Motown musical maven Stevie Wonder has not toured for some time now. And some critics would erroneously say his musical creativity has been on the decline since his incredible run of classic albums and consecutive Grammy wins in the 1970s. But with an entire globe of followers who love him as an iconic music angel set on this earth to be a messenger of love and hope (most of who can immediately sing along with full recollection of the words to hits such as “Wish,”—or who can, at minimum, pipe out, “You can feel it a-aall o-o-over,” in the musical tribute to Duke Ellington and smash single, “Sir Duke”), it comes as no surprise to see why the 25 time Grammy-Award winner can sell out at the largest of North American arenas in a rare 11-city tour. This is the prodigious visionary Stevie Wonder who has amassed 49 Top-40 singles and 32 No. 1 singles.
Arriving to Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta early (about 8 p.m.) allowed a bit of dialog with a few folks who sat close by. Johnnie and Pamela Lynch drove in from Charleston, S.C. to attend the Saturday concert.
“I heard about it first on Tom Joyner,” shared a visibly excited Pamela Lynch. “I thought at first … oh, I hope he’s in Charlotte, but found out the closest venue to us would be Atlanta. I called [my husband] Johnnie who was on his way to work. We were able to plan a nice weekend around this show. The record that I personally reacted to was “I Wish.”
An equally excited hubby Johnnie weighed in. “That’s right, she’s been singing it all week. We had to come; we couldn’t miss this.” Another attendee chimed in, saying, “I’m just 22—but I love Stevie Wonder. My parents were always listening to his music.”
The crowd went crazy when Wonder walked on stage with fellow artist, Grammy-nominated singer Indie Arie, and his two sons. During the performance, Wonder toyed with us early on, almost taunting, “Musicians just wanna jam..,” then delivered powerful renderings that kept us at the edge of our seats wondering what hit he would sing next. Silencing any doubters questioning his vocal ability at age 64, Wonder delivered with rock star pipes that proved his still-dazzling star power and wow factor. Halfway through the show, he treated the audience to a bit of a contest with a backup singer, who has been with Stevie for many years.
Wonder engaged frequently with the audience — taking a moment at one point to say that he needed feedback on something — asking us to stand if we were in favor us, or to sit if against. It didn’t take long to tell us what he wanted —“Do you feel that we have a gun problem in American?” And yes, most of us stood, relishing in a moment to stand together in harmony with the iconic voice so that a current social issue could be addressed. We eagerly stood with a messenger who has served as a voice for social issues for so long. With a gentle reminder, he made sure that we knew out of all his messages—the most important would always be, love.
Wonder performed most of the 17+ songs in the album. Forging the show were the exceptional contributions of musical director and keyboardist Greg Philiinganes, bassist Nathan Watts and drummer Raymond Pounds — all of whom played on the album. Along with the six back-up singers (including Aisha), Wonder had upped the ante with two additional keyboardists, two drummers, two percussionists, six horn players, plus a ten-piece string section (the horns and strings were just phenomenal). A special appearance by master guitarist Earl Klugh truly contributed to an unforgettable performance. Klugh, an Atlanta resident for more than a decade, teaches master classes at Georgia Tech, and conducts workshops at K-12 partner schools. And all of a sudden—was that Spike Lee on stage at the end? Yep, it was probably the unmistakable hat, and some amazing and funny dance moves (I’m pretty sure that was the Crackerjack he was doing up there), he blissfully danced away, and blended in like a joyous pied piper to lead the entire crew offstage.
To see why the Rock and Roll, Songwriters, and NAACP Hall-of-Fame inductee will continue to pack or sell out concert arenas, simply take a step back 38 years to 1976—the release year of the Key of Life album. Pedal back a bit further to 1974, and we find out that the musical genius buried himself for over two years in order to get this project the way he wanted it. The seclusion allowed Wonder time to produce, arrange, write and compose the ambitious 21-song album, with the exception of three songs, immortalizing a funky new style that was all Stevie. Breaking free of the Motown mold, Wonder worked with a tireless intensity for over 24 months with a drive and faith from inside that the new, funky sounds would prevail once released. The gamble paid off. Songs in the Key of Life sold more than 10 million LPs—nearly as many as all of Wonder’s other albums combined. Hit singles which were released from the album include “I Wish” (Dec. 1976), “Sir Duke” (Mar. 1977), “Another Star” (Aug. 1977), and “As” (Oct. 1977). At the concert, the words to these blockbuster hits flowed out of the mouths of not only baby boomers (many of whom were in high school or college during the ’76 album release), but also from a slice of younger fans who attended.
Wonder truly sealed his funk master fame in the 1970s with groundbreaking songs which were pivitoal in mainstream pop like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “Superstition” (after teasing us for the whole show—we finally got to hear Superstition toward the very end causing the crowd to dance in their seats with unabashed energy) and “Living for the City”—all three of which he performed. And in the 1980s — still only in his 30s — he allowed our children who are the Millenials to adopt the boy Wonder as their own after singing hits such as “Ebony and Ivory,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and the AIDS-fight anthem “That’s What Friends Are For.”