Stevie's signature: still delivering
The role of The Rockin’ Mr. G
Just last month, a Democrat in Howard County, Maryland, announced that he would stand for county executive in the 2018 midterm elections. The candidate walked into the room where the declaration was made to the tune of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” If the voters approve, perhaps he’ll get to air it again next November.
The song has a track record with Democrats. In 2008, the staff of another politician, Senator Barack Obama, selected it to play while the results of the New Hampshire presidential primary were coming in. This proved to be a poor choice, and a Tuesday heartbreak: Obama lost that particular primary to Hillary Clinton.
Eight years later, First Lady Michelle Obama sang “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” while spinning around the South Lawn of the White House, in a Carpool Karaoke segment of James Corden’s The Late Late Show. The YouTube clip of that performance has since attracted more than 50 million views.
The backstory of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” has been mentioned in a couple of Wonder biographies, and the song has clearly appealed to more than politicians. Versions have been recorded over the years by everyone from Peter Frampton to Chaka Khan, from Rufus Wainwright to the California Raisins, and, of course, it’s figured in television talent shows such as The Glee Project and The Voice. Not to mention advertising: Stevie recently approved the song’s use in a German TV commercial for carmaker Audi.
On this occasion, let’s turn to the recollections of one of the “Signed, Sealed…” songwriters, Lee Garrett, whose personal history has been entwined with Wonder in several ways. They first met at the Michigan School for the Blind, then became reacquainted when Garrett was a young radio DJ (“The Rockin’ Mr. G”) at R&B-formatted WHAT-AM in Philadelphia. “We didn’t talk about the time we were at school,” Lee told me for The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits. “If [Stevie] didn’t remember, I didn’t want to dig back that far.”
Soon afterwards, Wonder persuaded his sight-impaired school friend to move to Detroit, where he was hired by another R&B outlet, WGPR-FM. “I think he brought Aretha Franklin’s sister, Carolyn, to the station, and wanted me to play one of her records,” said Garrett. “So we played the record.” Their bond grew stronger. Garrett, who had made a few recordings for small labels, began writing songs with Wonder and his girlfriend, Syreeta Wright.
When we spoke, Mississippi-born Garrett recalled that the trio’s first commercial collaboration was “It’s A Shame,” as recorded by the Spinners. “It was Stevie’s first production. He was doing ‘It’s A Shame’ and ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ at the same time, but ‘It’s A Shame’ came first.” That may be the chronology of the songwriting, although liner notes in The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 10: 1970 advise that the track for “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” was recorded first, in August 1969.
“He brought me another track [after “It’s A Shame”],” Garrett continued, “and we listened and listened. And Syreeta and I went into the basement and, it was kinda funny, we both started singing ‘signed, sealed, delivered.’ Stevie said, ‘Shut up, shut up!’ because I guess it hit us all three at the same time. From then on, we just bounced around with lyrics.” One line by Garrett was inspired by an earlier Motown hit: “Like a fool, I went and stayed too long/But now I’m wondering if your love’s still strong.” He remembered, “I got that from Stevie’s “I’m Wondering.’ It felt good there.”
The afore-mentioned basement was at Wonder’s home in Detroit, where the three often worked. “I felt Motown had one Stevie Wonder,” said Garrett. “They didn’t need another [blind] guy bouncing around. I used to go there once in a while, but I could never work there with Steve. I just didn’t feel comfortable – I always felt they thought I was after Stevie’s thunder.”
The songwriting credits of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” run to four names: Wonder, Wright, Garrett and Stevie’s mother, Lula Hardaway. In Mark Ribowsky’s biography of the Motown star – yes, it’s called Signed, Sealed, and Delivered – the author contends that Hardaway gave the song its name as Wonder was playing a skeletal version across the room at home. “Nobody knows this,” Garrett said to me, “but as a gift to his mother, he gave her part of the song.”
Garrett knew first-hand what music was inspiring his friend. “The only thing other than Motown and Stax that he was into was maybe a little Neil Sedaka and Paul McCartney. He loved Paul. But he couldn’t hear people like Pete Townshend.” Even so, Wonder was always listening – and sometimes too often, according to Garrett’s account of a meeting Stevie had with Berry Gordy. “He said, ‘Man, Berry said that shit ain’t gonna happen, that psychedelic shit is going to pass, and we may as well go back to the regular [Motown sound].’ And I said, ‘Hey, Stevie, Berry don’t know everything.’ ”
In the final analysis, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” owed its musical debt to Memphis. “[It] could have been sung by Johnnie Taylor, that’s really who we were creating it for,” noted Garrett. “And Stevie said, ‘Damn, I think I’ll record this shit myself.’ ”
Wonder's connection to Garrett loosened in the early ’70s. “We started to drift. Our friendship stayed, but the collaboration didn’t, because he was running everything.” The onetime disc jockey returned to radio in Chicago, then moved to Los Angeles. “One night I walked to the Whisky a Go Go, and Steve was there, so we hooked up again.”
Garrett had his own brief spell in the spotlight during the middle of that decade, as the first American artist signed to British-owned Chrysalis Records. “You’re My Everything” was a modest U.S. chart-rider for him in 1976, and achieved Top 20 status in the U.K. The following year, the musician bonded once more with Wonder – although not in a manner either man could have anticipated.
The Los Angeles Times report of July 7, 1977, was brief, but to the point: “Singer Stevie Wonder helped talk his financially troubled former composer out of shooting himself Wednesday, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Lee Garrett, 26, called a mental health center to say he was going to commit suicide and then locked himself in the bathroom of his West Hollywood apartment, according to authorities. Wonder and other friends of the composer who were summoned to the scene, deputies, two psychiatrists and a family doctor were able to talk Garrett into coming out.”
Now that’s signed, sealed and delivered.