STEVIE WONDER: MARCH 1995: A B&S CLASSIC INTERVIEW
With Stevie Wonder currently on his first european tour in over 10 years, Pete Lewis recalls going to Paris in March 1995 to meet the maestro himself and attending the live world premier of the then-new 'Conversation Peace' album...
Standing in the cold wet rain at Liverpool Street station during a Tuesday morning rush-hour is hardly the most stimulating of scenarios. However, when one is en-route to France to meet with one of the world's most celebrated and acclaimed musicians, the situation can take on a different light... Indeed, even the never-ending queues and brusque customs officers of Paris' teaming Charles DeGaulle Airport are soon forgotten on arriving at the city's central Le Meridian Hotel, where a fast-increasing number of journalists from as far afield as Norway, Austria and even Russia are gathering to attend the official Stevie Wonder European Press Conference - held of course to accompany the release of Stevie's long-awaited new LP, 'Conversation Peace'.
Two hours later, said multi-national bunch of journos are all seated downstairs in the hotel's sizeable conference-room, tape recorders in hand, patiently awaiting the presence of The Wonderman, whose eventual arrival is greeted with suitable applause, cheers and much flashing of cameras. Eventually settling down to address his audience, Stevie begins by reminiscing on his first-ever performance in Paris - at The Olympia in 1963 - before speaking directly on the peace and unity theme lying behind his new album's title-track.
"The travelling, the people I've met, and the many influences I've had over the last six or seven years play a very significant part in the inspiration behind it", he begins to a now-hushed crowd: "One thing in particular I think of as I sit here is that, since my last major European performance, there's been the tearing down of The Wall between East and West Berlin, and there does seem to be a desire for a united Europe. Obviously we are aware of the many confrontations that are happening in different parts of the world. But I'm sure if all of us are serious about unificiation - be it through the United Nations or we as individuals - our various countries will work hard at making that not just an idea but a reality. As I speak in the song 'Conversation Peace', we must NEVER let life revisit the atrocities that have happened in the past. We must reassure the future of our youth, so they will never again have to experience the ugliness of racism, bigotry, or prejudice of any kind."
With his opening words already comfirming Wonder's reputation as a charismatic and articulale speaker with a wide-ranging, multi-cultural outlook, Stevie next invites general questions from the floor. The overall dominance of the tabloid press ensures a barrage of topical, yet decidedly non-music-related questions being raised at this stage, ranging from Stevie's view on new American Right Wing politics ("Some people think it makes a lot of sense; I think it makes a lot of NON-sense") to the recent Michael Jackson troubles ("I never thought he was guilty in the first place, I still don't").
Meanwhile, more interestingly, Stevie next announces how he no longer has plans to pursue a full-time career in politics ("The platform that I feel I use best is my music"), before 'B&S' is finally given limited time to speak to the man directly on topics of a more musical nature...
Firstly Stevie discusses the length of time 'Conversation Peace' has been in the making (bearing in mind that - with the exception of 1991's soundtrack 'Jungle Fever' - it is his first new album in over seven years).
"Unlike some have suggested, no writers block has happened - basically what I've done is just allow me the time to experience life", he begins: "As much as this is a business that I am in, I make it my business to not make it SUCH a business that I can not do the natural process! While economically it is a great thing to have a record out every year-and-a-half, and there are definite draw-backs if you don't, I have just taken the position of a long time ago... That is, that when you're given the gift of music you must also allow yourself to replenish and experience the things you have to do in life. I mean, the many composers of hundreds of years ago didn't have records out every year-and-a-half! So I don't feel funny about the time that it takes me at all!"
Next, Stevie tells how much of the songwriting inspiration for ‘Conversation Peace’ came from his recent well-publicised visit to Ghana, the last of which saw him headlining Pana-Fest - Africa’s first international festival of music: “I went there in the summer of ’92 and I’d only been there for 18 hours when I decided I’d eventually move there permanently”, he relates: “So, when I was invited back again by the President to stay at the Government house, I wrote about 40 songs within that month-and-a-half stay. You know, I was a little bit away from the phone ringing and just in a great situation, where I could let the gift of God work and give me ideas and inspiration to come up with some songs that I feel good about.”
While ‘Conversation Peace’ continues Stevie’s lyrical trademark of placing love songs alongside messages of social conscience, he is nevertheless philosophical about recent R&B trends that have seen social conscience almost entirely disappear from a spectrum that is today dominated by songs of upfront sexual love.
“First of all, I feel that music has always been a reflection of society and only some people decide to go beyond that immediate reflection to write about things that are generally forgotten about on a day-to-day level”, he replies thoughtfully.
“I think that today people are ‘doing it’ more and TALKING about ‘doing it’ more… And maybe it’s because of that whole thing of ‘You better be careful and don’t…’, I don’t know… But I would stress that I feel that this is not just a case of African-Americans, or any one gender or group of people. I mean, you got talk and gossip shows over here, in Japan, in England... You know, people these days wanna KNOW! So I just think what is happening with music in general is a reflection of society as a whole... And, just like everything else that has happened in music, you have trends and there’ll come a time when people will NOT be talking about these various things. Although I’m sure that they will be talking about ‘making love’ - in SOME kinda way - for EVER! In fact, I HOPE they will! Because that, after all, is how life is created!”
So, on a more extreme edge, how does he feel about the possibly more negative lyrical stance of today’s gangsta rap?
“I see a lot of rappers as modern-day griots. As you know, the griots were the ancient-story-tellers of the African villages and it is no different today”, replies Stevie again thoughtfully: “Unfortunately there’s a lot of pain within the hearts of young people, and I know as a man of 44 that I’m glad I was not raised in this time. All of which says, or shows, that we have not done a really great job, and we as older adults are gonna have to change that, and I think that’s a responsibility of everyone throughout the world! There is opportunity for change, and I think that we can make those changes. If not, I do believe that, in the spiritual realm, the power of God along with nature will change it, whether it be through natural disaster, whatever... You know, people are gonna have to wake up!”
Following which, Stevie’s time is once more shared with the remainder of the press party. Topics now discussed include his blindness plus his work for the Duke Ellington School Of Music, before his new single is revealed to be a remix of ‘Cold Chill’ by Prince, whom Stevie describes as a “very very good person” before bringing the afternoon’s session to a close with a hilarious impersonation of Berry Gordy discussing his autobiography!
Meanwhile, just three hours later, the same group of journalists once more assemble in the hotel foyer, this time to be transported towards the north east suburbs to attend the live world premier of ‘Conversation Peace’ by Stevie and his band, at Paris’ new Cite De La Musique. Inaugurated by President Mitterand in January `95, the Cite is an impressive multicultural musical complex, arguably comparable in its grandeur to London’s Royal Festival Hall. Here, in these suitably auspicious surroundings, Wonder is led onstage by his three backing singers to the tumultuous applause of a mixed crowd which includes some notable Parisian celebrities. Dressed regally in purple, he proceeds to deliver cuts from his aforementioned new album alongside such old European favourites as ‘My Cherie Amour’; ‘Signed Sealed Delivered’; and - Stevie’s mega-successful concession to pop - ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’.
The evening is not over yet, however, as - following the show - ‘B&S’ becomes one of the only a handful of guests invited to sip champagne backstage with the Wonderman himself, Who, after greeting us with a perhaps surprising (yet genuine) “Very nice to see you again”(!?!), proceeds to pose for pictures, shake hands and charmingly converse with the select gathering of European media bods and record company execs present. Thus bringing a suitably memorable end to some precious hours spent in the inspiring company of a true music genius.
Stevie’s current European Tour runs from September 8 to September 30 (including dates at London’s O2 Arena on 11 and 30)
The album ‘The Definitive Collection’ is out now.
The following albums are re-released September 15 - ‘Talking Book’; Innervisions’; ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’; and ‘Hotter Than July’. The album ‘Music Of My Mind’ is re-released September 22, all through Universal Motown.
Words PETE LEWIS