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Coming of Age at Motown

Managing Music And School

“When the people at the Board of Education said that I couldn't perform,” Stevie recalled, “[and] the Detroit schools couldn't accommodate my wanting to go on the road … I cried and cried and prayed for a long time.”

Stevie's parents were more concerned than Motown executives about Stevie's education. A music career was nice, they thought, but Stevie still had a lot of schooling to complete. In fact, Stevie had much more to learn than other children. His blindness was not going to go away. Stevie needed to learn how to cope in the world. He could learn this best from teachers of the blind.

Finally, a solution to the problem was found. Stevie left the Detroit public school system and enrolled in the Michigan School for the Blind. Motown paid for a tutor from the school to be with Stevie on all the tours. Stevie performed mostly one-night stands with other Motown musicians. They traveled to different states for weeks at a time. Ted Hall was Stevie's tutor on these trips. Hall and Stevie became friends and companions quickly. Hall spent the next six years traveling with—and tutoring—Stevie.

“Motown recruited me,” Hall recalled. “They did a nationwide search looking for a suitable tutor for Stevie. I was totally in charge of Stevie's day-to-day activities. The company, working through a booking agent, would consult with me and set up a tour. Then it was my job to provide Stevie's educational needs as coordinated through the School for the Blind.”

If you think that Stevie had it easy with Hall, think again. Stevie wasn't in a real classroom, yet he had plenty of work to do. Hall came to work with Stevie in September of 1963. He quickly developed a plan for Stevie's schoolwork that organized Stevie's life by every hour in the day.

“We would travel throughout the country or around the world with a lot of activities,” Hall explained. “I was paid by Motown, and the management part of Stevie's program was directed by Motown. All I had to go on was my own childhood, and so I established an allowance with Stevie and I worked it out with his parents so he didn't develop champagne tastes at too early an age. It seemed to work very well. He seems to appreciate it now, but he didn't appreciate it at all at the time.”

The money that Stevie made from his record sales went into a bank trust account. Except for expenses, Stevie could not touch what he earned (and neither could anyone else!) until he reached the age of twenty-one. His allowance began at $2.50 per week. On tour, Stevie did not need much. He wanted to buy musical instruments, but Motown said no. He often ran out of his allowance. What Stevie bought most with his small allowance were gifts for his mother. He missed her a lot, and they spoke on the phone nearly every night. As far away as Stevie sometimes traveled from home, he was always close to his mother in mind and heart.

Stevie worked tirelessly at his schoolwork and his musical ambitions. “He held out extremely well,” Hall remembered, “and I always recognized that Stevie was holding down two full-time jobs, one as a student and the other as an entertainer. I don't think he realized it. We wouldn't start school until about ten o'clock in the morning, but I would get up at 6 AM usually to prepare for school [and] try to get a head start on the kid. Then we would have school for three and a half to four hours and then it would be the entertainment business until maybe twelve or one o'clock in the evening.”

Time didn't mean much to Stevie. Time doesn't mean much to any blind person. Because the blind cannot see either the light or dark of each day, they don't live by the same concept of time and the clock as do sighted people. In fact, Stevie was famous around Motown for his tardiness. Some people wondered if Stevie was somehow rebelling in a way for all the work he was doing for Motown. He was always being told what to do; he also could do little on his own because he was blind. On the road, Stevie was constantly in unfamiliar surroundings. He couldn't just get up and go outside to walk around the block. Stevie always needed some kind of companion. Being late was one way Stevie showed his independence from his structured life.

Additional topics

Musician BiographiesStevie WonderComing of Age at Motown - Managing Music And School, Short Homecomings, Back On Top–this Time To Stay, Growing Up And Away