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Most of the time cajoling a celebrity into doing a commercial is about
as much fun as a colonoscopy. The preparation takes everything out of
you, and just when you have nothing left to give, they stick it to you
as far as they can go.
But working with Stevie Wonder was, well, wonderful. And he was dying to shoot a commercial with us. Only he wanted to be the spokesman for, get this, Kodak film.
Now it was my job, as the group creative director on the Kodak account
at J. Walter Thompson, to visit Stevie, who was in Atlantic City at the
time, and convince him that perhaps he’d be a better spokesman for Kodak
batteries, since batteries are used for musically related equipment like
cassette players and such. But no he really, really wanted to talk about
the film because Kodak had recently pulled their photographic business
out of South Africa in defiance of the apartheid laws. “That’s wonderful
Stevie”, I say, with perspiration dripping down my blouse that I’m trying
to cover up until I realize that I’m the only one who sees it, “but it’s
gonna be tricky having you talk about color and sharpness and being real
believable because….because…” I just can’t get the words out. “Because
I’m blind?” “Well, yeah, since you’ve never seen a Kodak picture, or for
that matter, anything, it could be a possible
drawback to convincing our viewing audience, those being people who
actually can see."
He begrudgingly admitted that I kinda had a point and would consider doing a Kodak battery spot, and we left it at that.
That night I get a call from someone named Steveland Morris, and I started
to hang up, claiming that I didn’t know anyone of that name. “Well, I
just met you this afternoon.” Nope, didn’t ring a bell. “Maybe you’ll
remember me by my stage name, Stevie.” Thinking this was a practical joke
from one of the account guys at work, I sarcastically sneered over the
phone, “Yeah, like Stevie Wonder?” “Yeah,
well that’s my stage name, but my real name’s Steveland Morris.” Wow,
I’m thinking, I was so busy noticing that he was blind, I didn’t realize
he was also Jewish.
Anyway, he tells me that he’d be fine starring in a spot about Kodak batteries, and that in fact he’s already written a song. Did I want to hear it? Yes, of course I wanted to hear it, I couldn’t believe Stevie Wonder wanted to know what I thought of his new song. What an experience? What an exciting proposition?
What an awful song it was for this spot. I mean, the melody was beautiful
enough in its own right, but it was soulful and dark, and our ad had kids
and puppies bouncing around which was the usual Kodak fare. So now I have
to tell Stevie Wonder, for God’s sake, that I don’t like his song because
it won’t work with all the vignettes that he’ll never see. After what
seemed like an eternity of hemming and hawing, he caught on, and just
said, “So you hate it, right? No sweat, I’ll just write you another one.”
And he did and it was beautiful. We collaborated on the lyrics to the “You
Can Depend on Me” song, a challenging task because Stevie has never adjusted
to a sighted person’s nocturnal rhythms, and works at strange hours of the
day or night. As a result, during the several weeks we spent on the track,
I slept in my clothes, knowing that at 3am I might be suddenly summoned
to come to a session. Sometimes I’d rush down there only to find out that
our track got sidetracked for another project and that he couldn’t work
that night. It was during this time that I finally figured out how he got
his name. “I wonder what time he’s gonna show
up”, “I wonder where the hell he is”, “I wonder
if this commercial will ever be finished.”
But it was no wonder that the final music bore a striking resemblance
to the man who wrote it. It was sweet, heartfelt, and haunting, with a
performance by Stevie that seemed to see the world a lot clearer than
anyone else I’d ever met.
Linda Kaplan Thaler
Copyright © 2005 AEF. All rights reserved.