*What do you do when music legend Stevie Wonder makes a surprise visit to your job to wish you both a Happy Birthday and celebrate your 50th anniversary in business? For WBLS radio legend Imhotep Gary Byrd, you hug your friend, play music and chat about life and lyrics to thousands New York metro listeners.
Also, like the title of Byrd’s show, “GBE: Express Yourself,” you give Stevie Wonder the opportunity to express himself to your audience.
“Mr. Steveland Morris AKA Mr. Stevie Wonder is here to express himself too,” Byrd announced to the listeners.
“I didn’t want to come over here and takeover,” Wonder responded. “But…”
During the conversation, which spanned almost two hours, Wonder expressed himself about friendship, family, music, spirituality and even politics.
Wonder’s surprise birthday visit was coordinated in March by Nyerere Shannon, Byrd’s producer. The duo has been close friends since they were teenagers in the 1960s dealing with the adult world of the music business. Wonder was Motown’s rising musical genius and Byrd was a teen radio prodigy in New York. With Byrd penning the lyrics and Wonder writing the melodies, the friends collaborated in classic songs that celebrate Black History like “Black Man,” “The Crown,” and “Dark and Lovely,” a tribute to South Africa. Together, Wonder and Byrd are the epitome of Black Music Month.
“We had met as teens when Stevie was performing in Buffalo and I was a 17 year-old with a shift on WUFO. Two years later, he was the brother that heard me creating what I was creating on an all-night radio show on WWRL in New York and asked me to come to the Apollo Theatre to meet him. In the process, he gave me several songs to write,” Imhotep recalled about Wonder. “The great thing is that it not only started the creative relationship we developed. But we developed a friendship that is reaching the 50 year mark.”
“I’ve always had a great appreciation for his consciousness,” Wonder pointed out about Byrd. “We’ve had a great life together through the good times and the bad times. So I had to come here and wish you a happy birthday.”
The broadcast was also the launch of Byrd’s 50th anniversary celebration as a high profile talk and music personality on radio airwaves in Buffalo (WUFO) and New York City (WWRL, WLIB, WBLS and WBAI). “It’s such a Blessing to have an on-air talent on our team who embodies the Biblical parable of multiplying one’s talent. Gary’s love for the communities he’s served led him to compose poetry and implement the use of poetry in forms that ushered in the birth of contemporary rap and hip-hop,” said Skip Dillard, program director, WBLS-FM. “Gary’s lyrical gifts inspired Stevie Wonder and formed a collaboration leading to some amazing hits!”
Radio has a special affinity to Wonder. “The brother understands the radio thing. Stevie owns a radio station, KJLH, out in Los Angeles,” explained Byrd, who has guest-hosted at the famed station several times. “Are you still doing that broadcast show?”
“No, I got fired,” Wonder responded with a laugh. “They put Steve Harvey on—which is good. His ratings are a wonderful thing. And, he can still play my music.”
When Byrd was creating the rap and song “The Crown,” Wonder wanted to be involved in the creative collaboration.
“I was rushing to the studio when he called,” Byrd remembered.” “I played him a minute or two minutes of the demo. I thought it was too loud because I could hear him screaming. He said, ’I’m the only one who could do music for that. You need to come out to Los Angeles and let me do the music.”
“You remember Tina Marie was on that,” Wonder chimed in. “It was so much fun.”
“The Crown,” a tribute to Africa and African history, was released in 1983 on Wonder’s label Wondirection, a division of Motown Records.
“I believe that people in every culture should know about themselves. When they are young, they should know about their history. And they should learn about all other cultures and how we interact with each other,” stressed Wonder. “I think that we have a responsibility as parents, educators and communicators.”
His deep feelings of spirituality are apparent in Wonder’s hits like “Higher Ground,” “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” and others. At WBLS, he shared his insights on being disturbed with the political and spiritual turbulence happening in the world today.
“I wrote a song recently called… ‘Holy One: When are you Going to Come?” said Wonder. “Holy One, when will this all be done? As sure as there is a heaven and a sun in the sky, I know that the things we’re doing in this world are not of you.”
Wonder, who turned a Happy Birthday song into a political statement about Dr. Martin Luther King, is also troubled by the treatment of President Obama. “When we have a person who holds the highest position in this country and just because he’s African American, he’s made fun of,” he stressed. “The reality is that the world is broken everywhere. We are broken. That’s a heartbreak.”
Byrd’s celebration with Wonder, spilled into the show of Caribbean host Dahved Levy, where he discussed how joys and the conflicts are a part of his art. “I’m in this world, so everything that is happening does affect me in some way– whether it is emotionally, mentally or spiritually,” said Wonder. “I’m affected by things that are happening because love people. I love people in the world. God has said that is what you’re supposed to do. We are all made in his image so I have love for humankind. Because, I feel those things, I’m definitely affected in how I write the things that I write about. I’m affected by love, life, what we’re doing to the planet and what we’re doing to each other.”
The duo have collaborated on five songs encompassing the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. This includes “Misrepresented People” from the Spike Lee film “Bamboozled.” Byrd was thrilled to become a Motown recording artist and his songs “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man” were featured in Stevie Wonder’s recent “Song in the Key of Life” nationwide tour.
“Stevie is my brother. He is my friend,” said Byrd. “He is my co-creative partner who lifted me up to another level.”
Each week, Byrd can be heard online on Sundays on WBLS and WLIB from 7:00pm – 9:00pm and on Fridays on WBAI from 6:00pm – 8:00pm.
Fern E. Gillespie is communications consultant based in New York City. Contact her via [email protected]