- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

LOS ANGELES — When Stevie Wonder returned to the studio after a 10-year hiatus to record “A Time to Love,” he was doing more than getting back to work. He was getting back to the message that has formed the cornerstone of his legendary career.

“Of all the needs that we have right now, more than anything we need a time for love,” Mr. Wonder said recently, sitting in front of a mixing board at his Wonderland Studios, where his new album was recorded.

The 15 tracks touch on love in all its forms, from physical to unrequited to family affection to the way people treat strangers on the street. Sensing a lack of respect coming “from people in their relationships as well as our leaders in government,” Mr. Wonder hopes his latest effort will give them all something to think about.

“We need to have more respect for each other,” Mr. Wonder says, leaning forward for emphasis. “Things have just gone really crazy, out of control. … We’re on a very weird kind of cycle.”

At the same time, he acknowledges he wouldn’t mind seeing “A Time to Love,” due out Tuesday, revive his critical and commercial acclaim. “I would be very happy,” he says, flashing that famous megawatt smile and cackling with delight.

Mr. Wonder has recorded more than 30 Top 10 hits, won nearly two dozen Grammys, including one for lifetime achievement, and been inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame. But at 55, he hasn’t had a hit record in more than a decade. He’s gained plenty of weight, and most of the hair on top of his head has receded.

Some critics have implied that his creative powers also have receded since the 1970s, when he recorded four legendary albums — “Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness First Finale” and “Songs in the Key of Life,” the last of which included his classic single “Love in Need of Love Today.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Wonder disagrees. “For however long it’s been, I’ve just been doing life,” he says of his hiatus.

It’s been a life filled with both joy and sorrow, which he also captures on the album.

Self-taught on piano, harmonica and other instruments, Steveland Morris was just 12 when he first wowed national television audiences on such shows as Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” He was “Little Stevie Wonder” back then, a name he says someone at Motown Records, he can’t remember exactly who, came up with.

From his earliest days as a prodigy covering Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” through such songs of his own as “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “My Cherie Amour” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” his music has sought to uplift and inform as well as entertain.

With his latest album, he’s contributing the royalties from one of the songs, “Shelter in the Rain” to Hurricane Katrina relief. But Mr. Wonder says he actually wrote it to help deal with the deaths of his brother Larry Hardaway and his ex-wife, Syreeta Wright, with whom he had remained close friends after their divorce.

“God gave me that song as a gift,” he says, adding that it seemed only right to pass the gift on to those whose lives were devastated by the storm. He had hoped to record it with his ex-wife before she died of cancer last year.

Soon after her death, Mr. Wonder and his current wife, Kai, celebrated the birth of their son, Mandla, a name the musician says was suggested by a friend, former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Mr. Wonder, who is unfailingly gracious and friendly, can also be guarded and vague when asked about his personal life. But he becomes positively effusive about Mandla, who was born May 13 on Mr. Wonder’s 55th birthday.

“Oh man, he was up at 5 a.m. today,” the musician, who looks noticeably tired, says with an emphatic laugh. “I was like, ‘I came home late last night and I want to chill.’ But he was like, ‘woo, woo woo,’ and he wouldn’t stop.”

His son isn’t the only relative Mr. Wonder keeps close. During the interview, two of his brothers, Calvin and Milton Hardaway, wander the halls of Wonderland, which is housed in an old art deco building in a slightly seedy neighborhood on Hollywood’s edge.

The building’s exterior is nondescript, but the interior is plush, down to the lavishly tiled bathrooms. A table near his “Wonder Box” sound studio features elaborate carvings, including some that have been translated from Swahili into Braille.

“I don’t know if they provide inspiration,” says Mr. Wonder, who has been blind since birth. “But it’s nice to feel, isn’t it?” he asks with a laugh as he runs his hands over the carvings, explaining they represent the names of different African tribes.

It was here that he put together the tracks featuring a wide array of musicians, including Prince, Paul McCartney, India.Arie and Bonnie Raitt, as well as two duets with his daughter Aisha Morris, one of his seven children.

Milton Hardaway marvels that in some ways his brother’s performance with his daughter on the tender ballad “How Will I Know” has brought him full circle.

“He wrote ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ for her,” Mr. Hardaway says of the 1976 hit that included her cooing baby talk in the background. “And now they’re singing together.”

The new album’s sound, while unmistakably Stevie, ranges from pop to R&B; to occasional nods to the hip-hop that has influenced Mr. Wonder in recent years.

The overarching lyrical theme, though, is making time for love.

“It’s really me saying, ‘a time to love,’ meaning a time to care in the world,” Mr. Wonder concludes, pausing to choose his words.

“Among all the wonderful things we have, we don’t seem to have a time to love. And to me that’s the fuel, that’s the fuel we need to make the engine go.”

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