Stevie Wonder at Old Grey Whistle Test – Stevie Wonder talks about the negatives of being a child star, his moving away from Motown, his use of new instruments in his music and upcoming projects.
Interviewer: Stevie, you were a big star when you were 12,13 years old. Has it been difficult for you to overcome that kind of prodigy image?
Stevie: It’s taken a good while and in a sense, it still exists. Every once in a while, I hear a person say “Little Stevie Wonder” and this kind of makes me feel kind of like “Hey, I’m 6 ‘2 now” but you know I guess it’s life. It’s just like any person that has the label at the beginning of their name or the tag little – Little Willie John or even Little Anthony in The Imperials you know. This takes a good while. I think that if the combination of the company, the people, the disc jockeys or whatever you know the people that keep up with the artist are aware of growing or progressing physically, mentally or whatever you know. I think that then you can lose the title a little. It’s definitely not as bad as it used to be, not 90% as bad as it used to be.
Interviewer: If you had to do it all over again if you had to carve a career out for yourself from nothing would you choose to do it the same way?
Stevie: I’m beginning to feel that I would have preferred to start may be a little older because a lot of things that I feel now, musically and a lot of my old tunes I listened to and I feel kind of down about it because if there were any people that did not dig me I could understand why. I mean, it’s really funny. I think too that I guess when I was 10 I was 10, when I was 11 I was 11 and when I was 13 I was 13 and now that I’m 21 I’m 21 and I hope that when I get older I will be older. Musically, more experienced, more aware of what’s happening, would have experienced a lot of you beautiful things you know that would cause me to write a certain way. I’m very thankful that God or a supreme being, whatever you believe in did give me the talent or whatever to write because it gives me a chance to express what is within you know, express the good times and the bad times. The unfortunate circumstances under which a lot of people are under, oppressed and all these things do influence me in my writing.
Interviewer: It’s obvious that for a while you’ve been loosening your ties with Motown. Did you feel restricted by them, by the way that they handled you?
Stevie: I think that the problem with Motown basically was that I came to then when I was nine years old and so not only did they consider me an artist but they considered me almost like a child. So therefore what happened was a lot of things, a lot of times it was because they felt that I was young and they felt well, when I did say, Hey, you really should drop the ‘little’ because I’m like 5 ‘7, you know?” And said “What is this cat, what are you coming from?” You know, but in other words all of the things I guess the thought that I was saying on the different interviews that I had etc. I don’t know if it felt that I was just making it or just saying it because it sounded good, but they were things that I really believed in and one of the things that I did say on an interview was that the fact that I don’t particularly want to be called ‘Little Stevie Wonder’ anymore and this is like when I was 14, 13 going on 14. Only because there were a lot of artists number one, coming out with the title ‘Little’ and I was getting taller and people would say well; “Hi, this is Jack Joe from the radio station and this is a Little Stevie Wonder”. I’d say, “Hi”, you know. I mean is just, you know it’s just too much. I could not deal with that.
Interviewer: Did the control what songs came out, what songs to put on albums, what songs were made into singles?
Stevie: They did. I think it was partially because of the fact that I was in school and again this is that I was young and was not really aware. I wrote the thing for The Four Tops- Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever. You hear that before?
Interviewer: Yeah sure.
Stevie: And I wrote that thing for Smokey, “Tears Of a Clown” that I said they should put out a long time ago. The never did put out and I’m just glad that when they did put it out it was very successful. It was successful here.
Interviewer: They put it out in England first.
Stevie: Exactly, you know.
Interviewer: What’s your relationship with Motown now though? Because I think you’re based in New York right?
Stevie: Well, I do a lot of my recording in New York, a lucky lady – a Crystal Los Angeles and I do producing for other artists at the company. We still have an understanding, we’re still close, this basically now. A lot of things I wanted to do and I feel that the only way that I can do what I want to do totally in my way of being the best way is to be free enough to do them. I think that this is not only happening for me but for Marvin Gaye too, you know. Truly in his last album “What’s Going On“, where he’s had the freedom, the freedom to grow. I think that what happens is when you depend so much upon a particular writer or writers of the company you begin to get a particular thing just from these writers and when the writers split or feel that they are indispensable then they split and feel they can do better somewhere else. I think that then you have to realize the talents of the artist.
Marvin Gaye has always been a very talented person and the other artists that are very talented. Lawrence of The Four Tops is a very talented person and I think that the artistic freedom is very important. Definitely for me because if I felt that I could not be free more and more on stage or writing or whatever I probably would not even be in the studio right now.
Interviewer: I’ve heard some of the tracks from you in the next album which is out in a few weeks time and is a great surprise. There’s a lot of very different things on it and it seems strongly that it is getting away from the accepted format of soul or R&B music.
Stevie: We’ll see, you know my whole thing about soul like a lot of people say: Stevie wonder is black and he’s a Soul artist. I consider myself, number one, as being myself you know, accept me for being me and also I feel that having soul is having the ability to express what you feel inwardly in singing and whatever you do to express whatever you feel inside, to bring it out to the public where other people can relate to vibrations or whatever you give off, the feelings that you give off. That is to me what is soul. A lot of people have said to me you’re a soul singer, which I really don’t particularly like. “You’re a soul singer.” I just like to feel that I am a person if a person or whoever considers me as being present with disability to be able to express a song or sing a song and to relate to it either directly or indirectly, you know, from people that I’ve met that have experienced a particular thing and me in my life experiencing a particular thing.
I kind of hate a person feeling that like Paul McCarty or John Lennon or George doesn’t have a what is known as soul because soul is I think in a sense being able to make a person be so emotionally involved in a particular thing that they can cry about it or can smile about it. It can be any kind of song. But as long as you really for real about it. A person that imitates or sings note for note is not the person, I don’t think they have soul because you’re not really doing anything you’re taking what someone has already done and trying to create the same kind of image. That is what I consider; figure out what I said.
Interviewer: You’re using a synthesizer on the new album and lots of other things.
Interviewer: Are you going to be trying to get to another audience, to a different kind of audience?
Stevie: I just like for everyone to see where I’m at. I’m not going to change. I mean I have been here for a long time. I’d like to be here for a long time. I’ve been writing the kind of things on the album for a long time. It’s just that people kind of felt it wasn’t me you know. But I feel that whatever comes from me is me and if it’s wrong and then its me to be criticized. But I feel that it’s me. Anything that I write or particularly even now than more than before, like the album is me. The “Where I’m Coming From” album was me then. I’ve learned a lot of things, I’ve met a lot of people and experienced a lot of situations and I will probably tomorrow have a whole different or basically another dimension I guess about life you know. The tune ‘Girl Blue’ came about after I heard about King Curtis who was killed you know and it was really amazing because I loved him as a person. He’s a very beautiful person and he used to always say to me:” Hey man, why don’t you play the harmonica?” I’d see him at a place playing somewhere and you say, “Hey why don’t you play the harmonica because this is where I wanted to play.” You know? And I kind of felt that ‘Girl Blue’ was to a lady friend of his and to Aretha, that must have taken the tragic blow very, very hard and I did. I was in LA, it was just a shock. In the same day Diana Ross had just had a child you know, it’s just amazing. You know, one life goes, another begins and I don’t know. It is really fantastic, the entire work was like I almost cried when I think about it because he’s really a beautiful person and I feature the harp synthesizer on this and the harmonica and the harp is in a sense to me in a sense spiritual. And that I almost felt that he was saying to them that life goes on you know, and life is beautiful. It just depends on what to do with it and how you use it and it’s whatever I guess that I have given you ,you pass on to other people and only the good things.
Interviewer: Stevie, thanks very much and we’re going to hear some of ‘Girl Blue’ now. It’s from Stevie’s forthcoming album and in fact, this is the first time it’s been heard anywhere. ‘Girl Blue’.