*Without this day in 1973, Barack and Michelle Obama would likely have a different name for their production company, “Higher Ground.”
Fifty years ago on May 11, Stevie Wonder entered a studio and recorded what he believed was a “special song,” featuring his own written lyrics about a coming day of judgment. The Motown legend told Q magazine of the “Higher Ground” session, “I did the whole thing in three hours. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t know what or when, but I felt something.”
The song was completed on May 12, 1973 and released as a single that July on Wonder’s new album “Innervisions.” It went on to reach No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Wonder is the lone credited musician on the track, listed as playing the drums, Moog bass, Hohner clavinet, tambourine and even the hand clap accents. Listen to just the instruments below:
Three months after Wonder recorded “Higher Ground,” he had a near death experience that would give the lyrics another dimension, and fulfill the premonition that he was indeed writing a “special song.” In August 1973, he was en route to a benefit concert in Durham, North Carolina traveling behind a truck carrying a load of logs. The truck stopped short, causing Wonder’s head to go through the windshield and ram into one of the logs. He was in a coma for four days.
At one point, is road manager and good friend, Ira Tucker Jr., knew that Wonder liked to listen to music at loud volumes, and would sing “Higher Ground” directly into his ear. The first day brought no response, but the second day saw Stevie move his fingers in time with the song, signaling his first step toward recovery. Suddenly, the lyrics, “I’m so darn glad he let me try it again, Because my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin, I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then, Going to keep on trying ’til I reach my highest ground,” had a whole new meaning.
Recalling his time in the coma, Wonder told the New York Times, “I wrote ‘Higher Ground’ even before the accident. But something must have been telling me that something was going to happen to make me aware of a lot of things and to get myself together. This is like my second chance for life, to do something or to do more, and to value the fact that I am alive.”
Listen to details of his accident and “Higher Ground” instrumentation below from YouTuber Professor of Rock:
When it was time for the Obamas to launch their production company in 2018, they chose the name “Higher Ground” from their favorite artist. “I think it’s fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me,” Barack Obama said in 2009 while presenting Wonder with the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize. “We might not have married. The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship.”
Obama even had Wonder sing “Higher Ground” at his inauguration.
Wonder has joined several artists for memorable “Higher Ground” moments, including an MTV Video Music Awards performance in 2004 with Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitz, and with soulful country music artist Chris Stapleton during a Motown tribute in February.
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