My sister, a talented singer in her own right, along with her Our Gang-motley crew from the "hood" would tag along wherever Little Stevie and his escorts would roam, like good little groupies savoring his spontaneous bursts into song, coaxing the “Boy Wonder” to sing and play his harmonica. More often than not those assisting him, usually his cousins, former baby sitters, or neighbors would allow this extraordinarily gifted child freedom to dazzle his young and older admirers with a selection or two.
In our neighborhood, we all knew the little blind Morris grandchild visiting from near Detroit was special. Stevie’s impromptu mini-concerts usually took place near his grandparents’ home and family business, the Morris Liquor Store at 138th and Alexander Avenue, or on the bustling green and playground of Smith Park that served as a sort of Village Square near the Carver Public Swimming Pool. This phase of Stevie’s emergence as an artist predates his rise to fame with his first huge hit record Fingertips, Part 1.
When Stevie visited the “hood” back in the day, it was like watching the Pied Piper, only in real time. Instead of leading rats to the river, boys and girls trailed Little Stevie during the humid hazy days of Lake Michigan summers, marveling at his talent, waiving in the musical afterglow of pure soulful genius. The boy Wonder’s entourage often lingered for one last song into the evening, before the street lights came on and happy kids from a more innocent time excitedly returned home, sharing the story of their unforgettable musical experience that day.
I was privileged to have been part of Stevie’s marches in Washington DC, during his successful campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. If our paths should cross again, I’d ask him whether his mom or grandparents allowed him to go swimming in the neighborhood public swimming pool located a block from his grandparents’ home and business. The pool opened its doors in the 1940s, named in honor of George Washington Carver the great African- American scientist, who personally attended the ribbon cutting ceremony. The Carver Swimming Pool was built to preserve racially segregated neighborhoods and recreational activities in East Chicago, a town known as a melting pot of ethnic backgrounds. For nearly 70 years, Carver Pool was a source of community pride and summer joy and for generations of largely black and Puerta Rican youth. The swimming pool has long since been demolished and the rust belt neighborhood Stevie and I fondly recall is nearly a ghost town as a result of the region’s decline as a steel-producing economic engine. What will never fade are our sweet memories of youth and the joy one little blind kid shared annually with those of us “living in the city.” Happy 60th birthday Stevie, we love you!