Since the age of 12, he's been the sunshine of our musical lives. Now the 22-time Grammy winner— a true-blue living legend—talks about the music of his mind, his inner visions ("I am not a normal man"), fatherhood (seven children!), staying connected to the world—and his first album in ten years.
The stacks are what I remember—hundreds of albums, one on top of another, filling a music store window in downtown Baltimore when I was 22. On my way to work, I spotted hordes of fans gathering in anticipation of the year's hottest release, the line stretching around the corner. The year: 1976. The record: Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder, the ebullient keyboard genius who had revolutionized music.
If hits like 1966's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" and 1972's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" captured the world's attention, Songs in the Key of Life confirmed Wonder's place as a music legend. It's a success few might have predicted. The prodigy musician was born Stevland Morris in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950, the third son of Lula Mae Hardaway. (His father was estranged from the family.) In the hardscrabble housing projects of Detroit, Stevie taught himself to play a neighbor's out-of-tune piano. By 10 he had mastered the harmonica, piano, organ, and drums without taking a lesson. In 1961, when Stevie was 11, Ronnie White of the Miracles heard him perform and arranged an audition with Berry Gordy at Motown Records. Along with a record deal, Gordy gave him a stage name: Little Stevie Wonder. (The "Little" was dropped when Stevie reached 14.) In 1963 the release of the live recording Fingertips established his commercial success, with the label marketing him as the "12-year-old genius."
One recent afternoon, Stevie and I met in the Hollywood music studios he calls Wonderland—the place where he created the lyrics and tunes for his ten-years-in-the-making CD, A Time To Love . For a man who can't see, he has colorful decorating tastes: A red lava lamp sits in one corner, two red couches in another. In the control room, a monitor above the scores of knobs, meters, and lights reads "WELCOME TO THE WONDER BOX. LOVE AND PEACE. ENJOY YOUR STAY."
"I've had some incredibly triumphal things happen in my life," Stevie said, a cup of mint tea in his hand. And he has—like his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 after writing more chart-toppers than most people can name. Like the births of his seven children, ages 2 to 29. Like his recovery from a near-fatal car accident in 1973; instead of being devastated, he continued to use his music to spark change in our social awareness. He's still as much messenger as he is musician: A Time to Love is not only moving musically but also raises the challenge of coming together for a greater good.
I was incredibly energized by Stevie Wonder's presence. The child born blind, black, and broke refused to let the world define him as disabled and determined that he would step out of his history and into a better one. Fifty-four years and 22 Grammys later, he's still doing that.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Stevie Wonder
Note: This interview appeared in the May 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: When you performed at my 50th birthday party, people were on their feet, singing every word to every song. Do you think the days of your kind of music—music that touches our soul and creates memories—are finished?
Stevie: What we hear today is real music.
Oprah: Rap is real music?
Stevie: When we were growing up and listening to our music, the older people said, "That's horrible!"
Oprah: So we've become our parents?
Stevie: Well, to some degree. People who feel that way have. Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it. But the songs today reflect a different reality. We didn't grow up in a September 11 world.
Oprah: We also didn't grow up with videos. What happens to a generation bombarded with images of mansions and diamonds, Rolls-Royces, and scantily clad girls—and the idea of life as one big party?
Stevie: I hold the United States highly responsible for that. We have choices. We can decide what we'll broadcast. And let me be straight about something else: I'm appalled at how a lot of people have handled the Janet Jackson situation. I prefer seeing—you know I've got to touch something to really see it—a breast than a bunch of people sticking their tongues down each other's throats.
Oprah: You would also prefer a breast to gratuitous violence.
Stevie: Of course. And while the world focuses on Janet, you don't hear anyone talking about this: Three years from now, we have to get the president to sign [provisions of] the Voting Rights Act. [Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act forbids altering voting procedures without first proving that the changes don't discriminate against minorities. Unless it's extended, this provision will expire in 2007.] Ridiculous! Some leader should be so bold as to say, "Listen, every single American should have the right to vote. Forever."
Stevie: Without question. So the promiscuity and violence are results of what we haven't resolved as a society, as Americans. And though I love cable, especially HBO, it has brought us a genre of shows that would have never been broadcast on network television. Our children are the products of media that was once taboo.
Oprah: Can you explain how you came to be so smart, sensitive, and connected to the world without being able to see? And do you remember colors at all?
Stevie: When someone mentions a color, I associate it with my understanding of what that color is. I may have been able to see for a short time after I was born.
Oprah: Weren't you put in an incubator and given too much oxygen?
Stevie: Right—I was premature. My doctor didn't know what's known now about the right amount of oxygen, so I was given too much and an area of my eyes was destroyed. A girl who was born one minute before me actually died. She couldn't withstand that much oxygen.
Oprah: Have you ever felt bitter because of the doctor's mistake?
Stevie: No. Once when I went to Saginaw, Michigan, and visited the hospital where I was born, there was this big hoopla—they gave me a special award. I think people were scared I was planning to sue that doctor's ass. But he didn't have any intent to harm me.
Oprah: I read that when you were 5, you said to your mom, "Don't worry about me being blind, because I'm happy." True?
Stevie: I said something like that. It bothered me that my mother was crying all the time. She thought God might be punishing her for something. She lived during a time when things were particularly difficult for a woman in her circumstances. I used to say that if something happened to my mother, I wanted to die with her. That's because I loved her so much. I want to live so I can carry out the essence of what she has shown me: kindness and goodness.
Oprah: What are the biggest lessons she passed on to you?
Stevie: To persevere. To never be ashamed. To not let my past bury me. When I was a child, kids used to make fun of me because I was blind. But I just became more curious: "How can I climb this tree and get an apple for this girl?" That's what mattered to me. We had these woodsheds in the backyard, and we played a game where we'd jump from the top of the woodshed into the alley. Who could jump the farthest? The kids were like, "Go, Steve, go!" but I guess I missed the moment when my brother Larry whispered, "Momma's home." So I'm on top of the shed saying, "Are you ready? Here we go!" And I jumped right into my mother's arms.
Stevie: Yes—and she whipped that ass! [Laughs.]
Oprah: How old were you?
Stevie: About 8.
Oprah: And wasn't it around then when you first played a piano?
Stevie: That was when we lived in the projects. The neighbors had an old broken-down piano.
Oprah: What did you feel the first time you touched the keys?
Stevie: I was like "Whoo!"
Oprah: The same thing happened to Quincy Jones when he was around 11. He was a little hoodlum in Seattle, and he broke into a warehouse to steal pies. He found a piano, and when he touched the keys for the first time, he said he knew he'd come home.
Stevie: Yes. Quincy and I have a similar history.
Oprah: If you could live your life again, would you change being blind?
Stevie: I would not change it.
Oprah: You never dreamed of wanting to see?
Stevie: I don't regret what happened because it made me who I am. But I'd love to see.
Oprah: In 2000 there were reports that you were planning to get some kind of chip to regain your sight.
Stevie: The chip is very real, and I've met with the doctor who discovered it. The chip allows you to pick up images through impulses. You have to be tested to see if you're eligible, and I have some potential eligibility. I think it's great.
Oprah: Is the chip still in the works?
Stevie: Very much so.
Oprah: If you've never seen, can you miss it?
Stevie: I miss what's associated with seeing. I'd be lying if I said I don't miss being able to drive somewhere with my wife and kids alone or, back in the day, with my girl. But there's nothing I can do about it. I just have to work it out.
Oprah: How do you even understand seeing as a concept?
Stevie: Because I'm living life, aware of what everyone else is doing. I have a vivid imagination. And growing up, I was around people who weren't afraid to say "Man, why are you lookin' over there? What's wrong with you? I'm over here. You need to keep your head still."
Oprah: Once you started playing the piano, did you become known for that in your community?
Stevie: Not really. I was known as the blind boy who was always making noise, beating on walls, hitting on boxes, singing, and playing the bongos from morning till sunset on the front porch. People were like, "Give us a break."
Oprah: When you signed with Motown, did your life change immediately?
Stevie: It was a difficult point. The people there were excited about me being with them, but the lawyer my mother used was not that impressed with Motown. There was some negotiating, and some guy there said to my mom, "Let me tell you like this: Stevie can either sign this contract, or he can spend the rest of his life selling pencils." My mother said, "I don't give a damn what you say. My son will never sell pencils ever in his life." And the deal was off. I think Berry Gordy finally talked with my mom about the "misunderstanding," and they worked it out.
Oprah: In the four decades since you first signed with Motown, you've brought us music that's become the soundtrack of our lives. What are the three songs you're most proud to have introduced to the world?
Stevie: I have different songs for different days. One day might be an "As" day, and another might be a "Living for the City" day. Or I might have an "If Your Love Cannot Be Moved" day, which is a song you haven't heard yet. When Duke Ellington was asked about his favorite song, he'd say, "I haven't written it yet." I feel the same.
Oprah: Over the years, your music has challenged complacency. Was it always your intention to use music as a vehicle for reaching the world, or were you just writing songs you liked?
Stevie: My music has always been a lesson for me. I'll write a song, then later think, "Did that come from me?" It came from God through me.
Oprah: Do you start with music or lyrics?
Stevie: I normally write the melody first. Before I play the chords, I can hear them. It's like imagining a picture before putting it on paper. I'll usually have the basic idea of a line in a song, like "I'll be loving you always." For that song, I knew the feeling I wanted to write about. I just didn't have all the lyrics.
Oprah: So, "As around the sun the earth knows she's revolving" came later?
Stevie: Yes, shortly after the melody. Melodies give me a feeling, and from that feeling the words come.
Oprah: How did "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" come to you?
Stevie: Same way. The feeling of the melody is happy, because when I wrote it I was in New York in late spring, early summer. Good things were happening. When I first came up with "I Wish," it was going to be about some kind of crazy philosophical stuff, but that didn't work with the song. So after a Motown picnic, we came back to the studio, and we were all sitting around the piano. We started talking about the different experiences we had growing up, like when I got a whipping for playing doctor with a girl.
Oprah: And that's in the song. I love "I Wish." It reminds me of that era: "Looking back on when I was a little nappy-headed boy."
Oprah: How do you define yourself as a musician?
Stevie: I'm a lover of music, constantly curious about the sounds I hear. I'm always thinking about how I can take my music to the next level. It isn't about selling millions of CDs or making millions of dollars. God has given me an incredible gift—the gift of music—and it's a blessing that's self-contained. I can go anywhere in the world with absolutely nothing and I can still find a keyboard and play. No matter what, no one can take that away from me. Even if I was a slave or Blind Tom, and every instrument was taken away, I could still imagine music and hear chords in my head. As incredible as that is, God has also given me a yearning to do more. I'm playing blues now, and I want to do gospel. I lived through an earthquake once, and it made me realize that I have to do the best I can in life. I always just want to do better. I have to love and share like there's no tomorrow. Another thing I've learned recently is that I cannot play God. I cannot solve everyone's problems.
Oprah: I got that one a while back.
Stevie: You can love, but at some point you must say, "Hey, you've got to do this one by yourself."
Oprah: That's why we're here—to figure those things out for ourselves. How do you define yourself as a man?
Stevie: I'm not a normal man—never have been. The more I accept that, the better I feel. I'm a work in progress, but if I know in my heart that I'm doing my best, that my heart's in the right place, that I have unconditional love, I feel okay. That isn't to say that I haven't made mistakes.
Oprah: Why do you say you aren't a normal man?
Stevie: A normal man gets up at a certain time, works a job, and knows what his job will be for X amount of hours. Then he goes home to his family, maybe watches television, and he knows what time he's going to bed. He's responsible for himself and his immediate family. But a man who's not normal is responsible for many, many lives. He finds pride in that and understands the challenge.
Oprah: I hear there's nothing normal about your schedule. Because there's no day or night for you, don't you stay up for two days at a time?
Stevie: Yes, and I don't say that proudly. It just is what it is. But it's a fallacy that because I can't see I don't know night from day. I have a clear sense of time.
Oprah: I hear it's not unusual for people who work with you to get a call at 4 a.m.
Stevie: Yes. But you know, some of these people are just talking stuff, using me as an excuse. It's like, "Honey, where are you?" "I'm just here with Stevie. He's playing 'Fingertips' or whatever."
Oprah: When did you first realize people liked your music?
Stevie: That's a good question, because I wonder if you get this feeling, too. There's a synergy when you're performing, an exchange of energy between you and the audience....
Oprah: Right, and you want more of it.
Stevie: Yes. I remember writing "Isn't She Lovely?"—I can almost cry right now thinking about it. The sound of my daughter Aisha splashing in the bathtub created a picture. That was emotion stuck in a moment, and that can never, ever be taken away.
Oprah: Did you experience that feeling as a boy?
Stevie: I did. I was a big fan of Neil Sedaka, and the other kids would call me white boy. But I was just a lover of all music. I loved Smokey Robinson's "I'll Try Something New." When I'd sing that song, the girls would come around, and my heart would beat fast. I couldn't see the girls, but I could feel something from them. I was like, "Man, they're into this."
Oprah: That's what happened to me when I grew up speaking in church. It was the beginning of my broadcasting career.
Stevie: It's an incredible feeling.
Oprah: Yes, it's how you receive value. You mentioned Aisha—you've got a lot of kids....
Stevie: Five boys, two girls. I give a lot of credit to the mothers of my children. They've raised the children well. But I'm not one of those fathers who just send money. I guide them as a father and talk to them as a friend. I always want my children to feel they can tell me anything.
Oprah: And aren't you a grandfather now?
Stevie: My daughter has a little boy. He calls me Pop Pop because I refuse to be called Granddad.
Oprah: How old is he?
Stevie: Miles is 4. And I have a son who's 2.
Oprah: You're right, you're not a normal guy! Are you ever insecure?
Stevie: If I feel insecure about anything, it comes from my desire to make something better or to please someone. I fear only God. I don't fear any human. When you have that kind of spirit, you can just do what you have to do. Let it roll. I don't suggest that you always do that. I recommend highly that you sometimes just chill.
Oprah: You wouldn't be who you are if you weren't raised the way you were—if you didn't have people saying, "Hey, Stevie, you're looking the wrong way."
Stevie: Right. I lived on the rough side of Detroit. It was like, "What you gon' do, blind man?"
Oprah: Do you wonder what people look like when you meet them? And isn't being blind the ultimate in not being prejudiced?
Stevie: There are many prejudiced blind people. When you meet someone, you associate how that person sounds with who that person is.
Oprah: When you were a teenager, how did you know if a girl was pretty?
Stevie: I once met a girl, and I said to myself, She must be fine. Later someone said to me, "That's a bug-a-bear you've got." I said, "She's beautiful." And he said, "No, man—you ain't got it right." [Stevie and Oprah break into laughter.]
Oprah: Can you walk into a room and feel a vibe?
Stevie: Yes. And if I ask you, "Oprah, how does my shirt look?" and you hesitantly say, "It's nice," as opposed to "It's great!" it communicates your feelings. When you're blind, you have to pay attention to those subtleties. It's about the rhythm of communication, not just the words.
Oprah: Do you worry that people will take advantage of you?
Stevie: I can't focus on that—you can drive yourself crazy thinking about that kind of stuff. If anything goes down, I will ultimately know.
Oprah: I read that you once wanted to be an electrician. How can you be a blind electrician without electrocuting yourself?
Stevie: It would have been difficult. But these days, with advances in technology, there are blind doctors and computer programmers.
Oprah: Didn't you also want to be a minister?
Stevie: Yes. If I could see, I'd be a Malcolm X. Well, I don't know if I'd be a Muslim. I was raised Christian. But I'd definitely be a fighter taking aggressive and progressive positions, because I can't conceive of some of the things happening in our country, given the spirit we're supposed to be about. Unacceptable! I'd have either been an incredible minister and still alive or one who took such radical stands that I'd have been killed by now. That isn't to say my desire to help humankind is any less strong because I'm blind. But blindness creates dependency. That's just real. Yet it doesn't make my thoughts any less free.
Oprah: Do you ever resent that dependency?
Stevie: No. It has to be that way.
Oprah: You seem to have accepted reality.
Stevie: If you had a choice between sitting in this room and doing nothing or letting people guide you, which would you choose? At some point, you'd say, "This is my life, so this is how I have to roll with it."
Oprah: True. When did you first reject the idea of yourself as disabled?
Stevie: My mother taught me to do that long before I realized the road I was on. She didn't bind me up. She wasn't like, "Don't step there!" or "Watch out, you'll fall!" She'd tell me to be careful, but I was going to do what I was going to do. She was just fast enough to catch me. She knew I had to learn—and the more she allowed me to do, the more she could let go. She saw that I'd developed what's called facial radar, meaning that I could hear the sound of objects around me. If you close your eyes and put your hands right in front of your face, then move your hands, you can actually hear the sound of the air bouncing off your hands.
Oprah: So if you walk up to a wall, you can hear it?
Oprah: Does everything have a sound?
Stevie: Everything has a sound in terms of its placement. In other words, there are many things in this room, and they make up how this room sounds—how dead or alive it is acoustically. If you took this desk out, the audio picture would be different.
Oprah: And you sense that all the time, no matter where you are?
Stevie: Sound is always happening. What's amazing is that I can get in a car, fall asleep, and wake up when I know I'm home. My body is alert, and it has learned a pattern of movements, sounds, and feelings.
Oprah: I love that. Why have we had to wait so long for an album from you?
Stevie: Bach and Chopin took years to write their stuff. I've had to experience some life so that there's more for me to sing about, to express. A lot has happened in ten years. Motown doesn't want to hear that—they're like, "Come on, man"—and I did plan to put out an album five years ago. But I'm glad I didn't, because there's a whole 'nother thing going on now.
Oprah: So we just had to wait.
Stevie: My agreement with Motown is that I don't get paid unless I deliver, so it's on me. I don't feel pressure. I love to go on the road, performing and singing. And I'm always writing, working on new stuff.
Oprah: There's always a song inside you.
Stevie: Yes. But it has taken me ten years to feel there's enough of this and that. You're the first person I'll tell the title of the album. It's called A Time to Love. We've had all sorts of time to talk about the war, but when will there be a time to love? It's now.
Oprah: What's your vision for this album?
Stevie: I hope people will say, "We've got to make a difference. We've got to have more respect for one another. We've got to find a better way of expressing ourselves without belittling each other. We've got to remember that the way we came to this planet was through love." I'm hoping people will understand that we cannot be a United States until we are a united people.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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