Saturday, February 6, 2010
STEVIE WONDER's Mother, his brother and "the next Red"
It’s hard to talk about Stevie Wonder with younger music fans these days and I sometimes end up having to EXPLAIN his greatness to them. I’ve been looked at with surprise a few times by mentioning how much I love Stevie to those who’ve never listened beyond “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” which I acutally DO think is a great song (and Stevie says it’s his favorite that he’s written) and it's one that every songwriter wishes they could’ve written because of its simplicity and irresistible melody. What's really funny is playing “Pasttime Paradise” for anybody under 30 and watch their face light up in recognition before sheepishly admitting they thought it was a Coolio song. It's really not their fault for it has been a while since Stevie has released a “classic” album. But I will say that it cracks me up to hear people discussing the merits of Lady GaGa’s music or arguing whether or not Taylor Swift can sing or if Adam Lambert is a real artist because after all, he did co-write some of his own songs. You can waste your time listening to that crap as much as you want to, have fun. But remember Stevie Wonder is a God given gift to music and he’s alive in your lifetime. Don’t take that for granted. Get your Stevie records out!
There are lots of “hits” collections available because Stevie has lots of hits. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s only been on ONE record label his whole 50 year career. All of his 60’s Motown singles are GREAT from “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” to “I Was Made To Love Her,” “For Once In My Life” to “My Cherie Amour.” But if you want to get right down to the real nitty gritty, you should start with the classic 70’s albums after Stevie turned 21 and had grown tired of the Motown formula. Inspired by Sly & The Family Stone as equally as the Beatles, he mastered MUSIC and then flipped it over on its back making every one listen and drop their jaws in wonder, pun intended. He was a child star turned seasoned hitmaker already a decade into his career when he TRULY arrived and created masterwork albums like “Music Of My Mind,” “Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” the double length opus “Songs In The Key Of Life,” and though some will disagree, I include “Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants” as a MUST for any record collection. Sure it’s a strange concept and has lots of instrumental weirdness but Stevie was intent on taking the music somewhere else even if that meant singing from the view point of a plant. Punk rock! It’s a deep artistic move and upon repeated listenings, this four-sider reveals a variety of styles and a treasure trove of melody. “Race Babbling” practically invents the new wave 80’s without even trying and surely without taking the blame.
But don't stop there. Stevie returned to form again with 1980’s excellent “Hotter Than July” featuring a more pop based R&B sound. Also an excellent starter for anyone is the 2CD compilation “Original Musiquarium I” from 1982 that sums up the hits on those 70’s albums pretty well and flows flawlessly, one after another. It was sequenced by Stevie himself and there were four ‘new’ songs on there too including the brilliant “That Girl.”
My favorite Beatles cover version of all-time is Stevie's "We Can Work It Out" from 1970 and it was his debut as multi-instrumentalist. Stevie Wonder is an incredible drummer! I wish he would play more drums these days especially in the studio. Also, my sincere apologies to George Clinton, but I’ve never heard anything funkier sounding than “Superstition” or “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.”
For beauty and sadness you can’t beat Stevie’s ballads like “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” (the b-side of “We Can Work It Out”) which is a masterpiece. Then there’s “Too Shy To Say,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet” or “You And I.” And don’t forget “Ribbon In The Sky,” “Overjoyed,” and “Lately.” He’s SOOOOO good! I could pretty much end up listing his whole catalog.
But if I HAVE to pick ONE song for my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE Stevie Wonder track, I’d say “I Wish” from 1976. A perfect record with an amazing groove and fun horn arrangement, I dare you not to relate to the lyrics or the feeling.
For the Stevie fan who’s ready to go to another level, check out the two albums he did with his ex-wife Syreeta. You may know her voice from Stevie hits like “If You Really Love Me” and "Come Back As A Flower" or distinct background vocals on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).” Both of her early LPs "Syreeta" (1972) and "Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta" (1974) are filled with great Stevie songs and performances and features the original version of “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” that Jeff Beck took to new heights as an instrumental (apparently, Stevie promised “Superstition” to Beck before realizing he wanted to keep it) on the "Blow By Blow" album. Syreeta & Stevie did one other single together called “Harmour Love” after they divorced and it’s worth seeking out too.
Finally, don’t be afraid to pick up the “Jungle Fever” soundtrack from 1991 which was recorded quickly and the songs benefit from lack of “overthinking” and still sounds fresh (and dope). Stevie's been known to take his time finishing up albums which ultimately ends up working against him because by the time the album's released it's already kind of dated.
Seeing Stevie Wonder in concert is a mindblowing experience too. I’ve been fortunate to see some incredible Stevie concerts but my favorite has to be in the mid-90’s when I worked the Saturday shift at Aron’s Records in Hollywood. Stevie was doing his first ‘Toys For Tots’ benefit show at the House Of Blues and I left for lunch that afternoon, met my friends at the show and NEVER WENT BACK to work! I was right in the front and Stevie played an amazing set of classic songs.
I was actually on a plane with Stevie once and got to shake his hand and briefly say hello and I mentioned that I knew his brother Calvin.
“Oh you know Calvin?” Stevie replied.
The story is, a musician friend of mine used to always see this guy named “Calvin” at his neighborhood 7-11 and they always talked about music. One day Calvin told him his full name, which was Calvin Hardaway. My friend called me and asked me if I ever heard of a guy in the music business named Calvin Hardaway and I told him it was Stevie Wonder’s brother and he was surprised and said he talks to him at 7-11 almost every day.
In the 70’s and early 80’s Calvin was literally Stevie’s right hand man and a major part of his organization and was the one who held his arm while walking with him on and offstage and even at the Grammys. Calvin would coordinate Stevie’s studio recording sessions and was even featured in a spoken part on one of Stevie’s biggest songs “Living For The City”—that’s Calvin who proclaims “New York, just like I pictured it” before he gets thrown in jail in the middle break of the song.
At some point my friend gave Calvin some Mother Superior music to listen to (pre-Rollins days) and he dug it, especially my singing. He told my friend that he also wrote songs and asked if I would want to come to his apartment one day and sing on some of his demos. About a week later I found myself in Calvin’s living room with headphones on singing a few different songs he wrote (including one called “Let It Go”). All of them had nice, soulful R&B feel, but it was easy to see that Stevie was the one truly blessed with singing and songwriting talent in the family (even though Calvin is listed as co-author of "Have A Talk With God" which instantly makes him one of the best songwriters ever!). I kept singing take after take with Calvin pacing around the room excitedly and slapping my back HARD when he got really pumped up. "Uh-Huh!" SLAP! “Do it again Jim!” he would yell loudly and excitedly, “it’s starting to get REAL GOOD!” SLAP! Calvin was in and out of his freezer where he kept a big ol' bottle of SOMETHING and he also rolled a phat one that he proceeded to smoke all by himself. At one point he told me to keep singing and said he would “be right back” and left the apartment for a good ten minutes before coming back like nothing had happened. He listened back to what we recorded that day and kept telling me I was gonna be “the next Red” which confused me until I realized he was talking about Simply Red. So in other words he was saying I was the next “white soul singer” and I gingerly accepted the compliment.
Overall, Calvin was really nice to me and I was just happy to be in the presence of some ‘Wonder’ blood and he mentioned playing the tapes “to some people” but I never really heard from him again and I never got a copy of those songs either.
A few years later on another excursion to the Valley I was with Mother Superior Marcus and our friend Jim Laspesa who gave us a lift to an auto shop that was doing a brake job on the band van. To kill time while we waited we drove down Ventura Boulevard looking for some action and the marquee at the book store at Laurel Canyon screamed “Blind Faith” like it was 1969 and maybe Clapton & Winwood were doing an acoustic gig. “No, wait a minute,” I shrieked, “that’s Stevie Wonder’s Mom’s new book!”
It was 2002 and Stevie’s Mother, Lula Hardaway had just written “Blind Faith,” her autobiography about raising her children including one who was a blind musical genius. It just so happened that she was doing a badly publicized in-store autograph session that day and we quickly scurried into the book shop and found Lula, co-author Dennis Love and an embarrassed employee with about 10 empty chairs and a stack of books surrounding him. We bought copies and had them signed and told them how lucky we were that we stumbled onto this event because we are all MASSIVE Stevie Wonder fans. Lula was really nice and appreciative that we knew so much about Stevie and his music. When I mentioned the story about singing for Calvin, to my surprise she said “Oh you’re the one? I remember Calvin telling me about you and how much he liked your voice.” Whoa, one degree of Wonder separation!!
Unfortunately, we lost Lula in 2006 but luckily she convinced Stevie just before she passed that he should make an effort to get back out on the road and share his message and his music directly with the people and he has remained active since making that final promise. And because of that he is currently in great voice and I can’t wait until his next album comes out.
And now straight off the Vinyl Shelf is one of my rarest collector’s pieces. Here’s a 1976 radio show called “Inner View” featuring an ultra-rare conversation with the man at his peak. Enjoy!