Stevie Wonder is not his real name of course, but Steveland Morris. In fact his name at birth was not even Morris, but Hardaway, he was given his stepfather’s name in childhood. He was not born in Detroit, but moved here as a child from Saginaw, an hour away. He was not born blind, but lost his sight due to oxygen depravation as an incubated, premature infant.
He was not my age, but just a few years older and his ever-present wrap-around shades disallowed even a peek at his hidden, sightless eyes. He moved in a rhythmic bob and weave on some still, invisible axis, pulling sound like a satellite from the dark around him; an unfathomable existence that we imitated but never mocked.
He was led onto the stage and for the only time in our well-mannered young lives we could openly stare at a blind human being. He was called a genius and we never questioned this title as we watched him tread his unseen path to every instrument on stage and play like an adult virtuoso.
His dancing lacked the precision turns and moves of the other acts, but was instead a rhythmic clap and wobble, awkward and ecstatic. We held our breath terrified he’d fall into the orchestra pit when he hurled himself from the piano to the edge of the stage.
Always, before he stepped one last dire inch, he’d be snatched back from certain catastrophe, though perhaps this too was a choreographed performance, each hop to the abyss carefully counted out in Stevie’s genius head.
His blindness was a profound thing, a multiplier of his already extraordinary gifts, though it was clear that he played and lived much as a sighted child. I was fascinated with the blind and deaf Helen Keller and was endlessly curious about the signing and speech of my own deaf cousin.
My early interest in the deaf and blind coincided with the emergence of Little Stevie Wonder, perhaps a reason he left such an imprint on my heart. Regardless of how the blind and deaf joke at themselves, few things bother me more than jest at their expense.
No matter what acts performed at the Motown review, in my mind he was always The Star. Each year during the holiday season, in line in the freezing cold, I was always glad to wait once more for Stevie.
My father’s record shop was just blocks away from the Motown studios. I always called him when I got home from school; one day someone who was clearly not Daddy answered the phone.
“Joe’s Record Shop” said the strangely familiar voice.
“Who is this?”
“This is Steveland”.
To my astonishment, he said a few more cool-boy-in-high-school kind of things in that Signed, Seal. Delivered voice. I dropped the phone in my excitement; it bobbed on its cord and I hung up, stunned! I was shocked to be on the receiving end of this bona-fide heart-throb conversation.
I called right back but by then it was Daddy’s voice; his young guest had apparently been playing on the phone long enough.
“Daddy, who was that???”
“Well it was Stevie Wonder, didn’t he tell you?”
I begged my Mama to get in the car and take me to meet him but at that moment, probably knee deep in dinner cooking, she had no such time, and it was probably in the days when we only had one car. I had been exposed to more than a few artists by that time, but I’ll always remember that phone call with Stevie.
Over the years of afro’s, braids and locks – on he and I – my love for Stevie has never waned, regardless of his hits or popularity. He pioneered innovations for the blind from his work with computerized sound and was recently willing to try radical surgery to restore his sight, though it was determined that it would not be successful. His birthday song became the anthem of a national holiday; Signed, Sealed, Delivered was the clarion call for Barack Obama.
Still, I was not alone in ridiculing his rather loopy metaphysical ramblings that were increasing in songs he wrote after a near fatal car crash in the early 70‘s. But one anguished, sleepless night his latest record played in my headphones through haze of drink and psychic pain, and in a songwriting conceit that few achieve without controversy, he sang as the Voice of God into my fevered mind:
“You will know, troubled hearts will know, problems have solutions, so I made it so”.
I listened to this mystical musing and in an epiphany became willing to consider – finally – that some Higher Help might fix my troubled life; it was the beginning of the end of my hopelessness.
I keep a magazine photo of Stevie in a special place, a reminder of that night when some Other Voice used his to speak to me through headphones in a song. Finally, the Gospel According to Stevie made some sense to me, after years of waiting for that too.
In the summer of 2001, Stevie Wonder, who had been living in Ghana, West Africa, came back to headline Detroit’s Tricentennial Celebration. No event equaled the excitement of the chance for Detroiters to see him again.
Almost a million people packed the Riverfront for his concert; but of course that many people means that in order to see, you had to have a seat many hours before the concert began.
I didn’t of course, so I pushed my way as close to the stage as possible, which in fact wasn’t close at all. The sight of almost a million was terrifying, til I realized that the multitudes were oddly peaceful, a synthesis of urban souls so remarkable we looked at each other stunned that we could get along in such close Detroit quarters – old folks, suburbanites, crack-heads, kids. We pushed and shoved, laughed and danced – and waited for Stevie.
I tried to find a place where I too could view the stage, but folks were packed so tight that I could barely see; I burst into tears like a child. Finally, surrendering to the immensity of the crowd, I watched with others on giant screens from a block away, and the hundreds of thousands partied as if we could see him in the flesh, satisfied just to be a part of the multitudes on such a glorious night.
I realized the real “wonder” was not just Stevie, but Detroit’s polarized humanity dancing in peace “without incident”, singing his songs still, after 40 years.
I had waited to see Stevie on that hotter than July night with almost a million others, just as I waited in the cold during holiday week as a child. And as long as we’re in both in the land of the living, I’ll still not mind waiting for Steveland.