Callers around the world checked in to find out about performer’s status
By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Evening Post photographer Bob Bailey returned to the newspaper the afternoon of Aug. 6, 1973, with routine wreck pictures
that suddenly weren’t so routine.
The Post newsroom scrambled when it learned from cops reporter Ralph Miller that internationally known performer Stevie Wonder had been
injured in the car that struck a “logging truck” on Interstate 85 near Klumac Road.
Wonder, first admitted into intensive care at Rowan Memorial, had been moved to N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, where doctors said his vital signs were stable but he was still unconscious. A Rowan Memorial Hospital spokesman told Miller that the Rowan County truck driver, Charlie Shepherd, had “cuts to the lip,” though he was much worse.
Both Shepherd and Wonder’s driver, John Wesley Harris, were admitted to Rowan Memorial and reported in satisfactory condition.
Even with the intense national interest in the wreck, the succinct Miller managed to write the wreck story in 12 paragraphs the next day.
A short sidebar, which also appeared in the Post on Aug. 7, reported on all the calls the Salisbury Police Department, Rowan Memorial and
highway patrol office had been receiving.
Sgt. T.A. Bryan of the highway patrol said his office had talked to callers “from virtually around the world.”
Wonder’s mother, Lula Hardaway, heard a news bulletin about the wreck at her home in Detroit and quickly made travel arrangements for
Some of her other sons joined her.
The Jackson 5, performing in Greensboro, visited Wonder the day after the wreck.
By telegram and telephone, other entertainers such as former Beatle Paul McCartney and members of the popular band Chicago sent hopes for a recovery.
Meanwhile, word of Wonder’s condition at N.C. Baptist eked out morsel by morsel.
The Winston-Salem Journal tried constantly for updates and reported Wonder had regained partial consciousness a day after the accident.
That same Tuesday, doctors upgraded Wonder’s condition to satisfactory, but he remained in the intensive care unit with what they described as “a bruise on the brain.”
A hospital spokesman said no surgery was “indicated or contemplated” and that no significant change in the singer’s condition was expected
over the next 48 hours.
A doctor also told the newspaper that Wonder’s chances for a complete recovery were good.
At the hospital, Lula Hardaway chased away most people, except her son’s closest acquaintances.
Wonder’s longtime friend and publicist Ira Tucker couldn’t even recognize the star.
To Tucker, the singer’s head seemed to be swollen five times its normal size ó “and nobody could get through to him.”
A 2002 biography on Lula Hardaway, “Blind Faith,” also mentioned how Wonder’s family and friends were trying to reach Wonder with their
The book recalls: “First one visitor and then another would gingerly take his hand, lean over to his one exposed ear and gently say,
‘Stevie, you there?'”
The process of regaining full consciousness was taking awhile.
Wonder reached a turning point in his hospital recovery ó so an oft-repeated story goes ó when Tucker, his publicist, loudly began singing “Higher Ground” to the comatose singer.
Gonna keep on tryin’ Til I reach my highest groundTucker soon noticed Wonder moving his fingers in time to the song ó doing keyboard licks on the hospital bed.
Two days into his hospital stay, the Journal reported, Wonder was able to talk enough to answer simple questions and was making “slow, steady progress.”
The next day, the newspaper said, Wonder was being fed liquids by mouth, instead of intravenously, though he remained in intensive care.
Charlie Shepherd stayed in Rowan Memorial Hospital for three days.
His injuries, which included two broken ankles, kept him from working for the next three months.
Wonder stayed at N.C. Baptist Hospital for two weeks, including a week in intensive care.
Visitors were restricted to family and representatives of Motown Records.
The singer donated all the flowers coming to him to children patients at the hospital. He befriended a hospital security guard named Larry
Wonder would return for Woolard’s wedding two years later.
On Aug. 18 at the hospital, dressed in red with a green fatigue cap, Wonder gave his first interview since the accident, though he declined going into details about the wreck itself, saying he really didn’t remember much.
“The only thing I know,” he said, “is that I was unconscious, and that for a few days, I was definitely in a much better spiritual place that made me aware of a lot of things that concern my life and my future, and what I have to do to reach another higher ground.”
His reference to “Higher Ground” was no accident.
Standing with Wonder at the interview session was Ewart Abner, president of Motown; Tucker, his publicist, and Charles Collins, his
Wonder said the hospital was warm and the people, beautiful. “I’ve gotten the feeling of being loved not just because of me being Stevie
Wonder, but being loved as a person,” he said.
With a new sense of mortality, Wonder left Baptist Hospital Aug. 20, 1973, to convalesce at the University of California at Los Angeles
His mother, three brothers, a registered nurse and Abner accompanied him.
Wonder would not perform again until March 1974 in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
He told Crawdaddy magazine he felt like he had a second chance at life.
“What happened to me was a very, very critical thing, and I was really supposed to die,” he said.
Coming off a long concert tour hiatus, Stevie Wonder and an 11-piece backup band performed last November at the RBC Center in Raleigh.
David Menconi of the Raleigh News and Observer reported that the dynamic show was long on sentiment, but sincere. He noted how Wonder opened the night with a short speech, giving thanks to God as well as the doctor in Winston-Salem who saved his life after the 1973 crash.
Wonder, now 58, lost his sense of smell from the accident and was left with a scar on the right side of his forehead ó a gash that Dr. Harold H. Newman Jr. had stitched up in the Rowan Memorial Hospital emergency room.
Wonder considered plastic surgery but decided to leave the mark “as one of the scars of life I went through.”
Hank Newman, the doctor’s son, would always point out the scar to others when Wonder is on television.
Charlie Shepherd returned to hauling logs and raising cattle off Crawford Road in Rowan County.
He never received a penny from the accident and doesn’t really have clear memories of it.
“When you get jostled around like that, you don’t remember a whole lot,” Shepherd says today.
Over 35 years, no reporter or author had ever talked to Shepherd about the accident and, truth is, he would rather just forget it.
His back and shoulders still give him trouble from that day when his truck rolled over.
“It was the type of experience you don’t want to do again,” Shepherd says. “We all wound up scarred that day.”