Stevie reaches higher ground
Travelling with the Rolling Stones (everything's alright)
In music, careers can turn on a dime. In 1972, Stevie Wonder’s career turned on a tour.
The Rolling Stones’ fifth American tour, to be precise, and their first such excursion in three years: a summertime itinerary of rock 'n' roll, exhibitionism and excess, with a top ticket price of $6.50 and a new album by the band, Exile On Main Street, in tow.
That April, a three-paragraph report in Variety had caught Johanan Vigoda’s gaze. “Rolling Stones bow U.S.-Can. tour in June,” declared the headline. The New York lawyer, who looked after Wonder’s legal interests, turned to musician/technician Malcolm Cecil, who was also his client, to ask if he had any contacts with the band. “As it happens,” said Cecil, “I know Mick.”
That the Stones were interested in having Stevie join their caravan was no surprise. In their early years, they were under the thumb of American blues and R&B. Like the Beatles, they tackled Motown songs, "Can I Get A Witness" and "Hitch Hike" among them. There was another, spooky connection. In his autobiography, Keith Richards recalls the arrival in 1969 of disturbing news about Brian Jones, recently fired from the group: "We were in the studio when we got the phone call not long afterwards, cutting with Mick Taylor. There exists one minute and thirty seconds of us recording 'I Don't Know Why,' a Stevie Wonder song, interrupted by the phone call telling us of Brian's death."
On June 3, 1972, Stevie Wonder joined the Rolling Stones’ roadshow, opening at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. On July 26, he played his final date with the Britons at New York’s Madison Square Garden. In between, the 22-year-old from Saginaw, Michigan, was seen and heard across North America by more than half a million people. Nothing for him would ever be the same again.
How Malcolm Cecil and fellow music technologist Bob Margouleff met Wonder in 1971 and helped to explore and capture his unique creativity is a familiar tale. Their attorney soon became Stevie’s, and he negotiated the deal by which the adult Wonder re-signed to Motown that July, complete with near-total control over his music’s release by the record company. “Stevie decided that he needed a sharp New York lawyer,” Cecil told me in 1991, “and Bob and I said, ‘Vigoda is the man.’”
If Vigoda was also the man with the vision to realise that touring with the Rolling Stones could capture for Wonder the rock ’n’ roll audience, it was Stevie who fulfilled the promise. “Combining a moog, clavichord, drums, harmonica and piano into his repertoire, Wonder broke out of the stereotype Motown sound and into new material from his album, Music Of My Mind,” opined the Arizona Daily Star after the June 14 show at Tucson’s Convention Center Arena. “The audience, which had obviously come to see the Stones, warmed up quickly to Wonder and his eight-man band.”
At the Los Angeles Times, influential rock writer Robert Hilburn commented, “There is substance and direction to [Wonder’s] music, a viable alternative to the earlier, pop-soul style. For a while, I only missed the first style, now I find myself enjoying the new. Wonder is a gifted young artist who is still in the process of growth.” Stevie and the Stones played three venues in the Los Angeles area June 9-11, including two shows at the Inglewood Forum.
At the New York Times, Don Heckman reported, “Spectacular as the Stones were…my most vivid memories are of the charged-up playing and singing of the blind soul singer/musician Stevie Wonder and his crisp little band, Wonderlove.” The Big Apple's Madison Square Garden was host to the tour for three dates, July 24-26, with a total of 60,000 tickets sold.
Stevie’s 55-minute set featured early hits such as “For Once In My Life,” “I Was Made To Love Her” and “If You Really Love Me,” some oldies associated with others (“Rockin’ Robin,” “I Need Your Loving”) and material from Music Of My Mind, including “Superwoman,” “Love Having You Around” and “Keep On Running.” His finale gave audiences the opportunity to hear a show-stopping “Superstition” in concert -- three months before it was released by Motown on record. Wonder had already been in the studio with the song: the week before the tour’s first show in Vancouver, he was adding parts to it with sax player Trevor Lawrence and trumpeter Steve Madaio at New York’s Electric Lady Studios.
Even when on the road, Wonder would return to the recording booth if he could. On June 12, the day after the final Los Angeles concert and before his performance in San Diego the following night, he spent the afternoon in Hollywood’s Crystal Sound, cutting “Tuesday Heartbreak” with alto ace David Sanborn. (The track would appear on Talking Book, his next album, in October.)
Stevie’s first LP under his new Motown contract, Music Of My Mind had come out in March. The tour subsequently boosted its sales, and the album charted higher in Billboard than any Wonder release in nine years, but the record company felt deprived of a hit single. “When we played ‘Superwoman’ to [senior Motown executive] Ewart Abner,” recalled Malcolm Cecil, “his basic attitude was, ‘That’s not a single, what’s this ‘Mary wants to be a superwoman’ shit?’” When released as a 45 in April, “Superwoman” barely reached the pop Top 40.
By contrast, “Superstition” exploded in October to become Wonder’s first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 since 1963, and the accompanying Talking Book graduated into his first-ever Top 3 pop album, spending more than two years on the charts.
But as with his music, Wonder and his advisors sought to go beyond Motown in other respects. Early in 1972, they contracted with an independent New York PR firm, Wartoke, to pursue publicity opportunities afforded by the musician’s new-found independence. A major interview with Associated Press was carried in newspapers nationwide as the Stones trek began, and Stevie was unafraid to talk about politics and race. “I’m so tired of people just saying things to ask us to vote for them,” he told AP’s Mary Campbell. “I’d like to see things really happen. I’m sure if I could see, I’d probably be deeply into protesting a lot of things.”
Wonder went on, “I’ve got a song, ‘I Wanna Talk To You,’ on my last LP, Where I’m Coming From, that has a black man on a plantation saying, ‘I want to talk to you.’ Each line progresses into a more current time until the last line, ‘I don’t want to talk to you. I’ve been listening to you for 200 years, and it’s time to form my own ideas and have my own feelings and have my own identity.’” Stevie added, “We’re prejudiced, black and white, against each other, which is stupid. I just want to do what I want to do, make music, as many kinds as possible; I don’t care about any of that garbage.”
Stevie and Mick Jagger made music on the road, sharing the microphone for renditions of “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” In fact, these were to be a highlight of the “live” album of the tour, according to trade press reports of the time. Malcolm Cecil also confirmed that many of the performances were recorded; the Stones’ own label was due to release a double LP in November. It never materialised.
No matter. As far as Stevie was concerned, those 40 shows in 30 cities during the summer of ’72 sealed a future of abundance and of a creative stature almost beyond measure. Talking Book sold 1.6 million copies in the U.S. on release – three times more than Music Of My Mind – and its successors, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, claimed domestic sales of 2.1 million and 1.5 million, respectively. In the 1970s, these were impressive numbers. Moreover, two of the albums netted a total of ten Grammy awards. And on April 1, 1976, Wonder signed a new deal with Motown for a greater bounty than ever, and delivered what many consider to be his signature work, Songs In The Key of Life.
As noted above, music careers can turn on a dime. Forty-five years ago, how fortunate it was that Johanan Vigoda turned to Malcolm Cecil.