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1973 Car Accident

You are the Sunshine of My Life was just descending the charts after reaching number one whilst Stevie’s new single Higher Ground which spoke about spiritual progression through reincarnation, was just beginning it’s upward climb. His recently released album, Innervisions, three days earlier, was receiving rave reviews.

It was 6th August 1973 and the prodigious 23 year old singer, songwriter, musician and producer was heading north on Interstate 85 on a hot dry Monday afternoon after a performance the night before in Greenville, South Carolina.

In a wide 1973 Mercury Cruiser, a rental car from Hertz, driven by his cousin John Wesley Harris, Stevie was on his way to a benefit performance for the radio station WAFR in Durham sitting in the front passenger seat. Behind them were two other cars from Stevie’s entourage. Stevie had with him a reel-to-reel tape recorder along with two-track mixes of "Innervisions" which he wanted to listen to. Needing a connection to power the player from the car, Harris stopped off briefly at an electronics store near Charlotte to purchase a suitable cable.

Stevie Wonder Accident in 1973As they approached the town of Salisbury at around 1:40 p.m., just ahead of them was 23 year old Charlie Shepherd  in his 1948 Dodge flatbed farm truck. A sleeping Wonder was wearing headphones, and Harris, distracted by something, failed to notice the flatbed truck ahead of them.

There have since been conflicting accounts of the series of events that led to the injury of Stevie. One of the more popular reports that still pervade books and the internet was that a log came flying off the truck, crashed through the windshield of Wonder’s car and hit him on the head, sending him into a coma.

However Shepherd in a statement later had said he had already delivered his load of logs in China Grove and that the back of his truck was empty as he headed for home on Interstate 85. Newspaper photographs taken on the scene don't show any large logs on the back of the truck, just some small pieces and broken boards. That seems to mesh with what Stevie told attorneys as part of a civil suit filed in connection with the accident in 1976. He said the bed of the truck crashed through the windshield and hit him in the forehead with "great force."

The 2002 biography "Blind Faith: the Miraculous Journey of Lula Hardaway”, Stevie Wonder's Mother retold the story as follows: "There was a great, grinding screech as metal hit metal and, then, impossibly, as if in some lavishly produced Hollywood action movie, one of the great logs disencumbered itself of the truck and came crashing through the windshield, spearing Stevie square in the forehead."

Stevie Wonder Accident in 1973Piecing together the disparate versions of the incident it is clear that Stevie’s car did crash into the back of the flatbed truck, and the bed of the truck shattered the windshield and struck him a glancing blow to the head as he would have moved forward as a result of the impact.

As a result of the collision, Shepherd felt the jolt behind him and realized, that his truck was sliding out of control toward the college on his right. The car skidded toward the median. Shepherd's truck began tipping, then went into a full roll as its momentum carried it completely over and it landed back on its wheels in the grass just south of the overpass.

Shepherd’s both ankles were broken and his upper lip badly cut. Stevie was unconscious, however his cousin, John suffered cuts to his thigh and had glass lodged in his fingertips from the shattered windshield.

Soon members of the band, traveling in the two cars behind, arrived at the scene and stopped in a panic. One of his brothers rushed to the car, which had come to rest in the median, and noticed immediately that Stevie was unresponsive and bleeding from his forehead and scalp.

Stevie was transferred to one of the other cars. Asking directions to the nearest hospital - Rowan Memorial Hospital, they headed off with the unresponsive singer.

C&M Ambulance Service, the private ambulance company that served Rowan County, arrived later to transport Shepherd and Harris.

Charlie Shepherd, flat on his back in the emergency room, noticed Wonder waiting close to him. But he had no idea who Stevie Wonder was; he had never heard of the pop star. The two men, both 23 from very different backgrounds, met by some chance of destiny on that faithful day.

Word spread quickly that Stevie Wonder had been injured badly in the I-85 accident. People from across the world — reporters from ABC, NBC, CBS and the BBC, fellow entertainers and fans — were calling the hospital, digging for any kind of information on Steve's condition. Rowan Memorial doctors already were making plans to move Stevie to N.C. Baptist Hospital because, it would be said later, the Winston-Salem hospital had "neurological facilities."

A representative for The Jackson 5 also had called the hospital and offered the group's private plane to fly Wonder anywhere in the country.

That same night, about 9:05, Wonder arrived at N.C. Baptist Hospital's intensive care unit in Winston-Salem — his vital signs were stable but he was still unconscious.

Stevie's mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, heard a news bulletin about the wreck at her home in Detroit and quickly made travel arrangements for Winston-Salem along with some of her other sons.

The Jackson 5, performing in Greensboro, visited Wonder the day after the wreck. By telegram and telephone, other entertainers such as former Beatle Paul McCartney, Roberta Flack and members of the popular band Chicago sent hopes for a speedy recovery.

Meanwhile, word of Wonder's condition at N.C. Baptist eked out morsel by morsel. On the Tuesday, doctors upgraded Wonder's condition to satisfactory, but he remained in the intensive care unit with what they described as "a bruise on the brain."

A hospital spokesman said no surgery was "indicated or contemplated" and that no significant change in the singer's condition was expected over the next 48 hours. A doctor also told the newspaper that Wonder's chances for a complete recovery were good.

Wonder's longtime friend and publicist Ira Tucker couldn't even recognize the star. To Tucker, the singer's head seemed to be swollen five times its normal size — "and nobody could get through to him."

A 2002 biography on Lula Hardaway, "Blind Faith," also mentioned how Wonder's family and friends were trying to reach Wonder with their words. The book recalls: "First one visitor and then another would gingerly take his hand, lean over to his one exposed ear and gently say, “Stevie, you there?"

The process of regaining full consciousness was taking awhile. But the turning point in his hospital recovery as an oft-repeated story goes — when Ira Tucker loudly began singing "Higher Ground" to the comatose singer. “Gonna keep on tryin' til I reach my highest ground.” Tucker soon noticed Wonder moving his fingers in time to the song — doing keyboard licks on the hospital bed.

Stevie Wonder Accident in 1973Three days into his hospital stay Stevie was able to talk enough to answer simple questions and was making slow, steady progress." The next day he was being fed liquids by mouth, instead of intravenously, though he remained in intensive care.

Charlie Shepherd stayed in Rowan Memorial Hospital for three days. His injuries, which included two broken ankles, kept him from working for the next three months.

Stevie stayed at N.C. Baptist Hospital for two weeks, including a week in intensive care. As a result of the injury Stevie temporarily lost his sense of smell and was left with a scar on the right side of his forehead

All the flowers that were coming to him, Stevie had sent to children patients at the hospital. Stevie also befriended a hospital security guard named Larry Woolard, whose wedding he would attend two years later.

On Aug. 18 at the hospital, dressed in red with a green fatigue cap, Wonder gave his first interview since the accident, though he declined going into details about the wreck itself, saying he really didn't remember much. “The only thing I know,” he said, “is that I was unconscious, and that for a few days, I was definitely in a much better spiritual place that made me aware of a lot of things that concern my life and my future, and what I have to do to reach another higher ground.” His reference to "Higher Ground" was no accident.

Standing with Stevie at the interview session was Ewart Abner, president of Motown; Tucker, his publicist, and Charles Collins, his administrator. Stevie said the hospital was warm and the people, beautiful. “I've gotten the feeling of being loved not just because of me being Stevie Wonder, but being loved as a person,” he said.

With a new sense of mortality, Stevie left Baptist Hospital Aug. 20, 1973, to convalesce at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center. His mother, three brothers, a registered nurse and Abner accompanied him.

Wonder would not perform again until March 1974 in New York's Madison Square Garden.

He told Crawdaddy magazine he felt like he had a second chance at life. "What happened to me was a very, very critical thing, and I was really supposed to die," he said. When plastic surgery was suggested to remove the mark left by the crash, he said "I will leave it as one of the scars of life I went through."

As recent as November 2008, Stevie returned to Carolina for a concert at the RBC Center in Raleigh. Stevie opened the night with a short speech, giving thanks to God as well as the doctors in Winston-Salem who saved his life after the 1973 crash.