s with a physical disability? Why not, as long as it doesn’t affect their mind. I think that the mind-set has to be really that we want to have greatness for our nation. We want to have a president that is about a united people of the United States of America. Listen, united we’ll stand, divided, we will fall. It’s just that simple.
Tavis: I’ll take that. I’ll take that. You’re such an iconic artist around the world. What does it mean, though, when this person running for president, historic person running for president, Barack Obama, chooses your song as his theme song?
They got married, as we all now know, Barack and Michelle Obama got married to “You and I.” So they’re huge Stevie Wonder fans, but they chose your song to usher themselves into this historic win and to the White House.
You’ve been honored, you’ve received every honor around the world, but what’s that feel like, though? Does that mean anything to you?
Wonder: I just feel thankful. I thank God for the fact that he has used me as a vehicle through which things have happened. My mother was the one who really came up with the title, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”
Tavis: That’s your mama?
Wonder: That was my mama’s thing.
Tavis: What?
Wonder: I was singing a thing (hums and plays). (Singing) Ooh, baby. (Hums) (Laughter) (Speaking) I guess she thought I said, “I’m yours,” and she said, “Wait a minute – you should say, “Ooh, here I am, signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours.” I was like, “Really, Ma?” (Laughter) “Yeah.” So it was wonderful.
Tavis: Wow.
Wonder: I’m glad she came down to the basement to give me that. (Laughter)
Tavis: Does stuff like that happen for you consistently, or are there interesting, strange stories off how you come up with these titles and these lyrics?
Wonder: Yeah. I think that for me – shall I put this down or keep it up here?
Tavis: Whatever you’re comfortable with.
Wonder: You might want me to do another song.
Tavis: Yeah, I want you to do another song. I want you to do a whole bunch of songs. (Laughs)
Wonder: I think in that I write the music and the melody first, and I might have an idea in my mind, but I’m always open to seeing what happens. An example is I had this melody. (Playing keyboard) So I started singing, “Over mm, over uh, over ooh, over mm, do, do, do, do do do, do do do, do do do.” (Humming) “Over.”
(Speaking) So it ultimately became “Overjoyed,” but I was like – so I was thinking how many things can I talk about “over,” so I said, over time and over dreams (laughing). It all worked out, but it kind of started like that. I felt good about the melody, and I knew I wanted to do something that would work it out with – whoops – with over. The final one was “Overjoyed,” which was obviously the title of the song.
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.
Wonder: But that’s kind of how it happened, like that. But I feel honored, obviously, about “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” the president, and I think a couple of times it was used as various presidents who were running. I mean, as a politician, (laughter) it feels like it could be maybe the right kind of song. Sign, seal and deliver me to the White House. Come on. (Laughter) I love that concept.
Tavis: It’s a great concept. How is it that love – when you think Stevie Wonder, you think love? It’s very simple – you think Stevie, you think love. How did love end up being the lane that you run in? How did that end up being the epicenter of everything that you write, everything that you sing, everything that you do?
Certainly where your lyrical content is concerned, how did love end up being your bailiwick?
Wonder: Well, because I challenge the other side. I challenge it, because I say that really, God has told me that love will win. It will. Now, we all know, those of us who’ve been whether you want to say unfortunate enough or fortunate enough to know the other side, to know poverty, to know destruction, to know pain, it’s not like I don’t know those things. It’s not like I haven’t gone through those things.
But how unpleasant it would be for me in my life if that was my focus, if that was the thing that I use to drive me? Because it could not drive me nowhere but down.
So it’s almost like my friend who passed away some years ago, Minnie Riperton, when she was dealing with cancer, and they said, “Well, how do you feel knowing that you’re going through this and la, la, la, la, la?” She said, “Listen, some people like to think when they have a glass of wine as the glass, when they get halfway, as being half-empty.
I just like to see it as being half-full, and I’d like to see my life as being okay, there’s still so much that I will do and want to do.
So I think that it’s just about how you want to perceive it. You cannot help anyone move forward if your place is negativity or if your place is no place.
Tavis: I’m glad said the no place part, because your stuff – every lyric that you write doesn’t have to be socially redemptive, but it doesn’t have to be hate-filled, either. You could just be frivolous. You could just be talking about – your stuff could be about frivolity. You choose to say something with your lyrical content.
Wonder: Well, listen, I love having fun, too.
Tavis: I know you do.
Wonder: I wrote a song called “I’ll Be in Your Corner,” and it was, “I hear tell there’s big fun tonight on the corner of Main and Dog Meat Bite. Now, Friday night just would not be right without a red-hot party and a nasty fight. But I’ll be in your corner, I’ll be in your corner if they do.” (Laughter) Just a fun song.
Tavis: It’s pretty much impossible to capture the genius of Stevie Wonder in just 30 minutes, so join us here again tomorrow night for part two of our conversation.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm