RATW talks to Stevie Wonder at the peak of his musical powers. His most recent album, "Songs in the Key of Life, " went platinum before it was released. "Looking Back, " a three record collection of Stevie Wonder tunes before "Key of Life, " will be released this month. Still a young man, he shows no signs of slowing down his musical march to excellence, and although his name becomes repetitive at award banquets, the ever increasing creativity of his musical life is certainly something to celebrate. We decided to ask Stevie to select a few favorites from among his best songs and weigh them as keys to a life fulfilled with superlative music.
We're all interested in the story of Stevie Wonder, but when did your musical life begin?
In 1971 I moved to New York, but in between Saginaw, Michigan, where I was born on May 13, 1950, and New York is when the musical life of Stevie Wonder began. Through a very close friend of mine, whom I grew up with, I had the pleasure of meeting Ronnie White of the Miracles. My friend, John Glover, was a cousin of Ronnie White. Ronnie asked if I sang. I said yes. John and I had formed a group called "Steve and John." I would play bongos and John played guitar. I'd sing and John would play and do some of the harmonies with me.
What kind of things were you singing then?
We did a lot of the songs of the fifties and sixties. We did "Once Upon A Time" and "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" This was before Stevie Wonder ' . . . This was Stephen Morris, which is my real name. We sang around Detroit. We did "Stairway To Heaven." We used to do "She's Not A Bad Girl," a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song. And we did another Smokey song, "My Momma Told Me to Leave Those Girls Alone." I used to love to do the imitations of Jackie Wilson, and it was crazy because when I became aware of how Jackie Wilson performed, heard he was a very exciting performer--you know--I used to do all kinds of flips and stuff. I was about nine or ten years old then. And I remember the first Marvin Gaye song I heard was called "Mister Sandman." I used to do "Mr. Sandman," mocking Marvin and I was so excited meeting him and auditioning for Motown and meeting some of the very fine talents that I had been able to hear through records.
These were real influences?
Yes, the Staple Singers -- I used to listen to a lot of the gospel music they did. I listened to as much and as many different kinds of music as possible. The radio was one of the best friends.
Tell me, of all the Stevie Wonder songs, are there some that you listen to and say, "Hey, that one was really exceptional?"
I couldn't believe, for instance, that Ray Charles received an award from a song I wrote, "Living for the City." I still can't believe it. That song was all right but, I mean, he deserves something even better than that. I feel that there will never ever be an award great enough to give Ray Charles. He's opened the door, so many hearts . . . I really feel that .
On the album, "Songs in the Key of Life, " a song called "Kikulaela" in Zulu ... Zulu's a language in the southern part of Africa. And it says, "Kikulaela," which is, "I am singing." "Kikulaela ... egufsasa kea kula ungo tando . . . kea kula iling e langa utando lia busa tika lae le quile shaba wa tu," which says, "I am singing of tomorrow, I am singing of love. I am singing that some day love will reign throughout this world of ours. I am singing of love from my heart."
What else from among your best?
I think "Visions," "I Was Made to Love Her," which kind of speaks of my first love to a girl named Angie, who was a very beautiful woman. She's married now. Actually, she was my third girlfriend but my first love. I used to call Angie up and, like, we would talk and say, "I love you, I love you," and we'd talk and we'd both go to sleep on the phone. And this was like from Detroit to California, right? You know, mother said, "Boy, what you doing --get off the phone!" Boy, I tell you, it was ridiculous . . .
Are there any other favorites that come to mind?
"Signed, Sealed, Delivered"--I had fun doing that. "Superstition's" my tune and "Living for the City." I guess the "Talking Book " album and the "Inner Visions" album. One of my favorite songs on this album is "If It's Magic" and "As." I think the words to "As" are the best words that I've ever written.
"Songs in the Key of Life" has been one of those albums that will be remembered in music history -- one of the albums that people waited for with a tremendous degree of interest. It's a statement about your sense of perfection as an artist, not releasing anything until you're totally pleased with it. Are there any other reasons why it was so long in productions?
That's really the reason why. I get into a thing sometimes where I want to give the public the latest thought, the latest feeling that I have experienced. And that gets into time, again, and the material. I have to make sure that I'm completely satisfied with the material. The title of the album is "Songs in the Key Of Life." That is a very broad statement. And I think if I can just accomplish one fraction of an iota of that, dealing with life, my life, and the lives of the people who hear the album, Il be very happy. We are doing some different things.
Are there any disadvantages to being Stevie Wonder, to be internationally famous? Anything about that you don't dig?
Well, I look at it like this. I knew what the job was before I took it, you know? An artist knows what the job is before he takes it, so you have to hash out all those things in your mind amid the excitement that you're feeling when someone says, "How would you like to sign on this dotted line here, sonny?" I mean, you know that you're going to have moments when there will be personal things that deal with just your personal life that are significant only to yourself. You still have to face the audience and do the performance. But as much as possible, if you realize that being yourself is being the artist that you are, then who you are pretty much comes from what you are as a person. Do you follow me?
Stevie, how would you like people to remember you? How would you like to be thought of?
Well, I hope in the coming years to do a book about myself. There have been people that have set out to write different things about Stevie Wonder in book form. But I believe that the book that I will write will speak of things that many people don't know about, and definitely would not know about if they have not heard any of my music. But my music actually speaks closer to me than anything I could ever do. If you listen to the songs I've written, or to the songs of others I record, you will hear how I feel. I guess it's the deepest me. Sometimes I feel that the people who listen to my music, or the fans that I have, are closer to me than some of the people who are my close acquaintances or friends. And that's why it's so important to me to give you all that I'm feeling.