The genius Stevie Wonder turned 65 years old yesterday. It is hard to believe that he has reached the official point of senior citizenship. It seems like just yesterday when I first heard his records. He was a kid like I was. A Taurus like me too, he called himself “El Toro Negro” (The Balck Bull). A decade older maybe, but still a kid. A big fun loving kid who dressed like Ray Charles played the piano and caused trouble when he picked up that harmonica to play it. His youthful exuberance made the occasion of my Uncle Dave’s funeral truly memorable because my older cousins Joan, Jimmy and Carl (Uncle Dave’s niece and nephews) were all closer to Stevie’s age and had been hip to the Wonder get down before me. They, fortunately, wanted to share the gift of Stevie’s genius with their little cousin, and the gift has kept on giving ever since.
There aren’t many artists or records that you can recall exactly where and when you first heard them, but for me, Stevie Wonder is one of them. I was six or seven and I’d traveled from Soul City with my mother and grandmother to Springfield, Massachusetts for was supposed to be a sober and somber event when I “got it”, for real, after hearing my older cousins playing “Uptight”, the slangy, up-tempo, Soul Music romp by the then sixteen-year-old Stevie, the night before Uncle Dave’s home going – funky bunch of kids we were.
Like most African-Americans of, or near my generation, I have felt a deep connection to Stevie Wonder’s music for the past fifty years. He is the most important musical reason that I chose to pursue a career as a record man. Earlier today, I did what I normally do on the great man’s birthday, I listened to his music, and I posted some of it on my Facebook timeline.
A noted author who wrote, an important non-fiction book about a particularly messy, and corrupt period in the career of a key record business figure who I’d worked with about 25 years ago, made what appeared to be a sarcastic remark about how much I love Stevie Wonder. Though he is a celebrated author with a national reputation, his comment revealed a lack of consciousness. Because if he understood what it meant to be young and Black in an America that was finding its way after King was assassinated, and during the rise of Black militancy as exhibited by; the Panthers, Stokley Carmichael’s SNCC, and Angela Davis; during and after Vietnam and Watergate. If he understood how closely intertwined Wonder’s music was with the struggle and rise of a people, and how that music, which was as potent as King’s message of non-violence. or James Brown’s message of self-determination, and how that music provided a platform that Wonder used to get the King Holiday through the US Congress, and how many house parties that music jumped off, then yes, he’d understand how much I love Stevie Wonder. I loved him because he was a potent voice of my America when we didn’t have many. Happy birthday El Toro Negro, nobody ever did it like you. Thank you.