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A Time To Love - Press Release

MSNBC Newsweek Business

Signed. Sealed. Delivered?
Sylvia Rhone is betting Stevie Wonder can help revive legendary Motown Records. If only he'd play along.
Johnnie L. Roberts
June 20, 2005 Issue

It's a rainy April night in New York, and Sylvia Rhone, the new CEO of Motown Records, is lounging on an oversize bed and whispering coquettishly in the ear of her label's legendary star Stevie Wonder. They are at the chic nightclub b.e.d celebrating the birthday of his daughter Aisha Morris, whose arrival 30 years ago inspired his classic "Isn't She Lovely." But Rhone seems fixated instead on trying to charm Wonder into finally delivering "A Time to Love," his first studio album in a decade. She'd already managed to coax the first radio single from him, "So What the Fuss." Rhone had also begun negotiations for a television special and visited Wal-Mart and Best Buy headquarters to trumpet Wonder's return. She'd spent some $200,000 for billboards. Yet on May 3, when the record was slated to go on sale, Wonder was still refining it. Alas, the CD won't even reach stores for the rescheduled release this week on June 14. Oddly, Motown has released a second single, called "From the Bottom of My Heart,'' even before the CD comes out. Rhone is coolly masking any anxiety. "He is an iconic artist who always has something very pertinent to say," she said recently. "As music lovers, we are way past due to have Stevie back in our lives."

Wonder, discussing the album's delay in a rare interview, tells NEWSWEEK that he understands the pressure to turn over the album—to a point. Rhone is "a little frustrated, and maybe there's pressure she's facing," he says. "Obviously, they would have liked to have had it yesterday." But he has a busy life outside the studio as the father of seven, including a newborn. And the creative process is delicate, he adds: "The reason they haven't got it is I'm not ready to give it to them. However long it takes me, I'm giving the very best that I can ... I won't settle for less." Since the first missed deadline, Paul McCartney and jazz flutist Hubert Laws have joined Wonder for songs on the album.

For Rhone, who insists Wonder will hand it in to Motown this week, much more is riding on "A Time to Love" than ending the drought for his fans. In her eight months as Motown CEO, she's placed a huge bet that Wonder's comeback would help reinvigorate what once was the industry's most influential label, with its signature "Motown sound" and a roster that included Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye.

Though three Motown CEOs have fallen short in the last decade, Rhone, 53, has good reasons to believe she can succeed in reviving Motown. She has a knack for breaking new acts, and has the unqualified backing of Doug Morris, her longtime mentor and CEO of Universal Music Group—owner of Motown. "Sylvia is a rainmaker," he says.

But Wonder has a fire, too, and it's keeping him from letting go of the album that Rhone wants to jump-start her turnaround. As more time passes, he has more ideas. "So much has happened in the last year," he says. "It caused me to think differently about how I would organize the record." Time is making the album better, he says, adding: "I can only apologize in that I did say it would be ready on this or that date."

Wonder signals he's aware of concerns at Universal Music that the focus on him may be draining resources from other artists. "My feeling is that this is my statement, my expression," he says. "Other artists—I have nothing to do with that." The choice of singles has been an issue, too. Wonder says the label always preferred the classically Wonder-esque "From the Bottom of My Heart" as the first single, not "So What the Fuss." "But I didn't want to do what one would typically expect," he says. "And I don't regret it." At this rate, the album may come out one song at a time. It may make sense in the age of 99-cent downloads. But certainly Rhone is hoping Wonder's long-anticipated return would make a bigger fuss than that.