West Grand Blog


Songs In The Key of Fish?

‘I call it pretty Musiquarium…’


It’s tough to imagine Stevie Wonder as a fisherman, although he has caught the musical devotion of millions. To this day, it’s not entirely obvious why the name Original Musiquarium I was chosen in 1982 for the first “greatest hits” compilation of his adult career.

      Still, it gave designer Norman Moore some ideas to work with (and perhaps Stevie had been told that Moore created the logo for Rick JamesStreet Songs, the coolest Motown LP of 1981). In the event, the sixteen hits on Musiquarium were portrayed on its cover art as colourful fishes, and raised as braille-like images on the gatefold sleeve.

Musiquarium 1.jpg

      This Wonder retrospective was originally released in the spring of ’82. Next month, it makes its return as a double-album vinyl reissue, which will at least give the fishes greater scale than on the front of the CD version.

      Shortly before Musiquarium appeared, Stevie had signed a new deal with Motown. This was for five albums, accompanied by the largest advance guarantee against future sales that he had ever received: $1.6 million per album. The pact was negotiated by Wonder’s crazy-as-a-fox attorney, Johanan Vigoda, and Motown Records’ fourth president, Jay Lasker. Naturally, it also required the approval of Berry Gordy, who was only too aware of efforts by others to acquire his superstar’s talent. After all, Motown had recently lost Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye to rivals.

      “Stevie realises that money is only a part of what makes one’s life,” declared Gordy at a press conference held in Hollywood on April 13, 1982 to announce the renewal (Wonder had signed the paperwork on April 1). “There are also relationships, loyalty, a lot of other things. There is part of the human being that says I’m not for sale for money only.”

      Whatever part of Stevie’s life then was made up of money, the value of his music was reinforced by Original Musiquarium I. In addition to twelve of his greatest hits, it featured four new songs – although, technically, one of them was not entirely new. “That Girl” had come out as a single in late 1981.

      When Musiquarium went on sale on May 4, 1982, it was actually covered by Wonder’s previous contract. He had been offered $2 million by Motown to allow his post-1971 hits to be reeled into a single LP; he responded by angling for $3 million for a double-album, including four new tracks. Worried about the strength of its release schedule for the year, the record company agreed. (When rumours of a forthcoming Stevie release began circulating in the business, Motown is said to have told its independent distributors that they needed to be fully paid up to be sure of getting the album.)

      Motown had also wanted the $13.98 set in record stores when “That Girl” was climbing the charts, to maximise marketing and promotion opportunities. But in true Stevie style, he took his time to finish the other new material: “Front Line,” “Ribbon In The Sky” and “Do I Do.” This was perhaps understandable in the case of the last track, a 10-minute tour de force with more than 20 musicians playing behind Stevie, and a solo by pre-eminent jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Two weeks after Original Musiquarium I made its debut, a three-minute edit of “Do I Do” was delivered as a single; Gillespie also appeared in a promotional video for the song.

Stevie, Berry and Jay Lasker

Stevie, Berry and Jay Lasker

      Ultimately, the entire project lived up to expectations. Musiquarium was a Top 5 chart success, spending more than six months among the best-sellers. At home and abroad, it sold two million copies – a satisfying result for what was essentially a compilation of previous hits. There was one disappointment. When the 1982 Grammy nominations were announced, “Do I Do” was a contender in no fewer than three award categories: R&B song, instrumental arrangement accompanying vocals, and R&B male vocal performance. Unfortunately, it lost out to competition from George Benson, Toto – and Marvin Gaye, who by then was at Columbia Records.

      Motown did manage to reel in a couple of Grammys that year, for Lionel Richie’s “Truly” and the Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip.” This was Lionel’s first-ever Grammy, and he, too, had a new Motown deal in 1982 – a solo agreement netted one month before (as they say in the trade press) Stevie “re-upped.”

      Wonder took those vows exactly six years after signing his previous Motown contract on April 1, 1976. The latter was seen as a new benchmark for the music industry; it was publicised as a $13 million deal. “We expect at least one album a year from Stevie over the next seven years,” announced Motown Records president Ewart Abner at a press conference, “and we will make money on the deal.”

      Except that Abner said this in August 1975, long before anything had been signed, sealed or delivered. Motown’s priority then was to keep other record labels from stealing Stevie. Company morale “was important, and we thought of it during the negotiations,” said Abner. “But we are in business and it was not the prime factor.”

      Stability was probably important, too. Although Wonder had a strong relationship with “Ab,” the executive was about to be fired. He had lost the confidence of Berry Gordy, who already had a replacement lined up: Barney Ales, the firm’s former executive VP and general manager. The claim of a fresh deal with Stevie would help to offset any negative reaction to Abner’s exit and allay industry concerns about Motown’s corporate health.

Dizzy and Stevie in Wonderland (photo: Michael Jones)

Dizzy and Stevie in Wonderland (photo: Michael Jones)

      And so it fell to Ales to complete the negotiations with Johanan Vigoda, a man whose unruly appearance – and a habit of losing his car keys, inadvisable in Los Angeles – was the antithesis of his legal smarts. By March 1976, terms were agreed; as noted above, the contract was signed on the first day of April.

      The two businessmen liked each other. “I never had any problem with him,” said Barney Ales of the attorney, “outside of cleaning out the sunflower seeds [which Vigoda constantly chewed and spat out] after we rode in my Rolls-Royce. And before him, nobody really took care of Stevie. He believed one hundred percent in Vigoda.” For his part, Barney Ales had long believed in Wonder: they both joined Motown in 1961, and even shared the same birthdate, May 13.

      The finalised 1976 pact promised to earn Wonder a minimum of $5.5 million and a maximum of much more, beginning with the double album he was about to deliver: Songs In The Key of Life. The superstar paid the cost of making his own recordings and delivering the music as he wanted it, with complete creative autonomy. “It was,” Vigoda told me in 1976, “just a question of balancing two requirements: what [Motown] needed to survive, and what Stevie deserved.”

      Regardless of the April 1 dates when these contracts were signed, Stevie Wonder was nobody’s fool. We can enjoy Original Musiquarium I once more, and hope there’s more fishing to come.

Adam WhiteComment