Seldom does one come across a person as gifted and giving as Stevland Morris. A deservedly acclaimed musician, songwriter and philanthropist, Stevie Wonder merged soul, funk, pop, rock, and rhythm and blues in a way that blew away barriers and showed everyone that you could be simultaneously tough and tender. Together with his peerless, extraordinary voice and unbridled spirit, Wonder was easily destined for musical greatness. Motown's greatest musical genius so moved the music world that at the wee age of twelve he had a number one hit with "Fingertips, Part Two."
Wonder's gifts are far from existing solely in the artistic arena, though. He has been one of the most socially and politically active people of his day. Witness his ongoing fight against blindness (the Stevie Wonder Vision Awards) and hunger (Charge Against Hunger). We also have him to thank for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday--it was his crusade, alongside King's widow, Coretta Scott King, that persuaded Congress to establish Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday, beginning in 1981.
As Wonder turned 50 yesterday (May 13), the man who has won 21 Grammys, had nearly 30 top-10 hits and sold over 100 million records, celebrates his first ever retrospective. Released this past fall, At The Close Of A Century (Motown/UNI) represents one of the most significant musical repertoires of our time, and collective proof that Stevie Wonder is indeed a Mozart for our time.
drDrew.com: Getting Congress to anoint MLK Day a national holiday must have made you very proud.
Stevie Wonder: I'm proud and I'm very happy that God gave me the spirit to come up with a song ["Happy Birthday"] that was really the rallying call for everyone. It broke all the barriers of race and ethnicities and all that because everyone was into the celebration of it. During the time of the first MLK Day march--within that year, we had lost two very great people--Bob Marley and John Lennon. I think people have to understand that it is not an African-American holiday. It is a day for everyone.
drDrew.com: Do you think it has gotten more difficult for young people to succeed today?
SW: It is so difficult for most kids when they're without a father--boys, you know that. You don't have someone around you who says, "Hey, that's not right," or "Hey, here's a way to do it," or "Hey, here's a book to read," or "Here's another way of looking at that or this." I watched the last movie Tupac [Shakur] did. It's really amazing. And it's really sad that he died the way he did because he had so much talent, so much to give. And he was just a baby, just discovering the world. I can hear, in the last album that he did, that he was really reaching out to discover and to kind of put together something.
drDrew.com: Your music career started at such an early age, were you prepared for the demands of a professional career, and did you have strong guidance?
SW: For me, everyone who was over thirteen was my parent. With Motown, I grew up with people that would not let me do certain things. Now I sneaked and did a few things, you know what I'm saying? But let's not talk about those! But for the most part, there were people who took a position and said, "No, you can't do that." Or if I thought I was so good doing something--playing a note or a piano solo--they'd say, "Hey, you so bad, now do this!" And I'd say, "Aw, shit!" My mother gave me an understanding that as good as you think you are, you're not so great. There's always room for improvement. The reality is when people don't have someone to give them a sense of guidance, and say, "Hey, man, that's not happening," it's really hard.
drDrew.com: What could you say to encourage aspiring musicians in the highly competitive and bottom-line nature of the business?
SW: There's nothing wrong with competitiveness. What is wrong is if you take it too seriously. It's crazy because the reality is there is enough for everybody. And when people get to a place where they really think that "this is so serious, so deep"--they have to remember that, listen, this stuff was here long before you were born, long before I was born, and it's gonna go on long after we're gone. So enjoy it, have fun with it.
drDrew.com: What newer artists are you taken with?
SW: Babyface, I really like his work and he said he likes my work. The truth is, I said, "Hey, I need to work on my stuff a little more, this guy's good!" But I felt those things with love and appreciation because, hey, it is an honor that I have been someone who has inspired other people. But they inspire me too. Lauryn Hill--incredible. Shania Twain--she's got a great voice and in her I can hear Karen Carpenter a little bit. When I hear the different composers that have done orchestrations for films, I say, this is incredible. I want to do that. There is so much in music to do. It's so big.