Growin' Up Together: Stevie Wonder

Written by WL Woodward

I remember vividly the first time I heard ‘Sir Duke’ from Songs in the Key of Life.  It was the fall of 1976 and I was driving across the bridge between Windsor Locks and Warehouse Point over the Connecticut River.  There is still a bridge there, but the old bridge has been replaced with a flat ugly highway bridge.  This bridge was one of those riveted steel span jobs.  If you walked across it you could feel it sway with the cars.  That’ll keep yer feet moving.

Wait…  That be the old girl herself!  The walkway to the right was a trip.  Luckily there weren’t shit in Warehouse Point or Windsor Locks for that matter, so we didn’t have much reason to brave it.  Also Windsor Locks at the time had a population of about 12.  My Mom was born there and she knew every S&H Green Stamp-carrying member of the Guard.  You had to cross that bridge without someone seeing you, because they WOULD call your mom.  If you were crossing that bridge you were ‘up to no good’.  And if you were smoking a cigarette, you’d end up chained to a cold steel pole in the basement.  That was the story anyway.

The Connecticut River at this point moves so fast, and was by the late 1700’s such a major thoroughfare, that in 1827 400 Irish workers were hired to build locks just north of the old town of Windsor to bypass the temper tantrums of that section of the river.  Hence the town where those locks resided was named Windsor Locks.  They were an imaginative bunch back then.  I bet if you asked those Irish workers they had a much different name.   By the way, I’m half Irish and so was almost every kid I grew up with.  Just sayin’.

But in the fall of 1976 the old bridge wasn’t keeping my feet moving.  It was a new hit on the radio, ‘Sir Duke’.  That back beat and funky horn parts with Stevie hollering was beautiful and really a revelation.  My favorite part is the bass.  But that’s a story for another time.

Stevie had always been a hitmaker, since he was like 12.  We’d heard the hits he had on the radio, and that had become a part of our generation’s lexicon like all of Motown.  But in ‘68 to ‘70 we were listening to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Mountain, Frank Zappa.  ‘My Cherie Amour’ was a great song, but that stuff was beginning to sound more like where we’d been and less like where we were going.  Yeah, the guy was a beast.  He’s sold 100 million records with 49 Top 40 hits, 34 Top 10 hits, 12 Top 10 albums, and 22 Grammys.  He owned the Grammys in the 70’s, to the point where Paul Simon, on accepting a Best Album award in 1975, thanked the usual group of monsters and moms and ended with “And I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album this year.”

It just wasn’t what we were looking for..exactly.  In 1972 (high school graduation, it’s amazing I remember anything from that year), Wonder released Talking Book.  ‘Superstition’  hit the radio and we sat up.  This was interesting.  But the same album had ‘You are the Sunshine of My Life’ Again, great song, but we sat back.  In August 1973 he brought out Innervisions and we stood up.  With stuff like ‘Higher Ground’, ‘Too High’, ‘Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing’.  And ‘Living In The City’.  Must be played LOUD.

My son in his 20’s plays in a R&B fusion band, and that song is still a staple for them.  Testament to legacy, and bringing kids up RIGHT.

A few things about the man.   Three days after the release of Innervisions, Stevie was sleeping in the passenger seat of a car traveling between gigs outside Durham NC.  The logging truck they were following hit the brakes suddenly, and their car slammed into the back of the truck.  A log broke loose and crashed through the windshield on Stevie’s side and hit him in the face.  In the face.  A log.  In the face.  He was in a coma for days, his head swollen to 5 times its size, with a lotta worried people with various agenda around him.  One was Ira Tucker the tour director.  He asked the doc if he could sing to Stevie, the first day no response.  On the next day Tucker was singing ‘Higher Ground’ into Stevie’s ear as loud as he could, and Stevie started tapping in time on Tucker’s arm.  After Stevie came to, they brought him a clavinet.   Stevie was afraid to touch it, not knowing if he still had it in him.  He did.  He lived, and we breathed.  He would be on meds for more than a year and suffered from debilitating headaches.  Right.  But the following March he made an appearance at an Elton John concert at Madison Square Garden, and he in Wondrous style moved on.

This was a kid that never let anything stand in his way.  He always knew what he wanted, and he went after it.  At 7 years old his brothers and friends used to ‘fly’ by jumping from storage shed to storage shed in a row in back of their apartments.  Stevie counted the steps and flew with them.  His Mom, Lula Mae Hardaway, an icon in her own right, let him be.  But there’s a story about his Aunt Iona coming over to watch him.  She checked the back yard, saw him flying, and nearly had a stroke.

He had his first paying gig at 8, and signed a contract with Berry Gordy and Motown when he was ten.  It was obvious to everyone who heard the kid how special he was.  Blindness had nothing to do with it.  It probably got him in some doors, and Little Stevie was not above using it.  But his talent shook loose any thought of making this kid a novelty act.  And he could play that harmonica.  He’s played on numerous albums for other people and you can always, always tell when it’s him.

In the early 80’s he took time off touring to spearhead a campaign to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.  That was accomplished when Reagan signed the bill in 1983.  Coretta King said without Stevie Wonder it wouldn’t have happened. On record and off, Stevie Wonder had become our generation’s conscience.  Surely he was no flippin’ saint, never was, and we knew it.  There are few of us saints out there.  How wonderful to be growing up together.

In 1976 Wonder released Songs in the Key of Life with Michael Sembello session guitarist extraordinaire (!!).  It won three Grammys, one for Album of the Year.  Since then every album seemed to be a milestone, an experience to listen for the message.  He performed with everybody, recorded with everybody, and makes us smile to this day.

In 1979 Wonder wrote a score for a movie The Secret Life of Plants.  He had the producer describe the visual scenes so he could translate them into sound.  The subsequent album Journey Through ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ is one of my favorites of his.  His experiments with sound here are remarkable and sometimes even Zappa-esque.

On a final note.  Let’s listen together and pray we never really grow up.

How bout a bonus?

Hey Stevie.  Thanks for hearing.

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