Interview by Barney Hoskyns
Barney recorded this interview with Stevie Wonder on March 26, 2005. You can hear the full conversation at Rock’s Backpages .
The Animated Transcript
Barney Hoskyns is an author and is the editorial director of Rock’s Backpages, the online library of pop writing.
When I come to England, we got to get together and go to a pub, have some drinks. Definitely.
Going to a pub with Stevie Wonder sounds good to me.
“Hey, mate, are you, Stevie Wonder? Hey, Stevie Wonder, tell me how many fingers I got up? If you’re Stevie Wonder, you can tell me how many fingers I got up.”
“See I knew you weren’t Stevie Wonder, you weren’t supposed to tell me that.”
I remember hearing an album by Sam Cooke. [singing] I think melodies are like, you know, angels from heaven expressing a place for the heart to follow. [singing] I think, also, I think the voice has a lot to do with your spirit. I think if your spirit feels right, then the voice will stay pretty consistently the same from that point of maturity. [signing] Ya’ll gotta be quiet or don’t talk that loud.
This sort of fun you have is it the same way that you behave when you were like little Stevie when you were like 12 years old.
Oh, yeah. I’m going to always feel that way.
Were you like that on the bus during the kind of Motown tours and revues?
I’m probably worse now. You know, in America if African Americans we say for our hair, if your hair is real coarse so you call it nappy, you know, “You got nappy hair.” So I remember once I woke up one time, I was asleep on the bus and The Temptations were there. I don’t know, I was half asleep, I said, “Oh, my hair hurts me!” [laughs] He says, “What?” I think it was Paul Williams said, “You’re hair is so nappy, it hurts. Your hair that hurts you. Your hair is hurting you.” So they used to call me Nappy Wonder.
Looking back on when you were a little nappy headed boy, what were the things that got you through the hardships of your childhood?
I think that I really didn’t understand the severity of the situation or the circumstances. I think I was so in love with my mother, and my brothers, my sister, my friends, and just in love with the discovery of life itself that my focus was not on those things. I think I discovered a whole thing of color when I went down south once when my grandmother passed away. There were some kids, white kids that lived nearby or whatever. The kids said, “Hey, nigger!” Whatever they said.
Had you heard that word before?
I think I may have heard it, but I said, “What, I’m from Detroit.” I started throwing rocks over. “Oh you better not do that, you’ll get into trouble.” I said, “I don’t care.” I hit the kid, I kept throwing stuff. I just… I have never accepted stupidity and ignorance as making me then determine how good I was or how less I was.
Since I can best remember, I’ve had a great relationship with God. For me, God was like a father. It was always someone that I could touch and that he had me in his arms. I always felt that way. I always felt that God was about good but for instance, when I was in church, I was in a Pentecostal church as a little boy, and back then it was a little different than now. They said, “You’re singing that worldly music.” They were criticizing what I was doing. Listen, we live in a society where black music one time it was called race music, where jazz was considered something nasty. I don’t know. I felt that if God didn’t want me to sing it, he wouldn’t have given me the talent to do it.
What is your final deadline for this record? Are you days away from finishing?
We are hopefully days away, yes. Hopefully days away but creativity overrules punctuality. It’s like if you have an article you have to do, you try your best to do it. When it’s not happening, you turn it in, you’re not happy with the article that you’ve written.
Then you spend the rest of your life kicking yourself in the ass. As they say in England, “kicking yourself in your arse.”
Oh, they say behind. I’m sorry. (LAUGHS)
Motown’s Child Prodigy
Stevie Wonder has been in show business virtually his entire life. Berry Gordy signed the preternaturally gifted, multi-instrumentalist to Motown imprint Tamla Records in 1961. Stevie was just 11 years old. The Motown label itself had only been around for a couple of years and Stevie grew with the label, developing alongside talents like Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson.
Ronnie White of The Miracles brought this young man in to audition for me one day. He was blind and shy and only 11 years old, but he played the piano like nothing I had ever heard.
Bet You Didn’t Know #1
Stevie Wonder, now age 66, still holds the title of youngest solo artist to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 with the single “Fingertips Part 2” in 1963. He was 13 years old. It was also the first live recording to top the chart. And the drummer in Stevie’s backing band? A young Marvin Gaye.
Wonder Covers Dylan
Songs in the Key of Life
Wonder always had a steady output of music and albums, but his greatest stretch of creative genius may have been the 1970’s. It all began with the release of Music of My Mind (1972), followed by Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), and Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), culminating with Songs in the Key of Life (1976). Many consider Wonder’s 1976 release one of the greatest albums ever made and while that’s arguable, it certainly is a masterpiece of technical skill, showing off Wonder’s abilities as a producer and multi-instrumentalist. It’s a big, sweeping album that dips into genres from African to latin to jazz and embraces topics like race, politics, family, and fatherhood.
I’ll just leave this here for you:
Bet You Didn’t Know #2:
Stevie Wonder led the campaign to have Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday.
The idea to have the slain civil rights leader’s birthday recognized as a holiday was proposed before King’s funeral had even taken place. Congressman John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, introduced a bill proposing the national holiday just four days after the assassination, but it languished in Congress for years because of opposition from conservatives.
With the bill stalled in Congress, Wonder dedicated himself to raising awareness and support for the holiday. In 1979 he embarked on a tour that would culminate in a rally on the National Mall in Washington DC to celebrate King’s birthday. The sold out tour featured Stevie’s famous friends, including Michael Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron, Diana Ross, and Carlos Santana. The finale in Washington DC brought out a crowd of 100,000.
Wonder also wrote the song”Happy Birthday” in memory of King. The song was included on his 1981 album Hotter Than July. Then in 1982, Wonder and Coretta Scott King delivered a petition with over six million signatures in support of Martin Luther King Day to the Speaker of the House.
A year later Congress passed the bill and President Ronald Reagan finally signed the holiday into law in 1983.
Want to know more? There’s here’s a great article about the 15-year fight for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Sing-A-Long with Stevie
Wonder and James Corden jam out to “Superstition” and serenade James’ wife on Carpool Karaoke.
“I Wish” Stevie Wonder
“Funksville” Paul Lenart, Larry Luddecke
“I Need A Love” Paul Lenart, Larry Luddecke