Songs in the Key of Life

I’ve received three manuscripts in the last couple of days – always exciting. Now if only I can find the time to read the damn things.

Here’s the introduction from one of them – Zeth Lundy’s book on Stevie Wonder. Will post extracts from the other two, later this week, with luck.


The gun belt that Stevie Wonder wore the day he foisted his sprawling new album upon a pampered press corps was branded with pun and pomp: NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET, it read. The belt, its holsters awkwardly cradling LP jackets, was merely an ornamental portion of Wonder’s ostentatious cowboy outfit, fringed and cream-colored and every bit as tongue-in-cheek as the day’s celebration was decadent.

The 145-acre picturesque Long View Farm in North Brookfield, Massachusetts seemed a peculiar location from which to unveil the fruits of a prolonged, two-year labor; after all, Wonder’s idiosyncratic R&B, a melting pot of funk, gospel, jazz and pop, was hardly the stuff of hayrides and stabled thoroughbreds. But this was hardly just any album that the throng of reporters and special guests, replete with champagne, roast beef and pie, was hearing for the first time — this was Dionysian excess on record, a two-LP-and-bonus-EP set that looked down upon more humble records like a potbellied Frankenstein of technology, genre and craft, a career-defining resting place for the final fevered expunges of unmatched creativity.

Such immoderation was likely expected by those attending the exclusive day of lavish merriment. A $75,000, 60-foot-by-240-foot billboard announcing Wonder’s impending album, besieged in eye-seizing rainbows, clouds and stars, had been sitting kingly atop New York City’s Times Square for four months. It was an impossible-to-miss public proclamation of commerce in vibrant, anticipatory pastels. The guests passed the billboard (then the largest in the country, perhaps the world) earlier that morning as they were transported to Kennedy Airport in a school of three buses. They had come from Essex House, a luxury Manhattan hotel, where they had been instructed to congregate at 7:30am that morning. A breakfast buffet greeted their bleary eyes and anxious stomachs. While they ate, Wonder’s public relations manager, Ira Tucker, discussed the day’s involved schedule with early-morning leniency.

The buses delivered the nametag-bearing guests to Kennedy, where they boarded a DC-9, were served in-flight champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and landed a short time later in Worcester, Massachusetts. Three school buses took them deep into bucolic America and their final farmland destination in North Brookfield. The entire trip was a premeditated series of smokescreening exchanges, as if this mass of several hundred people was re-dousing itself, hour to hour, to throw unseen dogs off its scent.

As they debussed for the second time that day, the invited stretched their dormant legs and repositioned their sunglasses. The din of the city and the disorientation of the journey receded as everyone assimilated to the fresh country air and awaited the $30,000 listening party. Here, in the middle of a New England nowhere, they were soon to be privy to the year’s most awaited release, a pop cultural event whose pregnancy had been hawkeyed by an impatient, worldwide audience.

And then Wonder appeared, descending a staircase to greet his captive audience. Smiling broadly in his Western getup, his head rhythmically bobbed from side to side. He had cancelled one of these listening parties earlier in the year so that he could tinker with the final product, mindful of its immensity yet sensitive to its perfection. It was too late to do such a thing again. There was a crowd of people standing in front of him. They had been brought here for an unveiling. Still, he could stall just a little longer; after all, they had waited this long, what was another five, ten minutes? Wonder rambled on about his interpretation of the music, about “love mentalism” and about “a positive tomorrow for all people, where we do not just talk about love or just feel it as a temporary thing, but really relate to it as something that lasts forever in our hearts and in our spirits and in the way that we do and our character.”

Then there was nothing else that could be said that the music couldn’t say better.

“Let’s pop what’s poppin’,” Wonder said.

The 1/4″ tape on the reel-to-reel rolled.


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