The Pop Life

by Neil Strauss
New York Times
January 25, 1995

Talking to Stevie Wonder, it sometimes seems as if there's little distance between pop music and social issues. Speaking recently by telephone from his Los Angeles home, Mr. Wonder, one of pop's most enduring performers and writers of love songs, concluded his comments about Boyz II Men with the non sequitur, "I just want to ban handguns: that's my thing." And when talking about the House of Blues club in Los Angeles, he stopped his anecdote short to muse about Newt Gingrich.

In addition to having a musical career that dates back to when he was a 12-year-old signed to Motown records, Mr. Wonder, who is 44, has a long resume as a political crusader. So it makes sense that Mr. Wonder's latest tour (his first in the United States since 1988) is not to promote a new album, but a new charity. The tour, a benefit and food drive for the Charge Against Hunger campaign of American Express, was at Madison Square Garden last night and will return tonight. The concerts are sold out.

After many delays, "Conversation Peace," Mr. Wonder's first new album since the soundtrack to the 1991 Spike Lee film, "Jungle Fever," is to be released in late March. When asked what he had been doing between albums, Mr. Wonder said he'd been to Ghana (where he wrote most of "Conversation Peace"), spending time with his four children, touring in Europe for Share Our Strength, working on other charity campaigns and considering various offers to score movies.

"Movies are always a good challenge," said Mr. Wonder, who has been blind since shortly after his birth, "because it's taking what's happening visually, and, even though I'm not able to see it, getting a sense of the movie and finding a new way to work with it."

"Conversation Peace" sounds like a result of years of polishing and refining. It is a mix of soul, gospel, funk and urban contemporary music that enlists the South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo to help on a song about hunger ("Take the Time Out"), the gospel choir Sounds of Blackness on one about family and togetherness ("Conversation Peace") and the saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the trumpeter Terence Blanchard and the singer Anita Baker on a song about infatuation ("Sensuous Whisper").

Remarkably, "Conversation Peace" doesn't sound preachy or sappy. Part of the reason for this is Mr. Wonder's incredible ear for harmony, melody, arrangement and studio technology. The album proves that not only has Mr. Wonder been listening to a lot of contemporary music (he even does a dancehall reggae rap on one song), but he has also been understanding it. This could be because many of today's best-selling pop musicians, from Babyface to Boyz II Men to R. Kelly, have clearly learned a lesson or two from Mr. Wonder's early recordings.

"I'm always being told that people sound like me, but I have no problem with that," Mr. Wonder said. "I think it's a compliment if I've touched someone's life and if I've influenced them in some way. I know I've been influenced by a lot of people and music, from the string part of a symphonic piece I hear on the radio to something I hear my children listening to. You're influenced all the time, and the day that you cannot be influenced by anything good is the day that you really have let your art die." Bathrobe and Earmuffs

If the rock-and-roll auction (billed to be the world's largest) held in Manhattan last weekend by Guernsey's is any indication, rock collectors are a strange bunch. None of the offbeat auction house's rarest collectibles, including Elvis Presley's first-known acetate recording, a guitar of Jimi Hendrix's and a 1957 Chevy Bel Aire coupe customized for Ringo Starr, were sold.

So what did sell? A bathrobe belonging to John Paul Jones, formerly of Led Zeppelin, went for $950; a towel of Elvis Presley's was sold for $150 (to Conan O'Brien), and Presley's earmuffs went for $150. The auction's highest priced sale was a 1959 Les Paul Sunburst guitar, which went for $50,000, and its fiercest bidding was over a drawing of a fetus by Kurt Cobain, which sold for $15,000. Poetry written by a teen-age Courtney Love (Mr. Cobain's widow and a member of the band Hole), which was provided by a third party, was withdrawn after a complaint from a lawyer for Ms. Love, said a spokesman for Guernsey's. Loose Notes

*In mid-March, two consecutive nights of performances by Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickle club in December 1965 are to be released. Columbia Records is putting them out as a 7-CD set, and Mosaic, the mail-order company, is releasing them as a 10-record set. Davis's band includes Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Though excerpts from these performances were originally released as a two-disk set in 1976, these recordings will provide aficionados with evidence of how a band in its prime evolves over the course of two nights. Davis was ill and did not perform much in 1965, said Michael Cuscuna, who is producing the box set. "In these performances, it's interesting to hear a band that was moving forward play their old repertory," Mr. Cuscuna said. "It's like the past being attacked by the future."

*Tomorrow night, a rare performance by Joni Mitchell is to be broadcast live on radio stations across the country. The concert is to take place in Los Angeles at the Wells Fargo Theater, a tiny concert hall that seats only 240 people. In Manhattan, WFUV (90.7 FM) will broadcast it from 9 to 10 P.M. After the show, Ms. Mitchell plans to take questions from fans on the America Online computer network.


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