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Stevie's Blind Spot
By Linda Kaplan Thaler


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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.

 

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