Songs in the Key of Life - Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul - Craig Werner

Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul - Craig Werner (2004)

Chapter 4. Songs in the Key of Life

The Gospel Vision
in Changing Times

BY THE FALL OF 1974, THE TEMPTATIONS’ “Ball of Confusion” should have been the national anthem. Richard Nixon had fled from office in disgrace, only to receive a full pardon from Gerald Ford. The year’s best films, Chinatown and The Godfather, Part II, hinted that Watergate might be the rule rather than the exception. South Boston erupted in violence over school busing. One of the most telling photographs of the period showed a white Bostonian trying to impale a black attorney with an American flag. The Ohio National Guardsmen on trial for killing four student protesters at Kent State were acquitted of all charges; no one seemed to even remember the black students gunned down by the Mississippi Highway Patrol at Jackson State a week later. American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks faced the possibility of a long prison term on charges connected with the protests at Wounded Knee.

Whatever the calendar said, the seventies had finally arrived. By the time the election of Ronald Reagan signaled their end, about all the president and his detractors could agree on was that the sooner we forgot about the immediate past, the better. For seventies-bashers on the right, the decade represented the culmination of sixties hedonism. The arrival of what Tom Wolfe labeled the “Me Decade” simply confirmed what Spiro Agnew and then-California governor Reagan had been saying all along. The counterculture wasn’t really about saving the soul of America. It was simply a flight from the harsh realities of adulthood. The left’s version of the story played a set of variations on the same theme. The revolution had disintegrated into materialistic hedonism, and visionary commitment had lapsed into cynical self-indulgence. Drugs, which had once promised to cleanse the doors of perception, now fueled the mindless motions of disco robots. It just wasn’t serious.

It was hard to shake the lingering images of a world gone wrong: blank faces and vacant words at the Watergate hearings; American helicopters lifting off the roof of the Saigon embassy; Gloria Steinem confronting unrepentant legions of male chauvinist pigs; endless lines at the gas pumps; blindfolded hostages being paraded through the streets of Tehran; Jimmy Carter’s saintly smile withering into a perplexed grimace. In much of black America things looked even worse. Black Power had promised more than the civil rights movement and delivered much less. The urban industrial economy had completed its agonizing collapse into a nightmare of stagflation. The Supreme Court’s Bakke decision began the formal dismantling of many of the freedom movement’s gains. As the seventies stumbled to an end, few Americans would have refused to join Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris in toasting the demise of “a kidney stone of a decade.”

In time—very quickly, in fact—a new seventies appeared in popular memory. A different set of images bubbled up from the depths of our collective memory. The grim reality reflected in the decade’s best movies — Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now—was gradually superseded by a Day-Glo world illuminated by a smiley-face sun. The new, improved seventies were enough to make even a stout-hearted fashion designer weep. It was a world of polyester, platform shoes, and gold medallions; exploding sideburns, towering Afros, and celebrity skin at Studio 54. For those too young to remember the actual seventies—and for many who just wanted to forget them—the nostalgic remix edited down to a single image: John Travolta, decked out in a blinding-white three-piece suit, striking the classic disco pose. Soundtrack by the Bee Gees and the Village People. No one ever went to a seventies revival party dressed up as Aretha Franklin or Stevie Wonder, but their music defined the decade as surely as Berry Gordy and the Beatles had defined the sixties.

Both seventies happened—kind of. Speculating on the connection between the glittery surface and the malaise it masked, Curtis Mayfield would later examine the good-time messages that dominated the disco soundtrack. “So many of the lyrics were just, ‘Dance, dance, dance, let’s get the hell outta here, cause it’s rough on the bottom,’ ” he reflected. “At times escape means you’re closing your eyes and ears to what’s going on. Then when you open them up, it’s even more screwed up than before you closed them. You wish you had just gone on and lived through it.”

The line separating the real decade from its self-parody isn’t easy to pin down. Case in point: pro sports. Suspended between a past dedicated to Vince Lombardi’s crew-cut ideal of discipline and a future defined by global marketing and $100 million contracts, the most interesting seventies athletes were wilder, freer, and a hell of a lot more fun. The Oakland As’ dazzling green and gold uniforms thumbed their nose at baseball’s gray and white past, while the team parlayed its merry mutiny into three straight world championships; Lombardi would have shot them all at dawn and then made the corpses run laps. The Pittsburgh Pirates, whose star African American pitcher once threw a no-hitter on LSD, closed out the decade with “We Are Family” tearing the roof off a clubhouse where even the white guys had nicknames like “Scrap Iron.” In football, the Dallas Cowboys embodied the cultural battles of the decade, pitting Duane Thomas, the pot-smoking tailback who scampered through NFL defenses with inimitable artistry, against Tom Landry, their dour, computer-operated coach, whom Thomas derided as a “plastic man.” It was emblematic that Thomas dazzled the fans but disappeared while Landry kept the power. The American Basketball Association—original home of Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, George “Iceman” Gervin, David “Skywalker” Thompson, and the immortal Julius Erving—served notice on the NBA and the nation that it could ignore black American style only at the risk of rendering itself irrelevant.

In the midst of it all rose Stevie Wonder, reflecting on a nation plunging from visionary hope to sour narcissism. If you’re looking for an emblem of what the seventies were really about, Stevie beats the hell out of Disco Duck. No musician has ever had a better decade. Paul Simon summed Wonder’s stature up best in accepting the 1975 Grammy for Still Crazy After All These Years. “But most of all,” Simon concluded with a wry smile, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for not making an album this year.” It surprised no one when Songs in the Key of Life, which topped the album charts for fourteen weeks in 1976 and 1977, completed the trifecta that began with Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale.

Reaching out across America’s rapidly re-forming racial and musical lines, Wonder offered a sound that rendered the distinctions between (soon-to-be “white”) rock and (black) soul meaningless. As the sixties did a slow dissolve into the eighties, Wonder held to his belief in the compatibility of the sixties counterculture and the black church. The hippies might have arrived at their vision of universal love by way of the head shop rather than the choir loft, but their response to Aretha at the Fillmore West demonstrated a willingness to respond to the gospel vision. No matter how desperate things might seem, Wonder told us, we could still come together in ways that forged differences into strengths. People would keep on lying and soldiers would keep on warring, “Higher Ground” observed, but it wasn’t going to stop the world from turning or the preachers from preaching. Driving his point home with a relentless groove, Wonder echoed the movement’s central message—“Don’t you let nobody bring you down, they’ll sho ’nuff try”—and vowed to keep on pushing till he, and we, reached the higher ground.

Wonder’s first concern was with the rapidly changing conditions in black America. Some of the changes reflected the weariness that descended in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam. But several disturbing trends had been set in motion, ironically, by the successes of the freedom movement. The first generation of R&B artists had grown up and played their music in a world where the vast majority of black people lived, worked, and played in the same communities. Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, and Ray Charles knew their audience included black surgeons and insurance executives as well as women who spent their days scrubbing the white folks’ floors and men who woke at dawn to empty the white folks’ garbage. Brothers and sisters scratching out a living on the streets shared bus stops with postal workers and schoolteachers. The idea of a “black community”—which came in different flavors depending on whether you were in the North, South, or West—wasn’t entirely an abstraction.

When the freedom movement began to open areas of American society that had formerly been reserved for “whites only,” many blacks jumped at the chance to raise their children in a better world. Ironically, the movement’s success in breaking some racial barriers helped shatter the gospel dream of communal redemption. Given the desire for universal brotherhood, it should have been a good thing when some blacks moved into white spaces. The reality was more complicated and disturbing. As more black college graduates entered the professional world and moved to suburbs or integrated middle-class neighborhoods, the inner cities became more and more isolated. The collapse of the industrial economy and an increasingly hostile political climate made it ever more difficult for those who remained behind to follow their fortunate kinfolk out of the ghetto.

Released in August 1973, Innervisions was Wonder’s attempt to wrest a measure of hope from a social situation where the ideals of the sixties seemed to be slipping away. Wonder considered alternative titles for the album, including The Easter Album or The Last Days of Easter. Plans called for a cover picturing an elder who “can now sit and look at the confusion” with “wisdom and contentment.” “It’s the last days of life, of beauty,” Wonder reflected before the album’s release. “All the horrors and hypocrisy in the world today. People neglecting other people’s problems. It’s what needs doing, socially, spiritually and domestically. I can only do it through song, and I try to be positive about it.”

Like Music of My Mind and Talking Book, Innervisions emerged from intense working sessions involving Wonder, synthesizer gurus Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, and guest musicians including guitarist David “T” Walker and conga virtuoso Larry “Nastyee” Latimer. A former Wonder staffer described his employer’s demanding work habits: “Stevie is someone who goes into the studio at seven o’clock at night and comes out at ten o’clock the next morning. Time doesn’t mean anything to him while he’s creating. He just goes on and on and on. He would stay in the studio even longer if the people who worked with him could keep up with it. Only when we say ‘Hey, Steve, it’s nine o’clock in the morning,’ then he’d say ‘Okay, let me just get these two more tracks down’ or something like that.’ ” Backup singer Deniece Williams, an R&B star best known for her exuberant remake of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud,” lamented Stevie’s ability “to stay in the studio for 48 hours without crashing.” Wonder shrugged it off, saying simply, “My rhythms go by my moods.”

Responding to reports that he’d created between two hundred and six hundred unreleased songs since he began working in New York, Stevie demurred, “No, we do have a lot of material but a lot of it isn’t finished.” Trying to keep track of Wonder’s ideas wasn’t easy. Cecil and Margouleff compiled a legendary “Blue Book” listing all of the songs-in-progress in alphabetical order. The problem was that when Stevie picked out a song to complete, he was likely to sketch out three or four more at the same session. At one point Clarence Paul said he was going through back material to put together an anthology that would include two unreleased songs from every year of Stevie’s career. We can dream.

Wonder unveiled the masterpiece he’d sifted out of the possibilities with a truly memorable album-release event. Music critic Dave Marsh describes what happened: “They put a whole batch of us on a bus in Times Square and blindfolded us. Then they drove us around for what seemed like a long time—it was probably in the neighborhood of ten minutes, but it felt like half an hour. They pulled up in front of some place and shepherded us off the bus and into a cool, air-conditioned space. Each of us had a guide. (Mine turned out to be Patti Smith, a good friend of Stevie’s, as it turns out.) Then they played us the record. It was an amazing thing. Totally disorienting. The music had a clarity, a lucidity, and a flat-out power that was greatly increased by the limitation of the visual sense; no distraction, or complete distraction, but in the end, it really focused the whole experience, and not only because the music was unforgettable, although of course it was. It was one hell of a way to experience ‘Living for the City’ for the first time.”

A searing meditation on the brutal realities of black life that bears comparison with Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” “Living for the City” presents an unsparing image of how hope dies when confronted with economic hardship and personal betrayal. “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living for the City,’ ” Wonder observed. “I was able to show the hurt and the anger, you know. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening. ” As defiant as it was mournful, “Living for the City” reflected the blues tradition of looking a vicious world straight in the eye and vowing to endure.

A series of vignettes tracing a southern migrant’s odyssey from hopeful arrival to a ten-year jail sentence, “Living for the City” issues a blistering condemnation of empty materialism and impersonal institutions that reduce us to mutually distrustful individuals out for what we can get for ourselves. The problems Wonder described would worsen for at least the next twenty years; in 1980 a survey of fourteen major metropolitan areas revealed that, despite the growth of the black middle class, all had black poverty rates of at least 23 percent. Chicago provided the case study of the origin and implications of the problem. In The Truly Disadvantaged black sociologist William Julius Wilson examined the changing relationship between housing segregation and economic conditions in Chicago during the seventies. The patterns Wilson discovered are stunning. In 1970 only one of Chicago’s seventy-seven neighborhoods had a poverty rate as high as 40 percent. In only one district was the unemployment rate as high as 15 percent. By 1980, a radically different pattern had emerged. In two overwhelmingly black neighborhoods over half the residents now lived in poverty. In seven others the rate was above 40 percent; in ten more above 20 percent. Not surprisingly, the concentrations of poverty were all centered on the South and West Sides.

At street level the changes savaged the futures of black children, who were now isolated not only from whites but from black mentors who could teach them how to negotiate the economic system without denying their blackness. On the same street where the young Curtis Mayfield had received the attention of a loving community, a child growing up in Cabrini-Green in the seventies was facing a concrete wilderness with few guides. Wilson describes the vicious cycle set in motion by the demographic changes: lacking contact with regularly employed elders, teenagers are unlikely to develop the type of work habits valued by employers; tardiness and absenteeism contribute to low retention rates. “Since the jobs that are available to the inner-city poor are the very ones that alienate even persons with long and stable work histories,” Wilson concludes, “the combination of unattractive jobs and lack of community norms to re-enforce work increases the likelihood that individuals will turn to either underground illegal activity or idleness or both.” Which is precisely the cycle that musical sociologist Stevie Wonder describes in “Living for the City.”

That uncompromising blues backdrop adds to the power of Wonder’s call to recapture the gospel vision. The album’s opening sequence of “Too High” and “Visions” establishes the tension between the urge to escape, if only into a drugged-out haze, and the need to imagine something new and better. Love, Wonder insists, is the answer, but love isn’t simple; “Golden Lady” affirms human devotion as a path to spiritual fulfillment, but “All in Love Is Fair” reminds you that a long road stretches out before you, and there’s no guarantee you’ll make the right choice when you reach the crossroads. One minute you’re grooving to “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” next thing you know, the hellhound’s howling at your heels.

And for all that, you can’t quit. Along with Mahalia’s “Move On Up a Little Higher,” the Impressions’ “Keep On Pushing,” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Stevie’s “Higher Ground” defines the heart of the gospel vision. Wonder wrote the song in a burst of inspiration. “ ‘Higher Ground’ was a very special song,” Wonder recalled. “I wrote it on May 11. I remember the date. I did the whole thing—the words, the music, and recorded the track—in three hours. That’s the first time I ever finished a song so fast. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t know what or when, but I felt something.” “Higher Ground” simplifies nothing. The liars keep on lying, the believers keep on believing, and for Wonder and the community he was trying to sing into being, the only thing to do was feel the power in the music and ride the driving rhythm that lets you know that however weary you may be, you’re not alone.

As Innervisions climbed the album charts, eventually stalling behind Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, the Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters, the Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup, and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Wonder and his band, Wonderlove, embarked on a tour of the South. The response, especially from black audiences, was lukewarm. For a southern audience accustomed to the showbiz shtick of the soul revues, Wonder’s flirtation with the looser rock concert format elicited bemused shrugs. “The people couldn’t feel me,” Wonder observed, “and I didn’t know if it was because of me, or because of the way we were presenting the show.” On the evening of August 6, 1973, Wonder set out from Greenville, South Carolina, to Durham, North Carolina, where he was scheduled to give a benefit concert in support of black activist radio station WAFR (Wave Africa). Before departing, Wonder announced to the band that there would soon be a meeting to consider possible changes in the concert format.

He never made it to Durham. Just outside of Salisbury, North Carolina, Wonder’s car pulled up behind a log truck that was weaving from side to side on the two-lane Highway 85. When Stevie’s driver, his cousin John Harris, pulled up to pass, the truck driver slammed on the brakes. A dislodged log smashed through the window, striking the sleeping singer in the head.

At three A.M. Berry Gordy’s sister Esther woke him with news of the accident. Informing Gordy that Stevie had been rushed to the emergency room at Rowan Memorial Hospital in Salisbury, Esther reported, “It’s a madhouse down there. I couldn’t get many details. Berry, it doesn’t look good.” Suffering a broken skull and severe brain contusions, Wonder lapsed into a coma. Wonder’s longtime friend and staff member Ira Tucker described Stevie’s condition after he was transferred to North Carolina Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem: “Man, I couldn’t even recognize him. His head was swollen up five times normal size. And nobody could get through to him.”

Wonder remained in a coma for a week. Tucker described the turning point in his recovery: “I knew that Stevie likes to listen to music really loud, and I thought maybe if I shouted in his ear, it might reach him. The doctor told me to go ahead and try, it couldn’t hurt. The first time I didn’t get any response, but the next day I went back and I got right down in his ear and sang ‘Higher Ground.’ His hand was resting on my arm, and after a while his fingers started moving with the music. I said to myself, ‘This cat’s gonna make it.’ ” After two terrifying weeks, Gordy wrote in his autobiography, “I heard he was playfully grabbing at nurses and entertaining the whole medical staff with his antics. I knew he was well on his way to recovery.” When Wonder was transferred to the UCLA Medical Center, Tucker arranged to have his clavinet brought to the hospital. “You should have seen Stevie’s face,” he recalled. “For a while he was afraid to touch it. He didn’t know if he had lost his musical gift. And then he finally started playing. And you could actually see the relief and happiness all over his face.”

When Wonder awoke, he had only a vague recollection of the accident. “The only thing I know is that I was unconscious,” he recalled later, “and that for a few days I was definitely in a much better spiritual place that made me aware of a lot of things that concern my life and my future and what I have to do to reach another higher ground.” Reinforcing his already strong mystical leanings, the accident confirmed a sense of foreboding that had been building in the weeks before the accident. Shortly before he left on the southern tour, he’d told Rolling Stone that he thought he was going to die soon despite the fact that “I don’t have any reason to kill myself and I don’t know anyone who would want to kill me.”

Wonder returned to life with a strengthened sense of purpose. “I would like to believe in reincarnation,” he mused. “I would like to believe that there is another life. I think that sometimes your consciousness can happen on this earth a second time around. I wrote ‘Higher Ground’ before the accident, but something was going to happen to make me aware of a lot of things, and to get myself together. This is like my second chance for life, to do something or to do more, and to face the fact that I am alive. God was telling me to slow down, to take it easy.”

The more relaxed pace forced on him by his convalescence gave Wonder time to develop his relationship with Yolanda Simmons, who would become the mother of his three children. Wonder met Simmons when she called Wonder’s production company seeking a secretarial position. Picking up the phone on a whim, Wonder fell under the spell of Yolanda’s melodious voice. “I can usually tell a woman by her conversation,” he claimed. “Her voice and the way she carries herself. Some women can have a very beautiful outer face and a very ugly inner face.” Although they announced their engagement, the couple never actually married. “We didn’t have to do a ‘marry me’ and ‘I marry you’ thing,” Stevie said in classic counterculture mode. “Love is free—it’s not about possession.” Never making a pretense of fidelity to any one woman, Wonder elaborated on the free-love philosophy he endorsed in “All in Love Is Fair.” “You cannot demand love. I for myself am very glad to know that my woman loves me today and when I feel that there is a chance that she might still love me tomorrow. But to expect any more than that is crazy. It only means that you are more possessive than in love. Love is something you have to be grateful for and which you have to treat tenderly. Very, very tenderly. But it is nothing that you can take for granted.”

When Wonder returned to the stage after his convalescence, he radiated intensity and commitment. On September 25, 1973, Elton John dispatched his private plane to fly Stevie from New York to Boston, where he would join Captain Fantastic in a medley of “Superstition” and “Honky Tonk Woman.” When Wonder walked out onto the stage at Boston Garden, the crowd overwhelmed him with a fifteen-minute standing ovation. In January he played four shows at the Rainbow Theater in London before returning to New York in March for a triumphant homecoming concert at Madison Square Garden. Opening with a half-hour version of the not-yet-released jazz-funk instrumental “Contusion,” Wonder presided from behind a three-tiered ARP synthesizer that allowed him to conjure up visions of Count Basie one moment and Sgt. Pepper’s the next. Exhorting his audience to keep the frenzy up “so that maybe our Father, our Maker can hear us,” Stevie sizzled through a set crowned by “Superwoman,” “Keep On Running,” and “Living for the City,” which he dedicated to the unborn son of nine-months-pregnant flute player Bobbi Humphrey. By the time it was over, reviewer Robert Christgau wrote, “the only act who could have topped Stevie Wonder was Jesus Christ.”

Feeling an unaccustomed serenity since the accident, Wonder returned to the studio to assemble Fulfillingness’ First Finale. The title and idea for the album, originally conceived as a double set, came to him in a dream where he’d seen one stage of his life coming to an end while another began. As he’d been doing since he gained his creative freedom, Wonder poured money into equipment and studio time, developing an intensely idiosyncratic working process. His personal valet Charlie Collins described the creative ferment: “Sometimes he’ll call me at two in the morning and he’ll say, ‘Charlie, come to the room right away!’ I ask him is there anything wrong, and he tells me, ‘No, but I just got this song and you gotta hear it.’ He’s just waked up, you know, and a tune is in his head. It doesn’t come from a dream necessarily; he just wakes up and it’s there.” The process created an amazing amount of wonderful music, but some close to Wonder were beginning to worry that he was losing touch with the communal sources of his inspiration. Longtime friend Lee Garrett told Wonder biographer Constanze Elsner that Stevie was “overprotected.” “Steve has seeing-eye people that go with him all the time,” Garrett said. “It lets all the energy that he has go into his music. On the other hand, though, he is at the mercy of the people he is with.” From the mid-seventies on Wonder would attain near-legendary status for his inability to meet deadlines or show up for appointments on time; numerous journalists wrote stories detailing their lengthy waits for promised interviews. Once Stevie did arrive, however, his cheerful demeanor and magnetic personality unfailingly dissipated the bad vibrations.

Propelled by the seething grooves of “You Haven’t Done Nothing” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” Fulfillingness’ First Finale became Wonder’s first number-one album since his 1963 breakthrough Little Stevie Wonder / The 12 Year Old Genius. The album’s mixture of social insight, spiritual aspiration, and musical textures typified the sound that had been maturing since Music of My Mind. Fulfillingness’ sequel to “Living for the City,” “You Haven’t Done Nothing,” insists on blues reality, but the album cover is pure gospel, centering on a piano keyboard reaching up toward the heavens. Like “Higher Ground,” the opening cut, “Smile Please,” echoes the gospel vision’s fundamental belief that “there are brighter days ahead.” His exhortations to “feel the spirit” on the fadeout of “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away” confirms his place in the tradition linking Dorothy Love Coates and Archie Brownlee to Curtis and Aretha.

But where Mayfield and Franklin were most comfortable taking it back to New Bethel Baptist or the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church, Wonder once again lit out for territories usually controlled by the “white” counterculture. Without losing black listeners raised in the church, he renewed his attempt to reach young whites whose sense of spirituality might come from transcendental meditation or the Grateful Dead. One of the most beautiful cuts on Fulfillingness’, “They Won’t Go When I Go,” flows into a meditative conclusion that draws on everything from Islamic prayer to Gregorian chants while echoing the lyrics of Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” Wonder’s explanation typifies his idiosyncratic spiritual vocabulary: “That’ll tell you where I’m going—away from sorrow and hate, up to joy and laughter. I feel everyone should be able to grasp what you’re doing. It shouldn’t be so complicated that it’s beyond everyone’s capabilities, nor should it be so simple that you cannot use your mind to think about it.”

Not everyone was impressed with Wonder’s insights, especially when he cluttered them with New Age jargon. As Robert Christgau observed in an essay that celebrated Wonder as a “sainted fool”: “If you were to turn on a talk station and hear an anonymous Stevie rapping about divine vibrations and universal brotherhood, especially with the inevitable dash of astrology, you would not be impressed by his intellectual discernment.” Yet Christgau understood that the New Age elements reflected Wonder’s ability to transcend categorization. Pinpointing the difference between Wonder, whose career was very much on the ascendant, and Sly Stone, who was in the process of succumbing to the contradictions of his tortured genius, Christgau observed: “The split between Stevie’s embrace of oneness and Sly’s union of opposites extends to their audiences; Stevie’s is genuinely integrated, while Sly’s is simply biracial.”

Once Wonder began to play, it wasn’t hard to forgive the occasional lyrical awkwardness. Very few resisted the power of “Boogie On Reggae Woman” or the blistering rage of “You Haven’t Done Nothing,” probably the most uncompromising expression of black anger ever to reach number one. The exuberant “doo doo wop”s provided by the Jackson 5 contributed to the song’s catchy appeal, but Watergate made sure it resonated across the color line. When questioned about the tension between the song’s biting content and the catchy music, Wonder explained, “The best way to get an important and heavy message across is to wrap it up nicely. It’s better to try and level out the weight of the lyrics by making the melody lighter. After all, people want to be entertained, which is all right with me. So if you have a catchy melody instead of making the whole song sound like a lesson, people are more likely to play the tune. They can dance to it and still listen to the lyrics and hopefully think about them.” Wonder underlined the political point in a statement distributed to the press when the song was released shortly after Nixon’s resignation. “Everybody promises you everything but in the end, nothing comes out of it,” Wonder observed. “I don’t vote for anybody until after they have really done something that I know about. I want to see them do something first. The only trouble is that you always hear the president or people say that they are doing all they can. And they feed you with hopes for years and years. I’m sick and tired of listening to all their lies.”

Backing up his words with actions, Wonder refused an invitation from President Gerald Ford to participate in a UNESCO benefit. “I would have been the only black person there other than ambassadors from various African countries,” he explained. “A woman from UNESCO called me on behalf of President Ford to invite me, and I said, ‘Oh no, miss!’ And she said, ‘But this is from the President of the United States.’ ‘I know, miss, I know who he is, I know exactly, and that’s why you’re getting this opposition.’ ” Choosing his performances with their political symbolism in mind, Wonder played at the 1975 Human Kindness Day concert at the Washington Monument, a 1976 Night of the Hurricane II benefit for Rubin Carter at the Astrodome, and several benefits with John Lennon, while adding his voice to the background choir on “Give Peace a Chance” from John and Yoko’s Shaved Fish. Better yet, he sat in on electric piano with Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr at a Santa Monica studio in 1975. Although nothing from the session was released, it was the last time John and Paul recorded together.

As Fulfillingness’ climbed the charts, Time magazine announced, “Today the color line in music is almost completely erased.” While that overstated the case and ignored the color line in society still bright as blood, Wonder had clearly arrived at the musical mountaintop. When informed that Fulfillingness’ had been nominated for four Grammys, he paid tribute to his peers and ancestors: “I definitely feel that Marvin Gaye should have received a Grammy. And Al Green should have gotten an award. If they say Stevie’s music is black music, it’s up to us black people to create a situation that others will not have to go through this, because this is supposed to be the Land of the Free. I hope that the person I’m about to mention will receive a Grammy because he has given so much to the music industry. I hope he receives it before he dies. Hope it’s not like Mahalia Jackson or Louis Armstrong. That person is Ray Charles.” When Stevie won four Grammys, he ran out of thank-yous and entertained the crowd at the ceremony with a sequence of improvisations. As writer O’Connell Driscoll observed, “Anyone who can stand up on national television and accept a Grammy award in the memory of Elijah Muhammad and Jack Benny can do anything at all.”

Increasingly, Wonder saw his music as part of a larger social mission, but he wasn’t sure how to define it. “It became very clear to me that it wasn’t enough just to be a rock ’n’ roll singer or anything of that nature,” he said but went on to stress that “regardless of what a lot of people think, I’m not a politician or a minister.” The issues facing black America in the mid-seventies couldn’t be resolved in a three-minute song or, for that matter, in a two-and-a-half-album set like the one Wonder was beginning to work on. And the situation for musicians had changed since the sixties when their music played an active role in inspiring and supporting a vital movement. Even as Wonder’s mid-seventies albums tried to take the gospel vision to the heart of American pop culture, the movement fell into profound disarray, relieved only briefly by Jimmy Carter’s populist-tinged presidential campaign. The symbolic climax to the drive came when Carter invited a host of civil rights luminaries to join him in singing “We Shall Overcome” at the Democratic National Convention.

Even as he praised Carter’s appointment of Andrew Young as ambassador to the United Nations, Wonder could, and did, remind his vast audience of its shared burden and the struggle for communal redemption. He condemned media distortions that fueled racial tension. “I remember in Boston seeing a news item on television,” he said. “ ‘Twelve black kids jumped on one little white boy today.’ What happened, I later found out, was that a black kid got beat up by a gang of white kids first. But if I were a middle American and I’d seen that on TV, I’d be angry as hell and I’d want to go kill every nigger that ever existed. Things like that pull people apart and make conditions ripe for mass violence.” In addition, Wonder devoted time and money to charity and progressive causes. “It’s good to do something for sickle cell anemia,” Wonder reflected, “or for the Black Panther Party if they want to give clothes to kids or food to the community, if it’s really a sincere move on one’s behalf to do something for people and I can contribute my services, I will do so.” For Malcolm Cecil, the fact that Wonder was in a position to make a financial difference was itself a significant improvement over the past. “His songs do more than sell millions and millions of copies,” Cecil observed. “For one, they reach other people, and also quite a lot of money the records make Stevie uses to help underprivileged groups of people. So all of a sudden you find money going from white people to black people even if it’s only for their bloody music.” Although Stevie had less and less direct contact with his hometown, he was a strong supporter of Mayor Coleman Young and played at a benefit for Young’s program for busing children to cultural events outside the ghetto.

The limits of Wonder’s effectiveness were inherent in his underlying premise that the root of racial problems lay in correctable ignorance. The idea had a long liberal pedigree. But two decades of education and the largely successful desegregation of American musical culture had failed to eradicate white supremacy. Young whites were no longer forced to go underground for relief from Patti Page and Pat Boone, but most of them were still living in a different universe from the children of Paradise Valley and Cabrini-Green. Education seemed capable of teaching most Americans of European descent not to use the word nigger, but it didn’t stop them from acting white. It would soon be next to impossible to find even a mildly respectable white person who would publicly endorse white supremacy, but it would be even harder to find a white politician who would spend political capital in support of those living on the other side of town. It seemed clear that something more than liberal protest over injustice would be needed to deal with the worsening situation, but no one was sure what that something might be.

Increasingly, Wonder imagined that an answer might lie in the African diaspora. Inspired by the Black Power movement’s invocation of a homeland that was part history and part myth, Wonder began dressing in dashikis and African robes and wearing his hair in cornrows. In 1975 he made his first pilgrimage to Africa, where, greeted as a long-lost relative, he fell under the spell of the dignitaries and common people alike. In 1976 he announced plans to retire from music and move to Ghana to work with handicapped children. “America doesn’t make people aware of what’s happening in other parts of the world,” he said, adding that he hoped “to bring back an alternative way from Africa.” When he changed his mind, Wonder commented, “I wanted to go to Ghana but then I made up my mind not to. There are people here I would like to help. America makes me very angry at times. It’s the closest to being right—but it could be out of sight.” Over the next quarter century Wonder would visit the mother continent regularly and donate substantial sums to educational and relief efforts. (An amusing side note to his African excursions occurred in 1977, when he accepted the Grammy for Songs in the Key of Life via a remote feed from Nigeria. The connection didn’t work very well, leading host Andy Williams to commit a faux pas that would be repeated with minor variations by President George W. Bush in 2002. “If you can’t hear me,” an obviously flustered Williams asked Stevie’s flickering image, “can you at least see me?”)

Wonder’s “retirement” announcement was widely viewed as part of a ploy involving contract negotiations. When Motown relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, most of the magic vanished. By 1976 many longtime hit-makers—singers, songwriters, producers—had left the label, and Gordy desperately needed the cash flow generated by Wonder’s albums. Outbidding Epic and Arista, Gordy guaranteed Wonder $13 million over seven years. It was the most lucrative contract in music industry history. The royalty rate, reportedly 20 percent, surpassed standard superstar norms by 5 to 7 percent. The contract also included an unprecedented clause giving Wonder the right of approval over any buyer if Gordy should attempt to sell Motown. At the time, Gordy considered that as likely as “my going back to work on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line, singing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ ” In fact, Wonder would exercise that right, nixing the deal when Gordy attempted to sell the Jobete publishing company in the early eighties. When Gordy presented the deal to the buyers without Wonder’s catalog, negotiations collapsed. Although he was angry at the time, Gordy eventually came to appreciate his protégé’s business acumen. Gordy wrote in To Be Loved, “Thank God for Stevie.”

After he signed the new deal, Wonder reflected on Motown’s economic and cultural significance. “There are faults at Motown, but they can be corrected,” he told a reporter for a black newspaper. “If you went somewhere else, there’d be other problems—probably a lot worse ones. I’m staying at Motown, because it is the only viable surviving black-owned company in the record industry. If it were not for Motown, many of us just wouldn’t have had the shot we’ve had at success and fulfillment. It is vital that people in our business—particularly the black creative community, including artists, writers and producers—make sure that Motown stays emotionally stable, spiritually strong, and economically healthy.”

Looking beyond an American music industry concerned more with marketing than with spiritual or musical renewal, Wonder gravitated toward reggae, which was just beginning to attract attention as a major voice in the African diaspora. Bob Marley became a political ally. Like most reggae pioneers, Marley had grown up in Jamaica listening to American soul music on the Miami radio stations that blanketed the Caribbean. Combining soul melodies and harmonies with the rhythmic drive of Jamaican ska, Marley and the Wailers forged a specifically Jamaican version of the gospel vision. A more aggressively black nationalist response to the vision of the American freedom movement, reggae combined an inclusive vision of “Jah love” with a revolutionary politics centered on icons Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie. Musically, Marley’s closest affinity was with the Impressions. One of his most stirring anthems, “One Love / People Get Ready” revoices Mayfield’s gospel testimony as an apocalyptic promise to “fight this holy Armageddon.” Like the Impressions, the Wailers merged their distinctive voices in a three-part harmony that perfectly expressed the communal energy of “I and I,” the reggae phrase underlining the unbreakable bond between self and community. When Wonder embraced Marley, the influence came full circle.

Wonder began listening to reggae during a 1969 trip to Jamaica, and he gradually came to hear the music as a fresher, less compromised expression of the spiritual politics of the best soul music. He had developed a friendship with the roots reggae band Third World and expressed admiration for Johnny Nash’s sunny “I Can See Clearly Now” and Lee Perry’s sonic experiments on “Revolution Dub.” But his interest sharpened when the Wailers began touring America. Still recovering from his accident, he had been unable to hear them on the 1973 tour, where they opened for Sly and the Family Stone. When Marley returned in 1975, Wonder felt an immediate spiritual affinity and suggested they play a benefit for the Jamaican School for the Blind. On October 11, 1975, the summit meeting took place in Kingston. Third World opened the set followed by a reunion between Marley and the Wailers, who had recently split up. After Wonder performed a set capped by “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” the Wailers joined him for a jam on “I Shot the Sheriff.” By all accounts, the jam never really ignited, and the Jamaican audience responded to Wonder with more respect than enthusiasm. But the image of Wonder and Marley blending their voices would take on great symbolic power as the years wore on, reaffirming the healing power of black unity and universal love in a world that valued neither.


WHILE STEVIE WAS EXPANDING his musical, political, and spiritual horizons, Curtis Mayfield was finding it harder and harder to look beyond the walls of the Curtom studios. Especially after Marv Stuart replaced Eddie Thomas as his primary business partner, the details of running the company consumed more and more of his time. “That was probably no good for me, the company, and for the customer that had so much expectation for me,” Mayfield admitted. “The whole name of the game was to make money. The investors want to hear one thing—‘I want to make money.’ Probably what people should have done, and I probably should have done myself, was just laid back and kind of watched things for a while.” A changing social and musical scene in which the spotlight was shifting rapidly to disco compounded the problem. “As far as my doing songs with messages, disco interrupted it very much,” Mayfield said in the early eighties. “The name of the game these past few years has been escape. People have been going off and doing their thing since time began. But it’s important that they remember themselves and who they are. They’ve got to stay in touch with the earth.”

Still, Mayfield continued to play a central role in Chicago’s changing soul music scene. Working in the city presented him with problems that his rivals in Detroit never had to deal with. Eddie Thomas put it succinctly: “We had it all; labels, studios, record plants. But it was never important to Chicago to be associated with its music industry. When they put Chicago forward, it was the steel industry, the Loop. We were just a little cottage industry to them. It was different in Detroit and Memphis.” Johnny Meadows agreed: “You think of Detroit, you think of Motown. You think of Chicago, you think of the museums, the Bears, the Bulls.” In an alternate universe, it would make sense to find statues of Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, and Curtis Mayfield lining McFetridge Drive between the Field Museum and Soldier Field. In real life, the closest Mayfield came to official recognition from his hometown was a 1973 special on Chicago station WTTW. With Super Fly playing to capacity audiences in Windy City theaters, the special reunited most of the original Impressions, including Jerry Butler, with the members of the group who had succeeded the classic trio. The Curtis in Chicago album, released to celebrate the special, consists primarily of remakes of Mayfield’s classics, topped by an ensemble finale of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Amen.”

Although Curtis was active as a producer, his efforts yielded few commercial triumphs beyond his solo albums, which remained primary sources of Curtom’s visibility and cash flow. His performance as a songwriter yielded better results. The two-CD British box set The Curtom Story provides an overview of Mayfield’s late-sixties and early-seventies songwriting. The highlights include vintage compositions recorded by Holly Maxwell (“Suffer”), Baby Huey and the Baby Sitters (“Mighty Mighty Children”), Love’s Children (“Soul Is Love”), the Staple Singers (“Let’s Do It Again”), Mavis Staples on her own (“A Piece of the Action”), and younger acts including the Natural Four and the Notations. Sadly, his attempts to revive the careers of old friends Major Lance, Gene Chandler, and Billy Butler met with little success; only Lance’s “Stay Away from Me” reached the R&B Top Twenty. Mayfield’s most satisfying creative efforts beyond his own albums focused on the Five Stairsteps and Cubie. A family group that set the stage for the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds, the Five Stairsteps had recorded several minor hits on Mayfield’s Windy C label in the mid-sixties, most notably the catchy “You Waited Too Long” and “Come Back.” When Curtom began recruiting, Mayfield re-signed the group and produced the Love’s Happening album, which ranks alongside his work with Major Lance and Gene Chandler as the best of his nonsoundtrack collaborations. Mayfield wrote and produced most of the songs, including the title track, a weirdly appealing combination of flower-power musings and gospel-bubblegum production. With a melody reminiscent of the Impressions’ mid-sixties hits, “Love’s Happening” offers a gentle smile that only the most committed cynic would bother to resist. Despite three minor hits—“Don’t Change Your Love,” “Baby Make Me Feel Good,” and “We Must Be in Love”—the Stairsteps failed to break through commercially.

Mayfield’s solo albums provided the primary relief from the commercial disappointments. No Mayfield album from Sweet Exorcist in 1974 to the demise of Curtom in 1980 withstands comparison with Curtis, Roots, Superfly, or even Back to the World. But it would be a serious mistake to overlook the best songs on the ten albums he released during that period. Obviously, that’s way too many albums, especially in light of his production, film scoring, and songwriting duties. Sweet Exorcist (1974), featuring the driving “Ain’t Got Time” and “Kung Fu,” wasn’t a sharp dropoff from Back to the World. Mayfield viewed it as a reaffirmation of the power of love after a series of albums that emphasized the evils loose in the world. “The album allowed me to say some things I’d wanted to say for quite a while, things that were in my mind which I wanted to get out,” he said. Mayfield’s favorite tracks were the number-three R&B hit, “Kung Fu,” and the title cut, a meditation on good and evil inspired by the horror classic The Exorcist. But the most compelling cuts provide a picture of an artist nearing the limits of his political patience and physical energy. “Ain’t Got Time” probes the breakdown of trust within and between black communities, while “To Be Invisible” knits together personal and political experience as deftly as “I’m So Proud” or “I’ve Been Trying.” After Sweet Exorcist, however, only Never Say You Can’t Survive, Something to Believe In, and the soundtrack to Short Eyes come close to standing up on their own. Still, in the luxury of retrospect, it’s easy to imaginatively distill two or three first-rate albums from the raw material. (You can do it yourself, or you can go directly to disk three of Rhino Records’ People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story, which could legitimately be retitled The Great Lost Curtis Mayfield Album.)

Mayfield’s late-seventies work features a set of yearning love songs including “Only You Babe,” “So in Love,” “Show Me Love,” and two duets with Linda Clifford, “Between You Baby and Me” and “Sweet Sensation.” Worthy additions to Mayfield’s explicitly political songbook, “To Be Invisible,” “Mr. Welfare Man,” “Mother’s Son,” and above all “Do Do Wap Is Strong in Here” chronicle the conditions that made it increasingly difficult to reconcile the gospel vision with what was happening in the inner cities. “Back Against the Wall,” “Got to Find a Way,” Mayfield’s version of “Suffer,” and the title cuts from Never Say You Can’t Survive and Something to Believe In cling to the gospel vision as the only shelter against the gathering storm.

While his film soundtracks added immensely to the drain on Mayfield’s energy, he took great satisfaction from his achievements for Hollywood. He could pinpoint the moment when he realized the degree of his success as a soundtrack writer: “I was standing in Chicago right on State Street, the main street in the Chicago theater district, right there in the Loop. And I looked out, and right there I could see the marquee for three of my movies at the same time, Super Fly, Let’s Do It Again, and I think it was Claudine. Right there in my hometown. So you know I felt like a big man.”

Between 1972 and 1977 Mayfield wrote the music for a half-dozen soundtracks, performing the music himself on Super Fly and the underrated Short Eyes, one of the better films in the prison-movie genre. Varying widely in quality, Mayfield’s collaborative soundtracks included Claudine (1974) and Pipedreams (1976), both performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips; Sparkle (1976) with Aretha Franklin; A Piece of the Action (1977) with Mavis Staples; and Let’s Do It Again (1975) with the Staple Singers. Like Motown, Curtom took an active financial interest in the films as well as their soundtracks. Mayfield applied the lessons he had learned from “Freddie’s Dead” to his new projects. “We were now setting up the film by releasing an album two, three months prior, and the audience would come in with a familiarity as to what they were about to visualize,” he said. “If it was a good movie, everything just came together, and you have two hits coming out of it.”

Sadly, the best of the movies, Short Eyes, failed commercially. Based on a prize-winning play by Miguel Piñero, the movie provides an unsparingly realistic look at the “codes of wrath” ruling New York’s infernal Tombs Detention Center. At a time when rates of incarceration for young black men were spiraling upward, Short Eyes sketches a gallery of individuals attempting to maintain some hope in a hopeless world. Divided into mutually suspicious camps of blacks, Latinos, and a white minority, the prisoners focus their rage on the title character, a middle-class white man accused of child molesting. Refusing to sugarcoat the obscenity at the core of prison life, Mayfield’s soundtrack and Pinero’s brilliant dialogue reaffirm the prisoners’ beleaguered humanity.

While the Short Eyes soundtrack shares the erratic quality of all Mayfield’s late-seventies albums, several songs—especially “Back Against the Wall” and “Do Do Wap Is Strong in Here”—would have been at home on Curtis or Super Fly. The latter crystallizes the gospel-blues call and response between “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” into a five-and-a-half-minute meditation on a world where there “ain’t no heaven.” Left all alone, the prisoners get stoned, scramble to stay alive, and hold on to the sound that keeps the hope of something better alive in their hearts. “We got great recognition and real good write-ups,” Mayfield remembered. “However, it was probably too real. When we did it, it was during the times of escapism and Star Wars.

The rollicking Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action fit the times much better. Mavis Staples loved working with her old friend on the soundtracks. “When I got one of his songs, I would just be grinning in my sleep,” she beamed. “When he sings, his voice just calms you down. I’ve always admired the stories in his songs. He paints such a clear picture of what he’s writing about. I remember when Curtis called me to work on A Piece of the Action,” Staples continued. “He’d run into some kind of trouble, and he was on a tight deadline. So he called and said, ‘Mavis, I’m in a bind,’ and I said, ‘Okay, Curtis, I’m on the way.’ All of the musicians ended up spending the night in the studio, sleeping over two nights to get the album done. He had a deadline, but it was real comfortable there. When you’re in the studio with him, there’s never a moment when you’re not relaxed. No tension, no rushing.”

The Staples’ gospel background created problems when Mayfield presented them with the title cut from Let’s Do It Again. “They started out with the church music, gospel music, and they’d already built a great following and name for themselves. So they of course made their crossover,” Mayfield said. “But they always wanted their music to be inspirational. So their style didn’t really change too much. They simply found a music that spread them out, allowed them to make a better living.” The problem lay in the song’s obviously sexual lyrics. Mavis Staples remembers her father’s reluctance to record a song that “was definitely more explicit than anything we’d ever done before. Pops didn’t want to sing it at first.” Fortunately, Mayfield’s humor combined with Pops’s affection for his young friend to win him over. Mavis recalls the crucial conversation. “Pops would say, ‘Curtis, I ain’t gonna say that funkystuff. You know me, Curtis, I don’t sing songs like that.’ Curtis said, ‘Oh Pops, please, Pops, it’s just a movie score. It ain’t like your regular stuff. You’re just doing it for a movie.’ When Daddy said all right, I said, ‘Lord, Curtis, you have done something ain’t nobody but you could do. Ain’t no way Pops was gonna say ‘funky.’ ” When the single sold over two million copies, everyone concerned was happy that Mavis and Mayfield had carried the day.


ARETHA FRANKLIN’S BEST DECISION of the late seventies also involved Mayfield. After Young, Gifted and Black and Amazing Grace lifted Aretha and her audience to sublime heights, her career entered a dry spell that sputtered for the rest of the decade. Along with a few first-rate songs scattered over the last eight albums she recorded before leaving Atlantic in 1980, the Mayfield-produced Sparkle was the only significant oasis in the creative desert. The timing of the project was right for both Mayfield and Aretha, whose long-term collaboration with Jerry Wexler had run out of gas. Casting about for a way to reverse the creative and commercial malaise that began in 1973 with Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) and had most recently coughed up the generally dismal You, Wexler’s partner Ahmet Ertegun provided Aretha with a list of possible producers for the follow-up. She chose Curtis.

When Ertegun contacted Mayfield in late 1975, Mayfield was concentrating on the soundtrack for Sparkle, a rags-to-riches ghetto story. The movie opens with a church choir singing Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)” and soon takes its young protagonists to a chitlin circuit-style revue, where they encounter the full range of fifties R&B styles: Ruth Brown-style gospel soul; a Coasters/Clovers novelty number; dreamily romantic doo-wop; and stylish soul testifying à la Clyde McPhatter. From there the movie walks a fine line between realism and stereotype as it follows the fortunes of a girl group struggling to break into the music business. Mayfield had lived the basics of the story, and its archetypal qualities reminded him of Super Fly, this time without the “cocaine infomercial.” He responded with an extraordinarily soulful set of songs for the movie’s then-unknown stars, Philip Michael Thomas, Lonette McKee, and Irene Cara, who would go on to star in Fame. Dissatisfied with the renditions included on the actual soundtrack, Mayfield jumped at the opportunity to work with Aretha on new versions. The movie’s stars reacted with dismay when they were told the actual soundtrack would not be released. “The next thing I knew, Curtis Mayfield was giving an interview saying he couldn’t understand how they could cast unknowns when they should have gone with black stars like Diana and Aretha,” McKee said with understandable bitterness. “He made it hard, deliberately setting the keys of the songs in uncomfortable registers for all of us. And I guess his spite, coupled with Warner’s lack of faith, brought about the soundtrack arrangement with Aretha. I don’t think she was aware of the politics.” Musically at least, the switch to Aretha was the right move. The actresses’ versions of “Jump,” “Run to Me,” and “Look in Your Heart” incorporated into the film don’t do the songs justice, and there was simply no way McKee or Cara could capture the combination of confidence and vulnerability that makes “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” a deep soul standard.

Industry and family politics aside, the not-quite-soundtrack of Sparkle released in August 1976 was the best album Curtis or Aretha would produce for at least five years, and one of the best either released after 1975. The key to its success was its adherence to a straight gospel-soul sound reminiscent of Curtis or Aretha Arrives. “It proved the permanent power of rootsy rhythm and blues,” Aretha observed. Curtis agreed: “It was a sound that never grows old. The songs speak to the yearnings and hopes. I was working on several projects at that time, but to work with Aretha was a true honor.” Behind the mutual satisfaction with the outcome, however, there were creative tensions. Aretha was uncomfortable with Mayfield’s work habits but in general deferred to his judgment. “It took us about five days to record the album because he likes to work pretty fast,” Aretha told interviewer David Nathan. “He pretty much let me have a free hand, but there were a few differences. Our only real disagreement was over one note—he wanted me to sing one way, but I had another way in mind. So we recorded both versions, and what you hear on the album is his concept. He was the producer, so I let him produce.”

The period between Amazing Grace and Sparkle had been difficult for Aretha commercially, creatively, and personally. The problems began when Aretha, who’d become friends with Quincy Jones and his wife Peggy Lipton of Mod Squad fame, suggested that Quincy produce the studio follow-up to Young, Gifted and Black. Realizing that it had been a couple of years since Aretha’s last major hit, Wexler approved of Jones, a major player in the world of movie music and smooth jazz. “When she told me that Quincy was interested in coproducing a jazz album,” Wexler recalled, “I jumped at the idea.” Soon, however, tensions began to develop. The problems concerned Jones’s desire to move the album in a pop direction. Always a fan of Aretha’s best Columbia work, Wexler imagined something more like her work with the Ray Bryant combo or Soul ’69. He’d never liked Aretha’s treatment of abstract counterculture-style lyrics, singling out her covers of the Band’s “The Weight” and Elton John’s “Border Song (Holy Moses)” as “mistakes.” So he couldn’t have been happy with the title cut of Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), which invoked an otherworldly goal that didn’t seem to have much to do with the black Baptist heaven. The best cuts on the album hinted at what the abandoned jazz project might have achieved. The hit single “Angel,” written by Aretha’s sister Carolyn, gave Aretha a well-deserved number-one R&B hit, and “Moody’s Mood” showcases her as a stylist capable of matching Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan.

But the rest of the album wandered aimlessly, and the cover art was nearly unspeakable: a psychedelic portrait on the front followed by a street-life cartoon featuring Aretha as a thin Egyptian princess complete with wings and exposed breasts. Over the next two years Aretha produced three albums, Let Me in Your Life, With Everything I Feel in Me, and You, which Wexler, who coproduced cuts on each, dismissed curtly, saying, “I don’t want to talk about those albums. I’m not happy with them, except for an occasional isolated song.” Despite the presence of ace musicians Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, Bernard Purdie, and Donny Hathaway, the trio of albums produced only a smattering of memorable cuts: Bobby Womack’s “I’m in Love”; two of Aretha’s own compositions, “With Everything I Feel in Me” and “Mr. D.J. (5 for the D.J.)”; two Stevie Wonder songs, “I Love Every Little Thing About You” and the number-one R&B hit “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”; and two more Carolyn Franklin songs, “Sing It Again, Say It Again” and the achingly beautiful “Without Love,” which she cowrote with R&B elder Ivory Joe Hunter. The most telling cut on the three albums, however, may be Aretha’s version of James Cleveland’s “All of These Things,” which sounds the sadness that was reasserting itself in her life. Aretha continued to take home Grammy awards, for “Master of Eyes (The Deepness of Your Eyes)” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing,” but until she connected with Mayfield, it seemed that the magic was slipping away.

Even during her fallow period, Aretha’s music didn’t vanish. Those who’d grown up in the “Age of Aretha” kept right on living their lives to the rhythms of “Baby, I Love You,” “Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby),” “Spirit in the Dark,” and “Respect.” That was especially the case for black women, who’d always seen Sister Ree from a slightly different angle than anyone else. While feminists, revolutionaries, and Vietnam veterans all responded to the metaphorical possibilities of Aretha’s music, the ghetto women whom black novelist Paule Marshall called “poets in the kitchen” understood her as one of their own—if not quite a ghetto girl, certainly the voice of the girls in the ghetto. Aretha’s struggles for self-acceptance, her fiery insistence that her man do the right thing, her melting sensuality, her never-easy knowledge that at the end of the day Jesus would give her the strength to weather the storm: all of it remained as real for Aretha’s African American sisters in the late seventies as it had been five or ten years earlier.

As the black feminist (or womanist, to use Alice Walker’s preferred term) movement emerged in the late seventies, Aretha became an icon. The first generation of black women to articulate womanism’s aims and values was Aretha’s. They’d grown up with the civil rights movement and benefited from the movement’s assault on Jim Crow. Most of them had been the first in their families to earn a graduate degree. Patricia Hill Collins, who articulated the new black feminism as well as anyone, places Aretha at the center of the tradition of black women’s resistance. Writing on “Respect,” Collins observes, “Even though the lyrics can be sung by anyone, they take on a special meaning when sung by Aretha in the way that she sings them. On one level, the song functions as a metaphor for the condition of African Americans in a racist society. But Aretha’s being a Black woman enables the song to tap deeper meanings. Within the blues tradition, the listening audience of African American women assumes ‘we’ Black women, even though Aretha as the blues singer sings ‘I.’ ” Poet Sherley Anne Williams, who wrote a wonderful homage to Bessie Smith titled “Some One Sweet Angel Chile,” agrees: “Aretha was right on time, but there was also something about the way Aretha characterized respect as something given with force and great effort and cost. And when she even went so far as to spell the word ‘respect,’ we just knew that this sister wasn’t playing around.”

Aretha certainly wasn’t playing around, but she wasn’t happy either. She consistently denied reports that she was moody or depressed but admitted to spending a lot of time sitting at home watching soap operas and boxing on television. “I was part of the first generation of kids addicted to the small screen,” she explained. She also loved going out to see old movies. One of the reasons she’d miss New York, she told interviewers after she and her boyfriend Ken Cunningham announced plans to relocate to Los Angeles in 1975, was that “you can see a lot of old movies here. Sometimes at four in the morning, the kind with Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman.” After her relationship with Cunningham ended in 1976, reportedly as a result of conflicts concerning Cecil Franklin’s role as Aretha’s manager, Aretha was once again facing her old friend the blues. “The end of the seventies and much of the eighties,” she said, “would be the most challenging period of my life.”

The music Aretha made as she shouldered her sorrows deepened her bond with her black female audience. Embracing their power and demanding respect didn’t negate the fact that, as Aretha reflected, “on any given day, any of us can have the blues. We don’t control fate or destiny, and we can’t control the circumstances of our lives.” While “Respect” and “Rock Steady” blaze with confidence and determination, “Angel,” “Until You Come Back to Me,” and “Break It to Me Gently” burn with a quiet desire. “Angel” begins with a spoken-word introduction describing a conversation between Aretha and her sister Carolyn, who wrote the song. Reaching out for a love that’s part human, part divine, the song calls out achingly to the larger community of sisters who don’t need the details spelled out for them. “The song had wings,” Aretha said. “It combined loneliness and hope in a way that spoke directly to the heart.” When she sings, “Got to get me an angel in my life,” she caresses the last word, touching the depth of the sorrow and the yearning for something better. The combination of realism and sadness speaks to anyone who’s had hard times, but at its core it reaffirmed Aretha’s place as the Queen of the Black Women’s Blues.

In 1976 her eight-year streak of Grammy awards for best R&B female vocal performance ended when Natalie Cole won “the Aretha” for “This Will Be.” When Natalie had first begun to perform, Aretha had sent flowers to her openings and called with holiday greetings. But a set of circumstances surrounding “This Will Be” contributed to a break in what had seemed to be a developing friendship. The problems began when songwriters Chuck Jackson ( Jesse’s brother) and Marvin Yancy brought a set of songs to Aretha, who turned them down. Subsequently they offered them to Natalie, who decided to record “This Will Be” and “I’ve Got Love on My Mind.” Aretha wasn’t happy with what she heard as Natalie’s unoriginal approach to the song: “At one point, Natalie called me to say that it was Chuck Jackson’s idea—not hers—for her to try to sound like me,” Aretha wrote in her autobiography. “Later, every time I opened a publication, it seemed like Natalie was telling journalists something about our fantasy feuds.” Natalie remembered things differently. “Someone told her I went around bragging about the fact that she had called me and that she must have been scared of me,” the younger singer reported. “Then I’m calling her, and she wasn’t returning any of my calls, and the next thing was the Grammys. I went up to her, and she broke my face,” the street term for a particularly sharp snub. It would be the first of many reported conflicts pitting Aretha against other black women singers, including Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Mavis Staples, and Whitney Houston.

After the landmarks of Live at Fillmore West and Amazing Grace, Aretha entered a bizarre period in her performing career. A highly publicized concert at Radio City Music Hall in November 1974 turned into a surreal disaster when Aretha entered wearing a clown suit, complete with red nose, singing “That’s Entertainment.” A beautiful version of Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love Is Fair” wasn’t enough to rescue the evening. A month later she opened at the Apollo in a sequined lavender suit and top hat singing “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” which probably wasn’t what the followers of Malcolm X and Angela Davis expected from Sister Aretha. Responding to bemused and sometimes hostile reviews in both the black and white press, Aretha said only, “I thought it was a nice change of pace. Maybe the public just doesn’t know me.”


BY THE TIME ARETHA THRILLED the crowd at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural gala with a stirring a cappella “God Bless America” on January 19, 1977, American pop culture was entering the disco era. Even as Sparkle testified to the beauty and brilliance of gospel-based soul, Aretha and Curtis Mayfield found themselves scrambling to adjust to a rapidly changing musical scene. At first the challenge wasn’t obvious. When disco first appeared, it was just another part of the black dance mix that made no distinction between funk, soul, and the imported novelty records that took their name from the European discotheques where they had first been played.

But before long, it became clear that disco represented a deliriously illogical extension of the fundamental premise of gospel soul. Gospel music sang about salvation through God; soul music sang about the power of love. Taking the progression another step into the secular world, disco translated “love” as “sex.” Churchgoers who shook their heads when Ray Charles and Sam Cooke testified to the redemptive power of romantic love howled in dismay over Donna Summer’s orgasmic marathon “Love to Love You Baby” or transvestite diva Sylvester’s “Save My Soul.” The fact that Sylvester sang with sanctified fervor didn’t impress the respectable African Americans who shared Jesse Jackson’s angry dismissal of disco as “garbage and pollution which is corrupting the minds and morals of our youth.” After Saturday Night Fever sparked the disco craze, even disco’s staunchest defenders were forced to admit that the music had receded into a bacchanalian dream of cocaine, poppers, and promiscuity. As upscale clubs like Studio 54 opened their doors to interracial coteries of celebrities and thrill-seekers, disco stars found it lucrative to cater to an audience dedicated to narcissistic hedonism rather than communal uplift. While local disco scenes—most notably the house music communities of Chicago and New Jersey—maintained their vitality, disco culture gradually lost contact with black clubs and audiences in the rural South and the urban ghettos, where hip-hop would soon fill the cultural vacuum.

The best disco, much of it created by black women who looked to Aretha as their elder sister and role model, underlined the music’s gospel roots. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Sister Sledge’s brilliant trilogy—“He’s the Greatest Dancer,” “Lost in Music,” and “We Are Family”—reasserted the gospel vision of unity at the precise moment Jimmy Carter’s dismissal of UN ambassador Andrew Young ended his administration’s honeymoon with black America. Music critic Iain Chambers described the disco tradition as an extension of ideas that had been developing in post-World War II African American secular music: “In disco the musical pulse is freed from the claustrophobic interiors of the blues and the tight scaffolding of R&B and early soul music. A looser, explicitly polyrhythmic attack pushes the blues, gospel and soul heritage into an apparently endless cycle where there is no beginning or end, just an ever-present ‘now.’ Disco music does not come to a halt. Restricted to a three-minute single, the music would be rendered senseless. The power of disco lay in saturating dancers and the dance floor in the continual explosion of its presence.”

Despite disco’s genuine connection with the communal aspects of the gospel vision, the fragmented reflections glittering in the facets of the mirror balls provide a fair symbol of its relation to gospel. On one hand, black women occupied a central place in disco culture. Many had learned to sing in church and shared Chambers’s sense of the music as an extension of soul. On the other, disco pounded out from the clubs on New York’s Christopher Street and in San Francisco’s Castro district, where a sexually exuberant gay culture had burst out of the closet in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots. San Francisco gay diva Sylvester voiced the aspirations and suffering of the brave new world of bathhouses and one-night stands in powerful gospel disco hits like “Power of Love,” “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real,” and “Sell My Soul.” While many saw that culture as a logical and fitting fulfillment of an egalitarian dream with its roots in the civil rights movement and the counterculture, many others—including a fair number of black churchgoers—recoiled in puritanical horror.

The centrality of gays and black women in disco culture contributed to a ferocious antidisco backlash. The backlash was driven by a bizarre coalition of feminists uneasy with women’s role as sexual playthings at disco palaces like Studio 54; angry young white men like the ones who turned an antidisco rally between games of a Chicago White Sox doubleheader into a full-scale riot with clear homophobic and racist overtones; and morally conservative Christians, black and white. Nile Rodgers of the disco super-group Chic, the idiosyncratic musical genius at the center of the disco mix, pinpointed the source of the problem in disco’s evolution away from its gospel-soul roots. “It was definitely R&B dance music,” Rodgers observed. “That was where it originated. Then it took on more blatant sexual overtones because of the gay movement. It seems to me that disco—from when I first recognized it as a musical form—was the most hedonistic music I had ever heard in my life. It was really all about Me! Me! Me! Me!” For Rodgers, that made disco a welcome relief from the pretensions of the counterculture he had lived in as a self-identified black hippie. “When I was political and a hippie,” he said, “we talked about freedom and individuality, and it was all bullshit. You could tell a hippie a mile away. We conformed to our nonconformity. Whereas disco really was about individuality. And the freakier, the better.”

Whatever soul artists felt about disco, they couldn’t ignore it. Some adjusted easily; the Jacksons and former Temptation Eddie Kendricks quickly established themselves as disco favorites. James Brown trumpeted his claim to the title of the “Original Disco Man.” But for Curtis and Aretha, the new sound presented seemingly intractable problems. It wasn’t that they disliked the music or, for the most part, the scene. Looking back at his involvement with disco tracks, Mayfield concluded, “It was definitely a good experience. You’re always walking that tightrope of what is commercial to the fans and then whether you’re expressing yourself independently as a creative person. Sometimes you have to …” The fact that he was unable to finish the sentence speaks volumes. Always enamored of innovative styles, Aretha felt right at home with disco’s sometimes outrageous fashion sense. She appeared in public wearing LaBelle-style silver lamé. During the King Tut craze she appeared on a television special with gold wings attached to an Egyptian-styled dress. In a 1978 interview she told David Nathan that she enjoyed disco both as music and as milieu. “I didn’t think it would be as big as it is and I was kinda surprised that it was more than just a fad,” she said. “I’ve been to Studio 54 in New York and the Speakeasy in L.A. and a disco down in Acapulco. It’s good for us girls who want to shed a few pounds.”

Despite their interest in disco, neither Aretha nor Curtis could consistently create dance-floor hits. Aretha’s attempts to cash in on what she called “America’s love affair” with disco were halfhearted. In 1977 she turned to Lamont Dozier of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team responsible for most of the classic hits by the Supremes and the Four Tops. The resulting Sweet Passion album is rivaled only by 1979’s La Diva as the low point of her Atlantic years. Aretha’s failure to solve the disco puzzle resulted in large part from her ambivalence about moving away from her roots. “A song, like a person, must have soul,” she reflected. “I realized that my voice would have worked with disco tracks. But I was determined not to be labeled a disco artist. No matter how much the radio stations were shoving rhythm and blues back in the corner, I still believed and I believe today in the permanent value and staying power of soul music.” In fact, she’d been offered several first-rate cuts—“Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”—by Nile Rodgers and songwriting partner Bernard Edwards. While she recognized them as “good songs” with “in-the-pocket grooves and cute lyrics,” she clashed with Rodgers and Edwards over how to produce her singing. “Their idea for me was ‘Just come in and sing impromptu and we’ll take it from there,’ ” she said. “Well, I hadn’t worked that way. I’m an interpreter, and I need to be involved with the total musical environment.” Both songs wound up as smash hits for Diana Ross.

Aretha’s failure to split the disco difference can be seen in the fact that the four-CD retrospective of her Atlantic years, Queen of Soul, contains only one song from her three late-seventies albums, Sweet Passion, Almighty Fire,and La Diva—the beautiful deep soul ballad “Break It to Me Gently.” In fact, when Aretha embraced her R&B roots during the disco period, black audiences responded eagerly. “Break It to Me Gently” topped the R&B charts in 1977, while both “When I Think About You” and the Mayfield-produced “Almighty Fire (Woman of the Future)” made the R&B Top Twenty. Where it had been a stroke of genius to pair Aretha with Curtis Mayfield for Sparkle, the attempt to revive the collaboration on Almighty Fire floundered, in large part because Curtis had no more idea how to respond to disco than she did.

Mayfield began to experiment with disco on Give, Get, Take and Have (1976) and Never Say You Can’t Survive (1977) and followed up with a pair of disco-dominated albums, Do It All Night (1978) and Heartbeat (1979). In retrospect, Mayfield found the late seventies almost amusing: “Those were some strange times for me. I had done so well for myself for such a long time. You know I was spoiled.” Neither Mayfield’s music nor his sensibility was well suited to the hedonistic aspects of disco culture. The polyrhythmic textures of “Move On Up” or “Underground” resisted the thumping backbeat that made it easy for DJs with only a minimal sense of rhythm to keep the mix in monotonous motion. When Mayfield tried to play the game, as he did on “Do It All Night” and the minor British dance hit “No Goodbyes,” he succeeded only in erasing his personality. Even more basically, Mayfield never had much interest in a world where the here and now demanded all the attention and love took a back seat to sex. Even when his lyrics celebrate sensual fulfillment, his voice sounds wistful. It wasn’t what most of the dancers really wanted to hear.

The most symbolically interesting, if not musically compelling, stage of Mayfield’s flirtation with disco came with Heartbeat, which was produced by Norman Harris, Bunny Sigler, and Ronald Tyson, who had contributed to the success of the Philly International label. Mayfield explained his decision to surrender production duties on his records for the first time since the early sixties. “You’re somewhere in there trying to express yourself in order to prove yourself,” he mused. “To show your own value, you must make hit records. It just can’t be me me me. That always fails. Every once in a while even the best of the best have to say, okay maybe I better let somebody who’s proven themselves with a new track record do something to keep me going.”

The truth may simply have been that Mayfield didn’t belong in disco, and any attempt to make him fit was doomed from the start. At first glance, the idea of matching Curtis with Philly International seemed promising. Philly International was the brainchild of Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and producer Thom Bell, the maestro of “symphonic soul.” The label’s slogan— “The Message in the Music”—signaled its goal of picking up the gospel-soul legacy by creating a socially uplifting music that would appeal to everyone in the black community and reach out to anyone else who would listen. It was a bold gesture at a time when the freedom movement had faded. Philly International held a special place in the hearts of many black musicians who saw it as a perfect expression of the underlying spirit of R&B. Stevie Wonder praised Gamble and Huff for mixing “the joy of love with the pain of oppression. They let it marinate, and it was sweet.” Mayfield saw them as “young, proud black men” who went into righteous battle with the increasingly hostile “powers that be.” “They walked a tight line in many directions,” Mayfield said, “but you always knew Gamble and Huff were steering that ship.”

Although Heartbeat and Do It All Night sounded like Mayfield was lost at sea, he claimed that he didn’t regret the disco experiment: “It wasn’t so bad. I liked the music. It was strange how Heartbeat worked out. The hit record from that album, ‘Between You Baby and Me,’ that I did with Linda Clifford, was the one track that was my own creation. So I felt good about that.” But Mayfield’s assessment sounded at least a note of regret. “Other people’s styles could never express me the way I expressed myself. I learned from that that all my life the music I made only sold when I was being me, when I was just being Curtis,” he concluded, acknowledging the failure of his attempts to adjust to the new fashion. “When I tried to be other than what I was, you could forget it. I had to be me to be a singer at all. I wasn’t knocking down anything, but it was just that little style and just from the heart, that high vocal. Thank God I had microphones ’cause I wasn’t a strong singer. But everybody seemed to like that falsetto.”

In retrospect, Mayfield saw his late-seventies floundering as symptomatic of the larger problems facing Curtom. Money dictated many of Curtom’s questionable decisions during the period. No longer involved with the label, Eddie Thomas believed that many of the difficulties stemmed from a failure to focus on Mayfield as a songwriter and singer. “To be honest,” he said, “I blame some of it on Marv Stuart. Curtis had earned the right not to spend his time on so many different things. He should have been able to do his work without worrying about everything else.” For Mayfield, the fragmented focus came with the turf. “Of course you have to look at it as a business. It is a business,” he said. “And those who actually spend the money and invest, the stockholders and the people like that, they may not even listen to the music. The bottom line is what do I get out of it. But what was happening was that I was wearing too many hats.”

The quality of Mayfield’s albums declined, as did his popularity, for several reasons. His soundtrack work demanded an increasing amount of attention, and many of his best songs—“Let’s Do It Again,” “Giving Him Something He Can Feel”—were recorded by other artists. In itself that was nothing new. But Mayfield believed that the multiple pressures of running Curtom hurt his music: “I was going on the road, doing movies, trying to keep my career going strong, making decisions in the studio for many a person. I was trying to handle all my personal affairs and watch out for the money. Thus I began to allow other people with bad decisions to influence me.”

Signs that Mayfield had overextended himself began to affect his performance as a producer. While many sessions went smoothly, others disintegrated. When Mayfield approached Gene Chandler about making a record with Curtom, Chandler jumped at the chance to rekindle the fire of their magical sixties collaborations. Unfortunately, Mayfield failed to appear for the scheduled session. “It was weird, awfully weird,” Chandler reflected. “I love the brother, but Curtis did not show up. Don’t ask me what happened. I don’t know.” Chandler went ahead and recorded as scheduled, but Mayfield misplaced the tapes, and Chandler gave up. Some speculated that Mayfield had fallen into the common traps of life on the fringes of late-seventies drug culture, but few who knew him doubted that the ultimate source of his problems lay in pure exhaustion.

The final albums of the Curtom years—Something to Believe In (1980) and The Right Combination (1980)—abandon the disco wonderland for Mayfield’s soul and gospel roots. A collection of duets with Linda Clifford, The RightCombination attempted to capitalize on their old-school soul duet “Between You Baby and Me” as well as Clifford’s 1978 disco hit “Runaway Love.” Even when Clifford was marketed as a disco singer, her vocals revealed her origins as a soul singer, which is probably why she was saddled with the unenviable task of recording a disco version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The fact that that could ever have seemed like a good idea goes a long way toward defining the cultural moment. Anyone who wants more clarity need only listen to Al Green’s quasi-disco version of “Love and Happiness,” included on the Live in Tokyo LP. Some things just shouldn’t happen. Both musically and lyrically Mayfield’s duets with Clifford wander. The effective moments are almost all intensely personal. In late 1979 the duo went on tour in support of The Right Combination, the first time in five years that Mayfield had gone on the road.

Although it received little attention, Something to Believe In provides a fascinating and frequently moving sense of Mayfield’s response to the changing times. The weariness at the heart of the album had accumulated over two decades of hard work, decades during which Mayfield helped define the cultural feel of two distinct eras in black politics. Carried along by the energy of the freedom movement during his years with the Impressions, Mayfield engaged the promise and problems of Black Power as creatively as any musician of his generation. The first cut on the album, “Love Me, Love Me Now,” opens with the sound of a police whistle over a string-washed dance beat that recalls the disco of Heartbeat and Do It All Night. Even as Mayfield repeats the line “come dance with me,” however, his repeated cries of “Love me baby” communicate a depth of isolation unlike anything in his earlier music.

The fascinating remake of “It’s All Right” on Something to Believe In underscores the changes in Mayfield’s energy since the high point of the movement. The Impressions’ version of the song radiates an energy of connection, especially when the three voices come together at the ends of lines. The 1980 recording accentuates the distance between the lead singer and the female backup singers, who sound like they’re located in a different room. You can feel the call and response falling apart. But if “It’s All Right” suggested that Mayfield had lost control, the best songs on the album— “People Never Give Up,” “Never Stop Loving Me,” and the searching “Something to Believe In”—demonstrated his profound understanding of the gospel vision. Even as he stood alone on the dance floor, contemplating the inevitable collapse of the disco community, Mayfield testified to the power of love. But whatever the lyrics might claim, the sound warned forebodingly of the coming world in which nothing was going to be all right.


AS AMERICA CELEBRATED ITS BICENTENNIAL, Stevie Wonder contemplated the state of the union with a mixture of tenderness and ferocity. Polishing the material that would make Songs in the Key of Life a definitive moment in African American cultural history, he wore the robes of New Age Guru and Old Testament Prophet. Alternating between gentle prodding and thundering denunciation, Wonder challenged America to live up to its professed ideals. The keynote of Wonder’s musical sermon was “As,” which in a more truly democratic world would join Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” on the ballot for a new national anthem. The song starts out as a strange New Age gospel love song. Conjuring up visions of flying dolphins and parrots living in the ocean, Wonder promises a love that will last until that visionary day when “you are me and I am you.” But after a soaring instrumental break, he slams us down in a blues world where the hard times drive many to wish they’d been born in another place or time. Reasserting the core of the gospel vision, a vision honed during four centuries of slavery and segregation, Wonder assures the community that their burdens are part of God’s larger plan. He drives home the point of the sermon in a voice that can only be described as astonishing in its intensity and conviction. Those who say they’re “in it but not of it,” Wonder warns, are helping to create the very hell they’re trying to escape. His conclusion celebrates the vision that unites the great black singers and the activists who insisted on turning their visions into reality. If we change our words into truth and our truth into love, we’ll have something worth passing down the generations.

Songs in the Key of Life attained the mountaintop Wonder had been climbing toward since “Blowin’ in the Wind.” After Margouleff and Cecil’s departure, Gary Olazabal assumed primary studio duties, and Wonderlove emerged as a more active part of Wonder’s creative process. Although the band had existed in some form since 1972 and appeared on the Rolling Stones tour, the Songs-era Wonderlove was the first relatively stable line-up. Consisting of bassist Nathan Watts, drummer Raymond Pounds, keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, and guitarists Ben Bridges and Mike Sembello, the Songs- era Wonderlove was the first group to play an important part in shaping Wonder’s music since the Funk Brothers. Watts’s fluid bass and Sembello’s virtuoso guitar playing meshed perfectly with Wonder’s increasing interest in the jazz dimensions of the African American musical tradition. Ralph Ellison had defined a jazz impulse in African American culture that focused on innovation, envisioning new possibilities that would transform the burdens and brutal experiences of life into something better. “True jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group,” Ellison wrote. “Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity; as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition.”

Wonderlove allowed Wonder to redefine his individual voice and sense of tradition while maintaining an active dialogue with a concrete musical community. Sembello, who’d joined the road band at about the time of Innervisions, played a crucial role in supporting Wonder’s musical evolution. Preferring the experimental music of Pat Martino, John Coltrane, and Igor Stravinsky to R&B or rock, Sembello hadn’t even intended to audition for a position in Wonderlove. “When I got the gig with Stevie, I was completely unaware of his music,” Sembello admitted. A friend had talked him into going to a “jam session” in Philadelphia, Sembello said, without mentioning to him that the session was in fact an audition for Stevie’s band. “Halfway there he said, ‘Oh by the way, Stevie Wonder’s gonna be at this jam session.’ He failed to tell me it was an audition because he knew I wouldn’t have gone.” When they arrived, they encountered a swarm of two hundred guitarists, most of whom knew Wonder’s music intimately. As it turned out, that wasn’t an advantage. “He started playing all this off-the-wall shit, and obviously all these guys are waiting for ‘Fingertips’ or ‘Superstition,’ and he starts going into all this jazz stuff,” Sembello recalled. “It was kind of like a game show for guitar players… . I lasted there about three or four hours, and it came down to me and this other guy, and Stevie started playing all this off-the-wall bebop and modulating keys, and it was no problem for me.”

Through most of the period when they were creating Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder and his band worked intensively. Originally titled Fulfillingness’ (Second) Finale and then Let’s See Life the Way It Is, the two-and-a-half-disk masterpiece would take him two years to complete. While the two-year gap between Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life would occasion little comment today, then it was considered extreme. Bass player Nathan Watts recalled that “there were times when he’d stay in the studio 48 hours straight. You couldn’t even get the cat to stop and eat.” As usual, Wonder viewed the marathon sessions as an extension of his natural rhythm. “If my flow is goin’ ”—he smiled—“I keep on until I peak.” The marathon sessions were fueled by the improvised banquet stocked by musicians, friends, and Stevie’s mother, whom he’d rewarded for her love and support with a house in the San Fernando Valley. Backup singer Gypsie Jones told Wonder biographer Constanze Elsner about a session that turned into a culinary extravaganza. “I’d made Stevie a huge blackberry cobbler—because I know that he’s got such a sweet tooth,” Jones began. “Anyway, I get down to the studio, and five minutes later in walks Lula with a peach cobbler as big as the blackberry cobbler. And macaroni and cheese and baked chicken and broccoli and pizza and God knows what. Another two minutes later this guy walks in, and he brings the health-food trip. So the whole thing is like a feast. There was food and plates all across the studio.”

As the sessions passed the one-year mark, Wonder took to wearing a T-shirt that answered the question before it was asked: WE’RE ALMOST FINISHED! Motown employees had their own STEVIE’S NEARLY READY shirts. As a series of announced release dates in early and mid-1976 receded into the past, rumors circulated blaming Stevie’s uncertainty about the album’s reception and his unwillingness to stop tweaking the production. Others speculated that he was waiting for the propitious astrological moment. When the long-awaited day finally arrived, Stevie hosted a lavish release party for press, musicians, and music industry mavens on a farm in rural Massachusetts. The white-fringed cowboy outfit he wore was something out of a George Clinton dream. Consisting of two full albums and a four-song EP, Songs in the Key of Life debuted at number one on October 16, 1976, and remained there for the rest of the year. Its fourteen-week stay at the top of the chart was bettered during the seventies only by Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors (thirty-one), the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (twenty-four), and Carole King’s Tapestry (fifteen).

Songs in the Key of Life weaves the threads of gospel, jazz, and the blues into a tapestry that defines the breadth and depth of the African American tradition as clearly as any record ever made. Expanding on the blues realism of “Living for the City” and the gospel aspirations of “Higher Ground,” the album denies neither the reality of suffering nor the power of love. The fact that it struck a profound chord in millions of white listeners simply underlines the inclusive potential of the gospel vision. Wonder frames the album with gospel statements, opening with the explicitly spiritual “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Have a Talk with God” and closing with the communal celebration of “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call).” Celebratory moments spice the set in the glorious number-one hit “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely,” Wonder’s gift to his daughter Aisha Zakia. But he never denies the brutal experiences that threaten to drag people under. “Village Ghetto Land” and “Ordinary Pain” express the social and individual levels of the blues, while “Joy Inside My Tears” revoices Langston Hughes’s classic definition of the blues as “laughing to keep from crying.”

One of the album’s two number-one singles, “I Wish” walks a fine line between sunny and sentimental. Part blues nostalgia for days spent hustling with his “hoodlum friends” and part warm memory of a ghetto community where the joys of family could outweigh the burdens of poverty, the song provides an emotional touchstone for the album as a whole. Wonder wrote it after attending a Motown company picnic. “I had such a good time at the picnic that I went to Crystal Recording Studio right afterward, and the vibe came right to my mind: running at the picnic, the contests, we all participated. It was a lot of fun. And from that the ‘I Wish’ vibe. And I started talking to [engineer] Gary [Olazabal] and we were talking about spiritual movements, ‘The Wheel of ’84’ and when you go off to war, and all that stuff. It was ridiculous. Couldn’t come up with anything stronger than the chorus, ‘I wish those days would come back once more.’ Thank goodness we didn’t change that.”

The core of Songs in the Key of Life is Wonder’s improvisational vision of a new and better world. The jazz impulse elements on the album are unmistakable. Thematically, “Saturn” imagines a world where people live for hundreds of years, while stylistically, “Contusion” explores the jazz fusion style developed by Miles Davis’s seventies groups. Building on his interests in reggae, Wonder forges new links in the chain of the diasporic tradition. Sung in Zulu, Spanish, and English, “Ngiculela/Es una Historia/ I Am Singing” calls for a broader sense of black unity, while “Black Man” celebrates Native American, Asian American, and Latino heroes alongside their black and white counterparts. The album’s other number-one hit, “Sir Duke,” pays joyous tribute to the jazz elders: Sir Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and—in a nod to the interracial aspects of the tradition—white swing band leader and trombonist Glenn Miller.

The most profound synthetic serendipity on the album occurs on “Pastime Paradise.” The song starts out as straight blues. Wonder meditates on the damned souls who flee into the past or into fantasies of the future to escape a hopeless social morass. But Wonder isn’t content with the blues goal of simply finding the strength to get up and face another day. Near the end he segues into a haunting minor-key rendition of the movement classic “We Shall Overcome,” reminding us of the need for reconnection and renewal. No single aspect of “Pastime Paradise” derives obviously from jazz. Yet the combination of the choirs from the Hare Krishna Temple and the West Angeles Church of God redefines Wonder’s spiritual tradition as surely as Ellington’s Far East Suite or John Coltrane’s meditations on the relationship between Hindu, Islamic, and black Baptist spirituality in Ascension and A Love Supreme.By rearranging the fragments of the traditions he inherited, Wonder embraces the improvisational possibilities of life in the inner city. His jazz-inflected juxtaposition of blues moments transforms the song into a hymn to human possibility.

The response to Songs in the Key of Life from the mainstream media was less enthusiastic than might have been expected. Many rock-oriented critics preferred Talking Book or Innervisions. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called Songs in the Key of Life a “flawed masterpiece” with a list of “identifiable mistakes,” including awkward phrasing, forced rhymes, and the excessive length of “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Black Man.” John Rockwell noted Wonder’s “distressing predilection for cosmic meanderings and soupy sentimentality… . The man is obviously no giant ideologically, but he does have a reasonably accurate idea of what’s going down.” The liner notes to the album did little to appease the doubters. Combining sixties-style free love with New Age mysticism, Wonder announced, “My mind’s heart must be polygamous and my spirit is married to many and my love belongs to all,” adding that “love plus love minus hate equals love energy.” Waxing psychological, he continued, “An idea to me is formed through in the subconscious, the unknown and sometimes sought for impossibles, but when believed strongly enough can become reality.” All of which was pretty lucid compared to what was coming soon, in Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.

For the moment, however, none of that mattered, especially on the streets and in the living rooms of black America, where Songs in the Key of Life was, and is, almost universally recognized as Wonder’s finest achievement. Talking Book may have been more revelatory; Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale were leaner and more consistent. Anyone arguing for any of them as Wonder’s greatest album can make a case. But context can’t be ignored. When Wonder released Innervisions, the Black Power movement could still lay a marginally believable claim to the future. When Fulfillingness appeared, it was one of dozens of albums, including Aretha’s Spirit in the Dark and Curtis’s Roots, competing for the attention of an attentive interracial audience. By 1976 things had changed. The movement’s slogans no longer carried the visionary moral authority they had a few years earlier. And blacks and whites were headed in different directions in a hundred different ways.

In the face of the gathering doubts, Songs in the Key of Life stood firm. Wonder refused to surrender an inch of the hard-won turf. Taking the central conceit of the movement classic “This Little Light of Mine” to a higher level, “Another Star” challenged the beloved community to rekindle the fire that had illuminated the way. Refusing to let his blindness obscure the beauty of blackness, Wonder assured his people that they were, in the eyes of man and God, lovely. Wonder had once volunteered to judge a beauty contest, and the idea wasn’t as silly as it might have sounded. There’s probably never been a more moving celebration of black beauty than “Isn’t She Lovely,” though the short list of runners-up would include his own “Ebony Eyes,” “Golden Lady,” and “Dark ’n Lovely.” Maybe Wonder simply couldn’t be distracted by the different shades of “black” that threatened to undercut the shared vision that had made the movement possible. In 1976 that was exactly what black America wanted and needed to hear.

The follow-up to Songs in the Key of Life, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, surprised almost everyone when it was released late in 1979. A meditative jazz tapestry organized around the analogy between the growth of plants and the nurturing of children and the future, the album reflects Wonder’s interest in a dazzling array of musical traditions. Bits of Japanese and traditional African music mingle with jazz-inflected funk, synthesized strings, and classical guitar. Lacking the sharp social edge of Wonder’s previous seventies albums, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants intimates the elusive mysticism that Wonder would express more fully, if not necessarily more clearly, on the liner notes to In Square Circle. Journey’s strongest defenders usually echo Janet Jackson, who identified it as “one of my favorite Stevie Wonder albums, the one that made me feel like I was drowning in beauty. When I’d get home from school, I’d pop this puppy on the stereo, slap on the headphones and just soak up the gorgeous melodies. Escaping.”

While very few would join Jackson in placing Journey alongside the five great albums that preceded it, it offers fascinating glimpses into Wonder’s personal evolution, especially his refusal to accept his blindness as a limitation. The three-year gap between Songs in the Key of Life and Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants drove Berry Gordy to the brink of despair. With Motown cash strapped by ill-conceived film ventures, Gordy was hoping that Wonder’s next album would alleviate the problem. Stevie “was forever telling us, ‘Next month,’ ” Gordy reported. “We would gear up, gear down, gear up.” When Wonder finally delivered the masters, Gordy wrote in his autobiography, “I got a sinking feeling it might not be the smash we needed. But because he was such an innovator, influencing a generation of music makers, I was hopeful.” Faye Hale, Motown vice-president in charge of manufacturing, quickly disabused him of his delusion: “I have no ear as you always remind me and I may be missing something, but a record about plant life with elephants stepping on glass?” Poised to press two million, Gordy reluctantly cut back to one million. “And still,” he lamented, “that turned out to be around nine hundred thousand too many.”

If Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants was a commercial disappointment of epic proportions, it was certainly interesting. Long fascinated by the spiritual vibrations knitting together the natural world, Wonder had immersed himself in the mystical New Age sounds of Vangelis, Rick Wakeman of Yes, and the German band Tangerine Dream. At the same time he learned to play a variety of Japanese and African instruments. The new interests came together around director Michael Braun’s plans to make a film based on the book The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.

Which raised the question of how a blind man was going to compose a soundtrack for a movie that relied neither on plot nor character. Wonder gleefully accepted the challenge. “The more I heard people ask, ‘How will Stevie, being blind, be able to write music for a film?’ the more of a challenge it became,” he recollected. “I just knew I’d have to figure out some way to do it.” Wonder, Braun, and engineer Gary Olazabal contrived an ingenious solution using the two channels on Stevie’s headphones. While Braun explained the visuals in the left headphone, Olazabal counted off the timing of the frames in the right channel, allowing Wonder to internalize the cinematic rhythm. “He would tell me the starting time of a sequence and count the frames till it would end,” Wonder explained. “They put it all on this four-track tape; the sound of the film, the sound of Michael explaining, and the sound of Gary counting on three of the tracks; the fourth would be used for the music … they made me a copy, I’d take it home, listen to it a few times, and work the music out on a tape cassette. I would play along with it and get the time signature I felt was conducive to the sequence. That’s how we did it.” It was complicated, creative, and at its best gorgeously evocative.

From the thick orchestral introduction of “Earth’s Creation,” Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants drops the listener into a world of curling tendrils, lush underbrush, and thick leaves undulating in the sonic breezes. Strange sounds generated by Japanese instruments, a sitar, tiny tinkling bells, and toned African percussion surround intentionally childlike snippets of melody. “Ai No, Sono,” a lovely melody, conjures a moment of peace in a Japanese garden; “Black Orchid” flowers into exotic beauty. Motifs sparkle in and out of hearing, reappearing full-blown later in the suite. Playing with languages including Bambara and Japanese, Wonder imitates the natural world where stunning new shapes mingle with forms found everywhere. The spiritual and philosophical seed of Wonder’s shadowy green world emerges in “Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye,” Bambara for “A Seed’s a Star.” Adapting an African proverb concerning the way plants revitalize Earth’s connection with cosmic energies, Wonder carefully nurtures the musical and lyrical motif until it blooms in “A Seed’s a Star.” Wonder probably intended the English version as a clarifying epiphany, but to put it mildly, not everyone felt spiritual enlightenment. The album has aged better than most sixties and seventies forays into orchestral mysticism. (It’s been years since the last reported sighting of the Moody Blues’ To Our Children’s Children’s Children or the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request.) The album spun off one hit, “Send One Your Love,” which, for a seventies Stevie Wonder single, made a terrific florist’s commercial.

The baffled response to the album, which reached number four on the charts largely on the strength of Wonder’s name, highlights the risks associated with the jazz impulse. While he had imagined a beautiful new world, few rushed to join him in it. Anyone seeking to radically redefine his tradition has a much better chance of succeeding when working with raw material familiar to the audience. When a concert version of the album failed to sell out in Detroit, Wonder admitted that he’d been hoping for a more enthusiastic reception. “It would have been nice to see Cobo Hall full,” he told an interviewer. He seized on the situation to reassess his feelings about the balance between jazz explorations and the need to communicate with his communities. “The true meaning of an artist is to be expressive of his art and to be innovative. But a lot of things have been afforded me by the people, so I have to share with them the experiences I have had and am having. When I listen to my work and I realize that certain things are too out, too abstract, I try to make it so that everyone will be able to understand it, whether they’re young or old. But if you don’t take a chance in life, then you really cannot move forward. If you’re going to sit yourself in one thing that you know is going to work and just do it over and over, then ultimately people are going to get tired of it anyway. And so if you don’t make the change, then there will be a change that someone else makes.” While some accepted the challenge of following the changes Wonder imagined on Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, many others, as Gordy had feared, simply waited for him to return to more familiar ground.


BY THE END OF THE SEVENTIES the changes seemed to have passed Curtis Mayfield by. Curtom’s sales had peaked in 1976; by 1979 Mayfield, Linda Clifford, and the funk-disco group TTF were the label’s only remaining successful acts. Tired and burned out, Mayfield lacked the energy or inclination to break the slide. When RSO bought Curtom’s distribution rights in 1979, it marked the effective end of the label, which formally ceased operation in 1980. At the same time Mayfield decided to move permanently to Atlanta, where he had maintained a second residence since 1967. He explained the move in terms understandable to anyone who’s ever survived a Chicago winter. “That Chicago weather. Man, man. That hawk’ll get you,” he said, using the local nickname for the Arctic wind that blows off Lake Michigan. “The music scene was kind of drying up in Chicago. Of course, you know Chicago is my home. I love it, but my needs and my desires were quite different. I guess after coming up in the city all your life, you can appreciate a little bit of ground around you. Atlanta had trees, space, some of those things you want to have. It was a good place for the children.” Curtis Mayfield had certainly earned the right to relax, but the world would miss his voice.

For Aretha, things were more complex. After moving to Los Angeles with Ken Cunningham, she shopped on Rodeo Drive; immersed herself in decorating her home, complete with rose walkway; spent time with old friends like Smokey Robinson, James Cleveland (who had a church and a soul food restaurant), and Berry Gordy, whose home featured black velvet paintings of Aretha and Diana Ross. In times of need she could commune with the soul food spirits at Mr. Jim’s Ribs, whose motto was “You don’t need no teeth to eat our meat.” Although she was aware that her fashion choices had not met with universal applause, she dreamed of a line of clothing creations that would be marketed by a major designer. “I like what I wear, and I design a lot of the clothes myself,” she told interviewer David Nathan. “Sometimes I test things out for my family. And, yes, I have tested a few things that didn’t work so I don’t wear them in public.” But despite living in a neighborhood alongside Motown’s Jacksons, actor Mike Connors, and the Walt Disney estate, Aretha never really settled into the West Coast lifestyle. “Los Angeles was not the easiest time in my life,” she wrote in her autobiography. As her relationship with Cunningham collapsed, she told Smokey Robinson she was homesick for Detroit.

Her romantic life took an unexpected turn for the better when she met the actor Glynn Turman at a benefit for Rosey Grier’s Giant Step program. Aretha’s son Clarence knew that his mother had admired Turman’s performances in A Raisin in the Sun, Cooley High, and Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg, so he brought the actor to his mother’s dressing room. “I told him that I was interested in drama, in acting, and he said he was an instructor at an inner-city cultural center,” Aretha recalled. “And I said, ‘Oh, really?’ I took the information down and told him I’d come to some of his classes. And I did. I stayed the whole session.” Aretha invited Turman, who was four years her junior, to her thirty-fifth birthday party, and soon Ebony featured the couple under the headline “Older Women / Younger Men: A Growing Trend in Love Affairs.” To which Aretha responded sassily, “I want everyone to know that I’m a young woman with nothing but young ideas. There’s nothing older about Aretha.” In April 1978, with Reverend C.L. Franklin officiating, the couple were married at New Bethel Baptist Church. As Aretha walked down the aisle in an eggshell-colored silk gown trimmed in mink with 17,500 seed pearls and a seven-foot train, the Four Tops sang Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.”

Despite the auspicious start, the marriage never really had time to settle in. The couple’s Encino mansion on a three-acre lot complete with a large swimming pool provided plenty of room for their combined family. But Turman was a nonsmoking vegetarian, and Aretha had no intention of giving up either meat or cigarettes. In addition, cooking for their total of seven children made it difficult for her to watch her weight. The effort of keeping slim, she said, made her weak and irritable. “I couldn’t bear to deny myself all my life all the good foods I like to eat, just to keep a slim, birdlike figure,” she said. Cooking did have its compensations; she enjoyed dazzling company with the soul food specialties that she contemplated collecting in a cookbook to be called Switchin’ in the Kitchen. Any chance of a successful adjustment to the marriage was ended by tragedies outside either partner’s control.

On June 19, 1979, Aretha was in Las Vegas rehearsing for an upcoming engagement when she heard the news that her father had been shot at his home in Detroit. At first Aretha and her brother Cecil, who took the emergency phone call from Pops Staples, thought C.L. had died after being shot twice, in the knee and groin. It turned out he was still alive, but he would never regain consciousness. Apparently he had surprised intruders attempting to steal a leaded-glass window. The assailants were apprehended and convicted, but as Aretha said, “That didn’t help my father.”

As Franklin lingered in his coma, Aretha and her sisters assumed responsibility for his long-term care. Carolyn, who had been living with Aretha in Encino, moved back to Detroit. Aretha paid for around-the-clock nursing. Now smoking over two packs a day, she visited her father’s bedside at least twice a month. The financial and psychological burdens put tremendous stress on her marriage. When Aretha decided to move back to Detroit, her third marriage came to an end. Aretha was grateful for the absence of arguments or recriminations. At the time her primary concern was for her father. “A man of enormous energy and boundless vitality, a man of high eloquence and burning intellect,” Aretha wrote later, Reverend Franklin “was now without speech or the ability to move.” At the time she rarely spoke to the public or interviewers about what she was going through. “There was no way I could express the pain,” she wrote. “I merely went on.” Still, when Aretha burst into tears after dedicating George Benson’s “The Greatest Love” to her father, it testified to the weight of the cross she had been given to bear.


IN 1978, FOR THE FIRST TIME in two decades, no record by Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, or Curtis Mayfield appeared in the Top One Hundred. Juxtaposed with the growing power of a conservative movement intent on reversing the gains of the freedom movement, the silence delivered a deafening eulogy for the gospel vision that had reshaped American life since World War II. The movement fueled by that vision had achieved meaningful victories. Blacks could enter into most public spaces, north and south, with legal protection if not always psychological and physical safety. The growing black middle class no longer found itself confined to the traditional ghettos. Black athletes and entertainers enjoyed a much greater degree of recognition and remuneration than they had a generation earlier. On the surface, all of that looked like the partial fulfillment of African American aspirations that, as Martin Luther King intoned, were “deeply rooted in the American dream.” Like their white compatriots, black Americans had long envisioned a world where they could succeed on the basis of their individual merits. By the start of the eighties, for a lucky few, something resembling that world had come to be. Literally and figuratively, it would be a world without soul.