A Time To Love - Press Release
A Sense of Wonder
After four decades as a musician, Stevie Wonder feels the same
ecstatic enjoyment he always did. So why has he been quiet for 10 years?
Simon Hattenstone asks him about sex, God ... and that difficult
Saturday November 26, 2005
When Steveland Judkins was a little boy, he decided to jump from the
roof of the shed in his back yard. He wanted to take risks, live a
little, like other kids. Yes, he was blind, but what was the worst that
could happen? His brother warned him that his mother was coming, and if
she saw him jump she'd beat the stuffings out of him. Steveland jumped,
and at that moment his mother walked past and miraculously caught him in
her arms. Sure, she went on to beat the stuffings out of him, but it had
been worth it. And he'd known he'd be OK. He always had faith.
Similarly, he has always been a raging optimist. But he has said
that if he could see - specifically, if he could see the horrors we
inflict on each other - he might be less willing to believe that love
conquers all. "I might have been made militant by what I'd see."
Steveland Judkins grew into Steveland Morris when his mother, who
till then had brought her children up single-handedly, remarried.
Steveland Morris grew into Little Stevie Wonder after being spotted by
Motown boss Berry Gordy at the age of 10 and dubbed the boy wonder. And
Little Stevie grew into a six-footer, lost his Little moniker, sold
100m-plus albums, and became one of the most influential figures in the
history of popular music.
A couple of weeks ago he was in London, explaining why it had taken
him 10 years to make an album of new music, and why his faith is still
undimmed. He became emotional when he talked about the pain of the past
couple of years: the deaths of his first wife, singer Syreeta Wright
(who wrote the lyrics for Signed, Sealed, Delivered), and his brother
Larry Hardaway. And he became equally emotional when he talked of the
joy of the past few years: his second wife, fashion designer Kai
Millard, gave birth to two sons (children numbers six and seven for
Wonder) - Kailand, who is now four, and Mandla, who was born this year
on May 13, Wonder's own birthday. The wheel of life has kept turning,
and he has continued to thank his God.
I first experienced "Stevie Time" at a press conference at the Savoy
hotel. He answered question after question, occasionally stopping to
knock out a tune on the keyboard in front of him. After an hour, Paul
Gambaccini, who chaired the event, announced, "OK, one last question."
"No," Wonder said. "Five more questions." And another five. And another.
And so it went, till every last question had been answered.
A couple of days later he gave one of the greatest gigs I have seen,
at the historic Abbey Road studios. His voice was superb, by turns
swooping and soaring, honeyed and roaring, cajoling and bullying. There
was a song for everybody - the politicised funk of Living For The City,
the soufflé-light ballad You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, the ecstatic
spiritual As, the belligerent reggae of Master Blaster, the rocking Moog
of Superstition, and of course the unapologetic schmaltz of I Just
Called To Say I Love You. Has one man ever appealed to so many
Wonder's new record is called A Time 2 Love, and it is something of
a return to form - it's neither great nor consistent, but there are a
handful of blastin', funkin', lovin' grooves to remind us of Wonder's
genius. Although his message may not have changed, the context has. It
has always been a time to love in Wonder's world, but now even more so
with the threat of global terror. He acknowledges the cynical and
dangerous, rails against the forces of hate, but ultimately his hope
There is a sense of rebirth at the gig. He plays the best songs from
the new album, and his daughter Aisha Morris joins him on stage for
Positivity. Aisha was first heard, crying, on Isn't She Lovely when she
was only a few hours old. Now she is closing in on 30, beautiful and
embarrassed, and singing Isn't He Lovely back to him. It's a
At Abbey Road I get my second dose of Stevie Time. The gig, being
recorded for Radio 2, is due to last an hour. But Wonder just plays on
and on. After three hours he calls it a day. He's always been like this
- once he gets going, he can't stop. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he doesn't
obey the conventions of day and night. He often records through the
night, and sleeps through the day.
The day after the gig, his entourage is hanging around a London
hotel, waiting for him. He is an hour late, but everyone is relaxed.
Sure, he will turn up, but not just yet. His brother Milton, who handles
his press, is testing me. "You wanna know something? OK, what was wrong
with the title of his first album, The 12-Year-Old Genius? Give in? OK,
he was only 11 and a half, but we had to say he was 12 because he was
too young to play live."
Milton says Wonder is due in a couple of minutes. "What star sign
are you?" he asks.
"Capricorn," I say.
"You'll never be short of money, then," he says.
He leaves the room and a few minutes later reappears with his
brother on his arm. Wonder is now 55, heavily framed and paunched. He
wears a grey-black outfit, with "By God's Grace" stitched into his shirt
alongside the tree of life. His receding hair is corn-rowed from the
back of his head down to his shoulders. He looks so different from the
cool, skinny Afro-haired Wonder of the 70s.
He shakes my hand and sits down. He seems uneasy. There is muttering
about the absence of a keyboard. I'd been told that he likes to have a
keyboard with him, that it is almost an extension of his body. Instead,
he taps away at a Braille machine.
I ask him where he has been all these years. He smiles. Even he
appears bemused by how he could have created so much so quickly in the
early days and so little recently. "Ten years is a long time, but I
think when you're in it and you're doing life, you don't really see how
long that is." He is totting up the years as he talks. "If I really did
the math, well, between 1963 and 1973, a lot of things happened, like
Blowin' In The Wind, Uptight, If You Really Love Me, I Was Made To Love
Her, Once In My Life ..."
As he mentions every title, I hear the giddy choruses in my head and
want to sing along. "Then you think 1995-2005 and obviously there was
not much that I did musically." He sounds apologetic. "But a lot of
personal family stuff happened. A lot of changes happened - good, bad
People forget that artists have lives to get on with, I say. He
grins. "That's why I don't regret the time. Perhaps if I'd done 10 years
[doing nothing but music] between 95 and 2005, what I had to say by 2005
might be boring."
His career now spans five decades and breaks down into distinct
periods: three amazingly productive, one less so, the drought, and now,
hopefully, a late burst of creativity. At 12, as Little Stevie Wonder,
he topped the US charts with his third single, the harmonica stomper
Fingertips Part 2. He briefly disappeared, returning with a broken voice
and a surge of hits in the late 1960s. Even as Little Stevie he crossed
the black-white divide. He also wrote and produced songs for other
Motown artists, notably Tears Of A Clown for Smokey Robinson and the
Miracles, and Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever for the Four Tops.
His songs were full of light and air - the best of gospel mixed with
the best of soul. His singing and playing, his finger-clicking and
foot-tapping, his smile and laughter all suggested the transcendent, the
It wasn't just his music that made him unique: he was a phenomenal
businessman. In 1971, he came of age, hired a good lawyer and
renegotiated his contract with Gordy. He insisted on autonomy as
producer, writer and performer - unheard of at Motown. In 1975, he
renegotiated again, for an astonishing $13m. To a great extent, he was a
one-man band, playing all the instruments on many tracks. Wonder was a
control freak, demanding yet always loved.
From 1972 to 1976 he produced a series of albums (Talking Book,
Innervisons, Fulfillingness' First Finale, Songs In The Key Of Life)
that rank with any in pop history. He was as influential as the Beatles,
the Stones, Bob Dylan or Bob Marley. He didn't invent a genre but he
extended its boundaries every which way. His music nodded to blues and
R&B, reggae and jazz, funk and prog rock. But at the heart of everything
there was soul. He continued to write for other people, but he was so
attached to his music that often he couldn't bear to give it way.
Superstition was meant for Jeff Beck, but he kept it for himself. At the
age of 26, he peaked with the magnificent double album Songs In The Key
During this period, everybody wanted a slice of Wonder - he toured
with the Stones, played with John Lennon, hooked up with a number of
leftist-liberal political activists. As Wonder matured musically, so he
did politically. This synthesis was perhaps most perfectly expressed in
Living For The City, a song about poverty, racial tension and hopes
dashed. It is as much a soundtrack to the 1970s as Scorsese's Mean
Streets and Taxi Driver. Songs such as He's Misstra Know-It-All and You
Haven't Done Nothin' attacked the corrupt Nixon administration. Wonder's
music defined an era, as did his Afro, his bright sweaters and his
Songs In The Key of Life was followed by the ambitious concept album
Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants in 1979. It was critically
mauled and a commercial failure. Despite one more massive-selling album,
Hotter Than July, he seemed to lose confidence and began to withdraw.
The gap between records grew longer and longer. He occasionally
re-entered our lives - more often than not with sentimental schlock such
as Ebony And Ivory ( recorded with Paul McCartney) and the ubiquitous I
Just Called To Say I Love You. He seemed almost wilfully determined to
erase his achievements from public consciousness. But it was impossible.
No amount of naffness could detract from his greatness.
Then, after 1995's ghastly punning Conversation Peace, there was
Did the barren period reflect the fact that so much was happening in
his private life? "No," he says. "I think that had very little to do
with it at all. I just think that unless you have something you really
want to say, you can't be all over the place." Yes, there has been
another marriage and new children and tragic deaths, but he still spent
most days playing and working out in his recording studio, even if the
material didn't come up to scratch.
With few exceptions, popular music artists have found it harder to
create as they age. Not least because "pop" has so often been fired by
youth, idealism and rebellion. Wonder talks of the need to start with a
new canvas every time he goes into the studio, to start all over again.
No wonder there has been such a huge gap between records.
Did he fear that he might never again record new music; that he had
nothing left to say? "I never felt that. It's when you stop living that
you don't have anything to say."
Steveland Judkins was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in May 1950. He was
a month premature and overexposure to oxygen in the incubator (common at
the time) caused his blindness. His mother Lula took him and his five
siblings to Detroit when he was three.
Does he remember the first time he heard music? "I remember when I
was three or four listening to the radio and being curious about how the
whole thing worked." Then when his mother bought a TV he was even more
awed. "I was like, 'Man, you can see people on this thing?' I held my
ears to the speaker and imagined what was being shown on the screen."
Lifelong blindness is inconceivable to a sighted person. Does he
think the imagination becomes a form of sight in itself? He nods. "I
think it is because you create a sense of very vivid places you can go
to, and see what's going on in your mind." He often talks about "seeing"
things - casually and without irony. As far as Wonder is concerned, he
does see, he just has a different way of doing so. A few years ago, he
visited a specialist who offered him an operation to make him see.
Wonder never bothered. He has said that on balance he was happy as he
When he was a little boy, his mother didn't like Steveland to leave
the house in case he hurt himself. So he stayed at home and listened to
the radio: Junior Parker, Little Willy John, Bobby Bland, Bobby Darin,
Neil Sedaka and his hero, Ray Charles. If Ray Charles, black, blind and
poor, could make it, anybody could. Wonder once said: "The two
advantages I had at birth were to be born wise and into poverty."
Steveland banged out tunes on pots and pans with spoons. Lula, who
worked as a seamstress and cleaner, doted on him. She shelled out for
musical instruments, and by the time he was four he could play piano,
organ, drums, bongo and harmonica. His first public performance was
unplanned. He was at a club with his mother and stepfather, the live
music was blasting out, and he was beating the table in time. "They just
said, 'Come up and play the drums', so I went up, beating the drums and
being crazy." By nine he was a seasoned performer at church. In fact, he
had already been expelled for playing rock'n'roll at the piano. But he
didn't yet feel confident in public arenas because he couldn't grasp the
parameters of a stage. When he joined Motown, the label paid for him to
attend a school for the blind.
Did he ever curse his blindness? "No. I've never felt, 'Oh my God -
why did you do this to me, God?' " Once his mother's fears for him
eased, he grew up much as any boy would - he went into people's back
yards, climbed their trees, nicked the apples and pears, got into
scraps. Was he tough? "I was very small, but I got into trouble. I got
into fights over silly things. You know, 'She's my girlfriend ...' I was
a little kid - seven, eight, nine ... 'She likes me!' 'No, she likes
me!" And he impersonates his hard-assed petulant little self perfectly.
Were people less likely to hit him because he was blind? "No. When we
would fight, it was on. It was not about being blind."
Was he always a ladies' man? He throws his head back and grins
ecstatically. "Well, life is good and lurrve is wonderful." He repeats
himself, rolling his tongue round "love" even more lasciviously. "You
know life is good and lurrrrrve is wonderful."
When did he first discover that? "Not so soon that I shouldn't have
known, but not too late to be unaware." That's very diplomatic of you, I
say. "Yaknowhadamsayin? I can say by the time I got married I was
definitely not a virgin." In the past, he has described his love life as
complex. Details are sketchy about his private life, and he seems to
like it that way. Of his five oldest children, most appear to have been
with Yolanda Simmons, whom he never married but has always remained
What do women see in him? He thinks it through carefully. "I think I
have a nice personality. I'm intelligent, and I think I'm not hung up on
myself. If you're hung up on yourself, you are hung up." He thinks too
many celebrities are self-obsessed.
In the 1980s, he recorded less, and became involved in more causes.
He got himself arrested at an anti-apartheid protest outside the South
African embassy, befriended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and
fought for the recognition of Martin Luther King - a campaign that
culminated in his song Happy Birthday and the granting of a national
holiday, Martin Luther King Day.
Today, he seems ambivalent about politics. He doesn't even
particularly like the word, preferring to talk about social justice.
Maybe there has always been a tension between his faith and his desire
for political change. One second, he seems to say we must leave
everything in God's hands, the next that we have to fight for our
rights. "I just basically say what I feel about a position or thing," he
says. The bottom line is that "when we do the right thing by each other,
then God will do the right thing by us. I truly feel that way."
Isn't it to your credit that you haven't left it all to God, that
you have agitated for change? "Well, some say yes, some say no. I've had
people say to me, if you hadn't done the King holiday stuff and all
that, you would have been more accepted. Whatever! Some people say, you
need to just do music, and forget about all that. But that's not me, you
Others have said his politics are too saccharine. He tells me he has
met George Bush, and I ask if he gave him a mouthful. "Well, he knows my
politics and I know his. There was no need to get into some kind of
thing. My mother used to say this: 'When you feel you've got to tell it
all, just go in the closet, close the door and talk to God and be done
with it.' "
Wonder often plays at the Church of God in Christ near his home in
Los Angeles, and plans to make a gospel album next as a celebration of
faith. Has his faith ever been challenged? He shakes his head. Not by
racism, not by blindness, not by terrorism, not by the car crash that
nearly killed him in 1973.
Does he think Bush has made the world more dangerous? Look, he says,
anger against American imperialism goes way deeper. "This whole thing
was set in motion long long ago. I mean, people are still arguing and
fighting about dropping the [developing world] debt, and it's a joke to
me. It's a joke because look at how much has been taken from Africa. God
has given every continent on this planet some natural resource we can
use to survive, for trading or whatever. But the world powers go and
turn over the areas and take whatever they do, work out those ridiculous
And then there is the misappropriation of religion. While Bush talks
about having God on his side and Islamicists talk about jihad, Wonder
says both take God's name in vain. "People can't say this is a holy war.
The people suffered, while their leaders made the money from deals.
We're living in a mad world where people do mad crazy things. The God
that I believe in doesn't believe in bombing, and the Allah that I
respect for Muslims doesn't believe in terrorising innocent people."
He says he was distraught when John Lennon was killed 25 years ago,
but not shocked. Imagine, with its plea for a world without religion,
always seemed a dangerous song to him. "After he died I couldn't stop
crying whenever I heard Imagine, but I wasn't surprised that he'd been
shot. The guy said he shot him because he said he didn't believe in
Jesus, and I remember when I heard Imagine, I thought, 'Somebody's not
going to like that.' " Which of the great dead pop artists does he miss
most? "My God!" He doesn't know where to begin. "There's John Lennon,
Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Luther Vandross ..." He considers Gaye's
despairing What's Going On one of the greatest albums.
I'm sitting in front of Wonder. He's wearing shades with the A Time
2 Love logo printed down the arms. It's a terrible thing to admit, but
there's something pleasing about the fact that he can't see me: I feel
he can judge me objectively rather than by appearance. There are no
distractions. For a moment, I start to envy his blindness. While his
head sways like a metronome as he talks, he seems endowed with an inner
stillness. He has a gift for intimacy.
I tell him that there are ducks sculpted into the chair arms, and
find myself guiding his hands. "Oh yeah, I saw that," he says.
Does he think there would be less prejudice in the world if we were
all blind? I rephrase the question: would we find other ways of
discriminating? "Human beings always have to have things to complain
about. Blind people can be just as prejudiced, but it's not based on
what they see; it's based on what they've been told."
He tells a story about travelling home from school one day. "There
was a little boy saying, 'Purple niggers, green niggers, orange niggers,
blue niggers, white niggers, black niggers ...' He was a white guy, a
little kid, blind." His point is that the boy had no real concept of
race, but it didn't stop him discriminating.
We talk about Hurricane Katrina, and the fact that so many black
people were left stranded in its midst. On television, it looked like
50s America, I say, a separatist society. He wouldn't go that far. "I
don't see it being like the 50s. But yes, there is still a divide." Is
it more economic than racial these days? "In certain instances it is
economics and class, and in other instances it is racial. People have to
begin to feel that ..." He stops. "No, let me put this a different way.
When every single person can feel when they see a black kid being beaten
up by a white kid that this could be one of their own kids, when people
start to care like that, we'll be moving forward."
Wonder asks about racism in this country and refers to the Stephen
Lawrence and Anthony Walker killings. He seems happiest when asking
questions: about this country, about my life.
Look, I say, I've got some important questions. What is your
favourite Stevie Wonder album? "It depends on my mood. I might have an
Innervisions mood. But if I'm in a romantic mood, I wouldn't put on my
stuff at all." Who would he put on? "I'm gonna do Luther, I might do
Beyoncé, I might do Usher. I'm not gonna put on my stuff. I can't make
love to my own stuff." That's remarkably modest of you, I say. "I tell
you, I can't." He thinks there would be something tawdry and
narcissistic about it.
Were children six and seven conceived in the presence of Luther or
Beyoncé? "Erm, we didn't have any music. We made our own music. I don't
need no music to get my groove on." He's now relaxed, joking, chewing
"Hey, when is your birthday, by the way?" he asks. December 29, I
say. "You're Capricorn. Hey ..." Yes, I say, I know I'm never going to
be short of money. He nods, impressed that I know.
He talks about his plans to get busy again. There's the gospel
album, and a jazz album, and a children's album, and he'd like to act in
a film, and do a world tour putting on a fancy show with special
effects. He seems so happy to be back. Wasn't he frightened that after
10 years away nobody would be interested in Stevie Wonder?
"It's a chance you take," he says. He pauses, and thinks it through.
"No," he says. "You know, I have always had more faith than fear."
· A Time 2 Love is out now. Stevie Wonder's Abbey Road concert will
be broadcast on Radio 2 on December 10.