We are delighted to host another guest post by David Heffernan. From Dublin, David is a vastly experienced and much-decorated music producer and director. His credits include international films on The Velvet Underground, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac.
‘Shut up ?’ weren’t the first words I expected to hear from one of the most celebrated genius figures in popular music. I was in the presence of Stevie Wonder and about to discuss with him a film on one of the most ambitious, influential recordings of the 1970s, a record generally regarded as his magnum opus: ‘Songs in the Key of Life’.
I’d spent a month of late nights working on an episode of the television series, Classic Albums, about Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’. During the making of that record, all five members of the band had lived a life where the line between art and real-life experiences had become indistinguishable. Despite the overwhelming success of the album, they had all paid considerable personal prices. I’d had four weeks in an edit room trying to make sense of their marital break-ups, prodigious drug-taking and remarkable ability to survive and endure. While producing a pristine pop masterpiece in the process. It had been an exhilarating but also an exhausting period in my work life.
With me was Nick de Grunwald, who devised and executive-produced the Classic Albums series. On 23 May, 1995, we attended a live concert at the Royal Albert Hall in aid of the Royal Institute for the Blind. Stevie Wonder hadn’t played London in years and the anticipation in the audience was enormous as he emerged centre-stage, surrounded by a stellar band of musicians and singers for the two-hour set. Much of which was pulled from his life-affirming output during the 1970s.
Not unlike the celebrated classical composers of previous centuries, like Bach, Handel and Mahler, Stevie’s ability to absorb what he heard around him and make something new and fresh – something of the time and in the moment – enchanted the audience that night. In between songs, members of the audience shouted for their favourite songs and Stevie responded curtly: ‘Shut up’.
The following morning, we were met in a hotel lobby in West London by one of his brothers and taken up to Stevie’s suite. He was at the piano, dressed magnificently – if somewhat incongruously for a foggy London morning – in full African robes, playing a beautiful, mid-tempo melody. We were formally introduced and were quickly down to business: the next year would be ‘Stevie-time’ for me.
‘And most of all, I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn’t make an album this year’: these were Paul Simon’s parting words on stage as he received a Grammy in 1976 for the ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ elpee. Stevie had claimed Grammys during the previous two years and would go on to pick up another five awards twelve months later, testament to a remarkable run of musically innovative and commercially successful records during that decade.
He was innately musical from an early age, banging out rhythms on cardboard boxes, pots and pans before receiving a cardboard, home-made drum kit one Christmas. A charity in Detroit eventually gifted him a set of drums. He was an inventive and determined youngster, finding access to a piano at the age of three and owning one himself by the time he was seven, a parting gift from a neighbour who was leaving the area. At school he played around on whatever instruments were to hand, early hints at a prodigious talent. He’d mastered the Hohner chromatic mouth organ before he was ten, enabling him to experiment further: ‘I keep finding new things, new chords, new tunes’, he said. By 1961, he’d so impressed Berry Gordy that he was signed to a contract that included a spot on the Motown Revue, where he’d develop his performing skills, playing live across the length and breadth of America. Mainstream success ensued quickly.
By the mid-1970s, Stevie had released a string of exceptional auteured albums. A prodigious run began with ‘Where I’m Coming From’ , ‘Music of my Mind’ and ‘Talking Back’  and ‘Innervisions’ the following year. ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’ followed in 1974 before ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ was released two years later. Those records alone represent a truly incredible body of work by any standards. So why did we decide to include ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ in the Classic Albums series above the others ? Stevie, who was one of the co-producers on the project, believed that ‘Songs …’ was the record that best reflected his own ambition during this period. With its wide panoply of musical and narrative ambition, it had taken an age to realise: it was the one we believed, therefore, that should be included in the series.
There was an awful lot riding on that album too, not least of all for Berry Gordy who had signed Stevie to a seven-year, seven-album dead worth $13m, then the biggest recording contract in history. Stevie had also been granted complete artistic control. ‘Songs …’ is now regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, especially among musicians, and in 2005 it was inducted into the U.S. National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, which deemed it ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’.
Following our first meeting in the Hyde Park Hotel, I returned to work on the ‘Rumours’ film in London and, at various intervals over the coming months, would talk with Stevie on the phone in Los Angeles about how he envisaged the Classic Albums project. He hadn’t previously involved himself to such an extent in any documentary project. He’d done a profile interview on the ITV South Bank Show series in the early 1970s but his involvement was perfunctory and not exactly whole-hearted. But after a series of extensive discussions with producers, he eventually committed to the Classic Albums idea. Throughout our conversations he was forthcoming, open-minded and not lacking in ambition: he wanted to re-assemble the group of musicians who had originally played on the record twenty years previously and re-record a selection of the songs on it.
‘Songs in the Key of Life’ was released as a double album and the original issue included a bonus EP: the total number of songs on it comes in at a staggering 21. The maximum duration allocated to the television documentary was fifty minutes, with a 75-minute duration afforded a non-broadcast DVD version. So while Stevie’s commitment to the film was never in question, I needed to make editorial sense of how we were going to realise the project practically. As well as the songs and the music, the film also needed to provide some insight into Stevie’s working processes and his personal relationships with the musicians during the making of the record. As a personal indulgence, I was also keen to get him to play drums on camera, something I hadn’t seen previously and an element I thought many music lovers would delight in. Following a number of delays, we finally commenced recording over three days at his Wonderland Studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Whatever misgivings I had already became redundant: I just had to be alert and ready to roll cameras.
‘Stevie-time’ was a term used by his tightly-knit group of musicians when referring to Stevie’s time-keeping. Or, more to the point, his tendency to work outside the 9-to-5 framework and adhere to what many people consider to be reasonable schedules. Punctuality wasn’t guaranteed. Given the architecture of filming for television or cinema, the production schedule is the centre-piece, an essential road-map for crew members, musicians and assorted others who need to know when and where they need to be and when they can expect to leave.
The first day of filming involved multiple cameras set in various areas around Stevie’s studio complex: I was anxiously awaiting his arrival, which I needed to capture on tape for inclusion at the top of the film. Despite the casual atmosphere among the musicians and Stevie’s studio personnel, I’d instructed the camera crew to be on stand-by: it was essential that we be as prepared to film as was reasonably possible.
I was out by a loading bay at the rear of the building, discussing the shape of the day ahead with another of the executive producers, Bous de Jong, when I glimpsed a large SUV arriving. Stevie, escorted by his son, Keita, and daughter, Aisha, from his marriage to Yolanda Simmons, glided into view, well ahead of schedule. So much for Stevie-time ! We managed to cover his walk through to the front of the building where the musicians, many of whom hadn’t seen him for two decades, were waiting.
Following a series of short introductions, Stevie disappeared into a tiny, darkened room that contained just a baby grand piano. I found him there playing arpeggios, loosening up, I presumed, for the day’s recording and filming. Although my first instinct was to hastily scramble a camera operator and film this quiet, intimate moment, I instead just stood back and listened surreptitiously, watching him play. It’s a unique musical experience that I still cherish.
One of the obvious challenges of directing is to elicit the best possible performances from those in front of the camera and hope for some form of magic to emerge. Alongside Stevie’s own set-pieces and the musical performances, one of the key scenes in the film involved him in conversation with two talented engineers, John Fishbach and Gary Olazabal, both of whom had worked on the original recording. John was the owner of Record Planet studio, where much of the album was recorded, and he’d driven from New Orleans with a truck that contained an assortment of analogue recording equipment. This was how Stevie preferred to record and mix sound, another example of his attention to detail and commitment to perfection.
Gary began his career as a tape operator on Stevie’s ‘Innervisions’ elpee and continued to collaborate with him over subsequent decades. During the making of our film, he was actually working with Michael Jackson. He initially requested that the playback sessions we were recording as a key aspect of the film, be the sole preserve of Stevie and himself, something I couldn’t agree to. He may have felt that his long association with Stevie should allow him special status but eventually relented and sat between Stevie and John for an interview, making an important contribution and giving valuable insight into the story of how and why the album was recorded as it was. By doing so, viewers saw the three-way inter-personal dynamic between them, as they reflected on the enormous amount of time and commitment that the recording of ‘Songs’ entailed.
Great musicians, and indeed other gifted exponents in all art forms, can often bring out the best in those fortunate to work with them: one often has to up one’s game or be left behind. So it proved on set. Stevie was extremely well prepared for what was, by any standards, a three-day work marathon. He was also very receptive to the production suggestions, especially about how best to capture the technical playback of the instrumentation passages as we broke down the various song structures. Both of these elements are key ingredients in the Classic Album recipe. Once trust had been established we got down to work. A lot of work.
Only once did Stevie’s energy flag. At the end of a long day’s filming, and as I led him off the set, he asked me if I’d ever been to a Baptist Church ceremony. He suggested that if we weren’t too tired that he’d pick me up the following morning and attend one together. Unfortunately, fatigue got the better of him on Sunday morning and it was straight back on location for both of us instead.
The list of those interviewed for the film reads like a ‘who’s who’ of African American music. Herbie Hancock played keyboards on ‘As’, one of the stand-out tracks on ‘Songs …’ and we interviewed him in the basement studio at his house just off of Sunset Boulevard. He was gracious with his time and, alongside his reflections on Stevie’s ingenuity, concluded that he was ‘the best of what a human can be’. Similar sentiments also featured in the contribution of the fabled producer, Quincy Jones, who concluded that Stevie is a ‘most giving person, a profound person’. Notwithstanding the obvious tendency to reach for hyperbole in these circumstances, where celebration can easily over-ride criticism, it struck me that Stevie was genuinely and sincerely admired by the Titans of popular music.
As we prepared to interview him, I sat with Quincy Jones underneath an impressive array of gold and platinum discs at his home in the Hollywood hills. Many of those mementoes had been awarded to him for his production work with Michael Jackson, most notably on the hugely-successful ‘Thriller’ album. I mentioned that I thought ‘Off The Wall’, with its array of simple but hugely effective percussion parts that under-pinned many of the songs, was the rhythmic template for ‘Thriller’, which remains the biggest-selling of all time. Jones told me that ‘Michael phoned that album in’ because he was touring with The Jackson 5 during its production. Himself and Michael Jackson were no longer on amiable terms.
As well as being a huge admirer of Stevie Wonder’s body of work, it was clear that Quincy Jones also held him in huge, personal esteem and regarded him as a valued and loyal friend. He reminded us that the last time they met was at after the death of Ray Charles: they spoke with great humour about the order in which they wanted to die: like an old married couple, one not wanting to live on without the other, true simpatico.
After we’d finished our work and were preparing to leave, I noticed a music magazine with an image of Tupac Shakur on the cover, on a side table by the door. Tupac was then dating Quincy’s daughter, Kidada. Within six months the rapper was murdered in Las Vegas, Nevada, a reminder of some of the dark forces that existed inside the American music industry especially, and perhaps ironically in this instance, for African Americans. Kidada Jones was in their hotel room when he was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Months after we’d completed filming, I was back again in Los Angeles. I needed Stevie to record a short audio sequence for the top of the film and he was keen to play me the mixes of the songs we had recorded during filming. He walked towards me and, ever-playful, arms out-stretched, proclaimed that he had obviously gone to great lengths to dress-up for our meeting. He was in an old t-shirt, faded denims and a well-worn waist-coast, far removed from the sartorial splendour he displayed when we first met many months previously in the Hyde Park Hotel. The arc of Stevie-time.
In his book, ‘The Story of Music’ – a brilliant, breezy tour through 40,000 years of music that was also an acclaimed BBC television series – the celebrated composer, writer and broadcaster, Howard Goodall writes glowingly about Stevie Wonder. Goodall cites him as the key figure in ‘70s popular song writing, a worthy member of a distinguished lineage that began with George Gershwin and Cole Porter in the 20s and continued with Dylan and Lennon and McCartney in the 60s. His work is determined by a mastery of instrumentation and an innate ability to hone the blues and gospel sounds he grew up listening to, combined with an unprecedented use of syncopation across a wide range of music styles, especially Central and South American forms. Goodall claims that ‘he is surely one of the 20th century masters in any field’, concluding that ‘we see his masterly hand behind all modern black music’. ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ encapsulates these qualities in a most remarkable fashion. As Herbie Hancock remarks in our film, ‘Stevie Wonder made a mark in music, which is that popular music can be art too’.