The first thing Stevie Wonder said to me that day was, “Show me the pictures.” I played along.
“Right here,” I said. We sat side by side, legs dangling over the edge of the stage in a cavernous rehearsal hall. I set my large leather loose leaf portfolio on his lap and opened it for him.
“Oh wow, man! These are cool,” said he, flipping pages and feigning an over-the-top Braille that looked like playing arpeggios on a concert grand piano. Then he said, with arch seriousness, “You’re getting better.”
“I love your work, too, Steve,” I replied. “But I don’t rub my ears all over your records. You’re ruining my prints.” I got a hug.
It wasn’t the first time we’d met; I’d photographed Steve a number of times. Incidentally, at any rung on the ladder of propinquity, people called him Steve; Stevland Morris Hardaway officially — with only one e. This time Motown’s Tamla record label hired me for a photoshoot to publicize his professional comeback from a near-death experience.
It happened in the summer of 1973. Steve and his band were on a road trip to promote their new album, Innervisions. After a performance in Greenville, South Carolina, they were headed to Durham, North Carolina, to visit America’s first community-owned black radio station, WAFR. They didn’t make it. Leading a three-car caravan up the Interstate, with Steve riding shotgun and his cousin at the wheel, they rear-ended a flatbed farm truck in broad daylight. There is no consensus to explain how that happened in the first place. But there is no ambiguity about how the grille of their car plunged underneath the extended lip of the truck bed, which, like a chisel, tore across the hood and broke through the windshield, striking Steve in the head before the truck itself was flung headlights over hubcaps off the highway.
Pulling up to the scene, the panicked sidemen couldn’t wait for a random cop passing by to radio for an ambulance. They rushed Steve, bleeding and unresponsive, to the closest hospital. He was stabilized and transferred to intensive care in Winston-Salem where he lay disfigured and in a coma for four days. Steve’s cousin suffered minor lacerations; the truck driver broke both of his ankles. In the weeks that followed, Steve was…