WORCESTER TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
September 12, 1976
By Richard D. Carreno
North Brookfield – It was part good-natured hoopla, and in the jargon of the industry, it might have been called "very laid-back."
Rock singer Stevie Wonder unveiled his long-awaited three-record album, Songs in the Key of Life, in a press preview here Tuesday, but there was also no ignoring the obvious.
So even as the smell of marijuana wafted through the air, there was no forgetting that business, after all, is business, and that was really the point that inspired Wonder and his retinue to leave Los Angeles early Tuesday to visit this Central Massachusetts community and the 145-acre Long View farm, a recording studio here which is part of a growing trend in backwater production facilities.
It was conceived, according to the publicity, as a day in the country for about 100 reporters and photographers who also showed up, and that it was. The horses, dogs and grass (the kind you cut) was part of what the backdrop was supposed to – meaningfully – signal.
"We feel that this (ambience) is conducive to what the record is all about," said a spokesman for Motown, the record company to which Wonder is reportedly under a $14-million, seven-year contract.
But it was also Wonder's big day. After a two-year wait, and a deluge of advance publicity, including a $75,000 billboard over New York's Times Square, Wonder's much-heralded new album was finally about to be released to the public. It was proclaimed – not so modestly – as a day to be remembered.
That remembering meant spending more than $30,000, according to reliable estimates, for a catered spread from the Salem Cross Inn, a hayride, liquor from Tammany Hall in Worcester, helicopter rides, a Los Angeles-based film crew to record the day's events, a chartered DC-8 jet to wing the reporters from New York to Worcester, and for school buses to truck the press entourage here, well, that was, it seemed, at least some of the price of music immortality.
For the blind singer, a nine-time Grammy winner, it also meant dressing up – for unexplained reasons – in a beige cowboy suit and packing on a holster two albums to which were attached cardboard pistol handles.
Even Rex Trailer, New England's most famous television cowboy, appeared in civvies, and gushed about the day's events, "I love it."
So did, apparently, most everyone else, for the day, as described by Gil Markle, Long View's owner and impresario, was "pure decadence. That's what it is."
As for the gimmickry, Ted Hull, who used to be Wonder's tutor, said, "It's part of the business. The most interesting quote I've heard from Stevie is, 'You've got to pop with what's popping.'"
So what did it matter that some reporters were only along for the ride? No one questioned that one New York-based writer was actually a sports reporter who got to make the trip when his publication's music critic was forced to bow out.
It was Songs in the Key of Life which was the important thing, and they danced to it, toe-tapped to it, hummed to it and some might even write about it later too.
The album's production delay was explained by Rod Jacobson, president of Wartoke Concern, Inc., Wonder's publicity agency in New York, as rooted in Wonder's desire for "perfection."
At any rate, noted Motown spokesman Bob Jones, orders for the new album, expected to be released worldwide on Sept. 30, have already reached the "platinum" level, or 1 million units, Songs in the Key of Life, it was made clear, was already a big deal.
For his part, Wonder took a more introspective approach to the work as he described it to his audience "as significant as my life in that it relates to a lot of experiences in my life and a lot of people, my people and the black people."
It was sort of "love mentalism," a way of looking at "the problems in this life as a form of growth," and stating "constructive criticism which will make for a better tomorrow."
Love – Wonder refers to love frequently it seems, -- isn't a "temporary thing," he said, but something which "lasts forever in our hearts and (in) our spirits and in our characters. I know in my heart that I gave my all and all…"
Heard in the Mind
And from the hearing, it also became clear, it was those themes, "the sounds I heard in my mind," according to Wonder, which were dominant in the 21-cut album. Surrounding the music, at times disco-oriented and then elsewhere orchestrated with the simplicity of chamber music, were lyrics which spoke unrelentingly of brotherhood, roots and – in titles, too – of love.
"Stop" hate "before it's gone too far, gone too far," Wonder implores in "Love's in Need of Love today."
It's an uplifting message in "Have a Talk with God." "… Every problem has an answer and if yours you cannot find/ You should talk it over to him," Wonder sings.
In "Sir Duke," he recalls "Basie, Miller, Satchmo," and there's Sir Duke" with "a voice like Ella's ringing out." In "Black Man," Wonder sums up, 'This world was made for all men."
In "Pastime Paradise," Wonder speaks of "race relations," "segregation," "isolation," "exploitation" and "integration." No matter that non-word "verification" also pops up. Wonder sings, "Let's start living our lives – Living for the future paradise."
Was Songs in the Key of Life, as noted by Motown's Jones, not only a "milestone" in Wonder's career, "but in the recording industry?"
Local Police Chief Harbig Thomasian, who directed security and who called himself "a television man, really," for one, didn't indulge in such cosmic overviews. It was just "something" to have a star in town, he observed.
"Actually, I enjoy it," said Thomasian, a 28-year veteran of the force. "It's something new for me."
Author's note: the allegation of drug use was retracted a day or two later by the newspaper, in a tiny note buried deep inside the paper that no one saw. Five years later still, a different reporter from the same newspaper would allege (falsely) that another rock star, Mick Jagger, had been seen smoking marijuana cigarettes on the tennis court right next to the high school.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.