Inspired in part by the fatal shooting in New York of a ten-year-old black boy by a white plain-clothes policeman, the audacious centrepiece of Stevie Wonder’s experimental 1973 album was a seven-and-a-half-minute meditation on the brutality of black America: Living for the City.
Just as Wonder’s saccharine, middle-of-the-road smash hit You Are the Sunshine of My Life was selling millions around the world, the virtuoso former child star was busy in the studio pioneering the sound of black music by recording a concept album: Innervisions. Expanding on the ambitions of Talking Book the year before, it would secure his transformation from Motown pop star to legendary artist and activist.
Meanwhile, early on the morning of April 28th, 1973, Clifford “Cleophus” Glover was walking with his 51 year-old stepfather along New York Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens, New York when a white Buick Skylark drew up alongside them and a white man got out of the car shouting “You black son of a bitch!” and started shooting at them. They ran for their lives, but Cliffie did not make it.
Police Officer Thomas Shea claimed that Add Armstead and his stepson resembled two known thieves – thieves who had been described as around 24 years of age and about six feet tall.
Shea, who became the first police officer in almost 50 years to be charged with committing murder while on duty, claimed that the child had reached for a gun. Forensic evidence proved that the ten-year-old had been shot in the back; no evidence of a gun was ever found.
Thomas Shea lost his job on the force, but in June 1974 a jury of 11 white men and one black woman found him not guilty of murder and he walked away a free man.
Riots had followed the initial shooting and worse still came when the verdict was announced. Hundreds took to the streets. White children playing baseball were attacked by angry rioters on a local playing field. Cars were turned over and burned and two police officers were injured by rioters.
Stevie Wonder attended the funeral of Cleophus Glover, and sang for the congregation as the procession left the church. “I have followed the case,” he told Jet magazine. “It brings America down another notch in my book. I hope that black people realise how serious things are and do something about it”.
This was the burning issue on Stevie Wonder’s mind as he wrote the epic Living for The City.
With an infectious funk swagger – and complete with authentic street noise sound effects, spoken dialogue and the poignant slamming of a jail door – Living For The City contains a cinematic intermission that tells the fictional story of a wide-eyed innocent who comes to the big city to make his fortune and finds himself quickly duped into becoming a drug runner, arrested by the police and sentenced to ten years behind bars. There is not a lot of hope in this tale of the boy from “Hard Times, Mississippi” – his dreams are crushed and any prospects of a productive future along with them. Far from finding a welcoming community and useful work, he is plunged into a heartless ghetto populated by unscrupulous gangsters in a city controlled by a draconian white establishment.
As the story concludes we hear a jailer yelling: “Get in the cell, nigger!” brutally underlining the unfeeling institutionalised racism. There is no happy ending in this potted saga. As Stevie gruffly sings: “If we don’t change, the world will soon be over.”
“He wanted genuineness,” says studio engineer Malcolm Cecil in Mark Ribowsky’s biography of Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed and Delivered, “so we had to get real cops, which only happened because [fellow engineer Robert Margouleff’s] father was the mayor of Great Neck and he got some cops to meet us in a parking lot. We told them, ‘Just say what you’d say if you were arresting a guy for drugs,’ and they did the rest – they came up with the ‘nigger’ line, which pleased Stevie immensely. If he’d said that in the guise of a cop, that would have been offensive instead of real as real can get.”
Cleophus Glover’s story was not even unique in recent New York history at the time. Another ten-yea-old, Ricky Bodden, from Staten Island, was shot dead by an officer the previous year, recalled David J. Krajicek in the New York Daily News in 2017. But some good did come of their deaths. “The NYPD doubled down on gunshot restrictions aimed to save innocents from quick-draw cops like Shea, who had fired five times in six years. NYPD officers killed 93 people and wounded 221 with guns in 1971. Twelve officers were killed and 47 injured that year. In 2015, cops killed eight and wounded 15. Two officers were killed and three wounded that year. The wisdom of choosing not to shoot was a hard lesson — learned on the backs of two 10-year-old kids.”