The day the music almost died: Stevie Wonder survived horrible crash in Salisbury
By Mark Wineka
Charlie Shepherd’s flatbed farm truck pushed steadily north on Interstate 85.
The 1948 Dodge ran better without the load of logs Shepherd had delivered to China Grove around lunchtime.
Shepherd had the truck windows wide open. The air rushing in carried the August heat, hardly cooling the sweat that made his shirt stick to the back of the seat.
Maybe the rains were gone. Rowan County had experienced one of the wettest Julys on record in 1973, followed by heavy storms the first three days of August.
But Shepherd had taken advantage of a dry weekend and this particular Monday to get some work done.
Shepherd noticed Rowan Technical College’s parking lot was pretty much empty as the truck approached the Klumac Road overpass ó Jake Alexander Boulevard today.
It was then that he heard and felt the jolt behind him and realized, as if he were in slow motion, that his truck was sliding out of control toward the college on his right.
These were the best of times for 23-year-old Stevie Wonder.
The former child prodigy of Motown had desperately fought for and won artistic control over his music, and he had long traded in the Little Stevie Wonder persona for critical acclaim as a singer, songwriter, musician and producer.
His “Innervisions” album had just been released July 31, 1973. It included the single “Higher Ground,” a song whose lyrics spoke of a progression toward a higher spiritual plane through reincarnation.
Wonder, blind since birth, already had 13 gold records to his credit and, three weeks earlier, his song “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” had been No. 1 in the country.
Wonder sat in the front passenger seat of a wide 1973 Mercury cruiser ó a rental car from Hertz ó as his 24-year-old cousin John Wesley Harris of New York drove them north on I-85 out of South Carolina.
Wonder had performed the night before in Greenville, S.C., and they were motoring toward a benefit performance that night for WAFR, a black radio station in Durham.
Near Charlotte, Harris stopped at an electronics store to purchase a cord so Wonder could plug his tape machine into the car. Wonder carried a reel-to-reel with him, and he had two-track mixes of “Innervisions” to which he wanted to listen.
As they approached Salisbury at 1:39 p.m. Aug. 6, a sleeping Wonder was wearing headphones, and Harris, distracted by something, failed to notice the flatbed truck ahead of them.
The Mercury slammed into the truck’s rear, and the bed of the truck shattered the windshield and struck Wonder a glancing blow to his head.
The car skidded toward the median.
Ahead, Charlie Shepherd’s truck began tipping, then went into a full roll.
The truck’s momentum carried it completely over and it landed back on its wheels in the grass just south of the overpass.
Shepherd was stunned ó and hurt. Both of his ankles were broken. His upper lip felt as though it was barely hanging to his face. And he had a lot of cuts.
He waited for help.
Members of Wonder’s band, traveling in two cars behind the singer, drove up on the wreck and stopped in a panic. One of his brothers rushed to the car, which had come to rest in the median, and noticed immediately the singer was unresponsive and bleeding from his forehead and scalp.
With help, the brother picked Wonder up, carried him to one of the cars, asked directions to Rowan Memorial Hospital and took off with the injured musician.
C&M Ambulance Service, the private ambulance company that served Rowan County, arrived later to transport Shepherd and Harris, who suffered cuts to his thigh and had glass lodged in his fingertips from the shattered windshield.
Trooper Don Moran of the N.C. Highway Patrol started talking to witnesses, gathering licenses and taking measurements before he learned from one of the band members that Wonder was a passenger in the Mercury.
By the time Salisbury Evening Post photographer Bob Bailey arrived at the accident, Wonder was gone, and Bailey had no idea the famous performer had been in the smashed-up Mercury.
A tow truck already was moving into position to haul off Shepherd’s truck. Bailey took a couple of shots of both vehicles and headed back to the office.
At the Post, reporters and editors gathered in the newsroom for a 2 p.m. staff meeting.
On the fringe of the circle, veteran police and courts reporter Ralph Miller, always pecking away at his typewriter and smoking a cigarette, answered the telephone on his desk.
It was one of his many law enforcement contacts.
Young reporter Linda Bailey and the others in the newsroom circle stopped talking when they overheard Miller’s question over the telephone. “Well, pardon my French,” Miller said, “but who the hell is Stevie Wonder?”
Charlie Shepherd, flat on his back in the emergency room, noticed Wonder waiting close to him.
But he had no idea who Stevie Wonder was ó had never heard of the pop star. The two men ó Shepherd was 23 also ó were in no shape to talk anyway, and in about 2 minutes Wonder was whisked away.
Word spread quickly that Stevie Wonder had been injured badly in the I-85 accident.
D.J. Whitfield, assistant director of nursing at Rowan Memorial Hospital, never saw Wonder after his arrival, but she was among about a half dozen hospital employees who soon had to start manning the telephones.
People from across the country ó reporters, fellow entertainers and fans ó were calling the hospital, digging for any kind of information on Wonder’s condition.
Whitfield talked to singer Roberta Flack and a reporter from the British Broadcasting Corp., among other callers.
It was Whitfield’s impression that Wonder was not hurt seriously, though Rowan Memorial doctors already were making plans to move him to N.C. Baptist Hospital because, it would be said later, the Winston-Salem hospital had “neurological facilities.”
Others speculated that the small hospital just didn’t want to deal with all the fuss.
Hank Newman’s father, Dr. Harold H. Newman Jr., was late arriving for dinner.
He had emergency room duty that day ó the day, unbelievably to his son, Hank ó that an injured Stevie Wonder came in for treatment.
ABC, NBC and CBS reporters had been calling the house asking for his father.
A representative for The Jackson 5 also had called the hospital, Hank had heard, and offered the group’s private plane to fly Wonder anywhere in the country.
But Dr. Newman spoke of treating Wonder at Rowan Memorial in matter-of-fact terms over the dinner table. As with Shepherd, the truck driver; Miller, the reporter; and Whitfield, the assistant nursing director; Dr. Newman had never heard of “Steven Wonder” or his real name, Stevland Morris.
“I had to sew him up,” the physician told his family.
The young Newman concluded that Wonder was OK.
That same night, about 9:05, Wonder arrived at N.C. Baptist Hospital’s intensive care unit in Winston-Salem ó still unconscious.
Coming Monday: The aftermath of Stevie Wonder’s wreck.