Stevie Wonder, December 20, 2014: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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This is not a short piece. While it does include a review of one specific concert, I first spend time offering thoughts on why this was such an important performance. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ stands as a pinnacle in this musician’s career and as a personal touchstone for much of his audience. It is my hope that my introductory backstory helps to illuminate the place that this remarkable album holds in American culture and the reasons why this concert was significant …

At Inglewood, Calif.: Fans of Stevie Wonder were becoming increasingly impatient as the fall of 1976 began. It had been over two years since the release of his last album, in a day when two years was a gaping stretch of time for an artist to go between records. Wonder himself was aware of his audience’s increasing anticipation. Anticipation bordering on irritation.

The release date of the new album was delayed and then delayed again. Rumors swirled that Stevie wanted to record more music; then it was said that he wanted to remix the whole project. Some began to worry that there was no album to release, that Wonder’s creativity had run dry. That fall, in an effort to assuage the growing unrest, Motown Records ran a full-page ad in Billboard Magazine. It showed a defiant woman standing in deep shadows. She was holding a reel of tape. The caption at the bottom of the page read simply: “We’re almost ready.”

Reasons for the heightened expectations were well founded. The three previous albums by Wonder had taken this artist from the realm of a talented Top 40 pop singer into the more adult world of album oriented music. Instead of producing hit singles, Wonder was now creating art in the form of record albums. But he made this transition while still being able to place songs on the radio. Marvin Gaye had already made a similar switch, successfully going from hit singles to concept albums like his masterpiece What’s Going On. But unlike Gaye, Stevie Wonder began to release albums of audio jewels like clockwork.

For those paying attention, Wonder’s first real breakthrough album was Music of My Mind, from July of 1972. The back cover states, “This album marks a milestone in the development of a great artist.” Unusual in this liner note exuberance was that the statement was absolutely true. Stevie Wonder had written every tune and played virtually each instrument on the record. Although a tour de force, Music of My Mind produced no sizable hits. “Superwoman” peaked at no. 33 on the singles chart, in spite of containing one of Wonder’s finest melodies. A strong album but without hits, it was overlooked by Wonder’s radio audience and did not sell well. Motown owner Barry Gordy could not have been pleased.

Some will say that Stevie Wonder’s breakthrough started with his previous release, 1971’s Where I’m Comin’ From. Perhaps so. But no one disputes that the album which made the music world refocus its collective attention on Stevie Wonder was Talking Book, from October 1972. Talking Book not only contained two No. 1 singles — “Superstition” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life” — but the rest of the album’s songs are also strong and memorable, including “Blame it on the Sun” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).”

Wonder followed Talking Book in 1973 with Innervisions, which was an even more mature album. With Innervisions, Stevie Wonder found the perfect balance of artistic expression and hit singles. The album included “Too High” and “Livin’ for the City,” both Top 10 hits. The upbeat rhythms of the first song seemed to mask its dark theme of drug abuse, while the second took a pointed look at life in an American ghetto. Like Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and “Mercy Mercy Me (the ecology)” from two years earlier, Stevie Wonder was getting songs of social consciousness onto the radio.

In 1974, Wonder released the third of his amazing trilogy, Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Although nobody realized it at the time, the album’s title was completely accurate. With this record, Stevie Wonder brought down the curtain on the artist he had become since beginning his focus on albums as art forms. Like Talking Book and Innervisions, this collection also had two big hits — “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” which went to No. 1.

Because of his annual release schedule, the fall of 1975 found people expecting Wonder’s next album. But no record was released. At the subsequent Grammy Awards for 1975, Paul Simon publicly thanked Stevie Wonder for not putting out a record that year. It was a humorous and candid admission, but the two previous awards broadcasts had seen Simon (and others) eclipsed by Wonder’s virtual Grammy sweep of popular music.

No one begrudged the artist some time to breathe, certainly, but when the fall of 1975 turned to spring 1976 and then to summer — concerns were raised. Still, nothing was forthcoming. No stopgap singles, no placating collection of hits or unreleased live material. Just silence.

Finally, during the last days of September 1976, Motown sent out promotional copies of the sprawling double album titled Songs in the Key of Life. The orange cover was unmistakable, and the packaging included a large folio of complete song lyrics, performance credits, and various notes of thanks from Stevie.

The two album set also included a 7-inch record (the size of a single) that played at 33 1/3 rpm. This was termed “A Something Extra” at the time of its release, four songs that would be called “Bonus Tracks” in the CD age. In the 1950s, this extra record would have been called an EP, an Extended Play. By 1976, the format had been long abandoned by the American market. But here was Stevie Wonder resurrecting it to make sure his four extra songs were included. This “Something Extra” contained an additional 18 minutes of music and featured some of the strongest material of the entire set. It was inconvenient to play this small disk on our then-modern turntables, but well worth the effort.

Essentially, then, this was two-and-a-half albums worth of music It began to make sense why it took the artist so long to get this set prepared for release. Wonder had a huge amount of material, and he didn’t want to pare it down to a double album. But expanding it to a three record set would take more time, and he was already getting pressure from fans and his record company alike to get the record out.

Some would say — especially in later years — that Wonder should have shortened some of the lengthier grooves, making room on the main album for the four relatively brief songs from the extra disk. Does “Another Star” really need to be eight minutes long? Couldn’t both “Black Man” and “Isn’t She Lovely” be truncated a bit? Undoubtedly. But that’s not the way Stevie wanted it. Looking at the album as released, sides one and two are a series of concise songs. Even at seven minutes, the opening “Love’s in Need of Love Today” has a structure that never slips into a jamming groove. This is true of each of the ten songs from these first two sides.

It is on the second record where the jam party starts. Each of the previously mentioned songs provide a stretch for the musicians (that is, Stevie) as does the latter part of the transcendent song “As.” However, long tunes had been a fairly common canvas on Wonder’s album tracks for some time, as with “Maybe Your Baby” from Talking Book. To trim the grooves of sides three and four in order to accommodate the four “bonus” songs on this release would undermine Wonder’s overall vision for the set. Love it, tolerate it, ignore it, hate it — but this is the way Stevie Wonder wanted you to hear his Songs in the Key of Life.

The album was a triumph. It was rewarded with accolades, Grammys, enthusiastic reviews, sky-high sales figures, and two No. 1 hit singles: “I Wish” and “Sir Duke.” The wait had been more than worth it. All doubts were cast aside. Stevie Wonder seemed unstoppable.

And then … a complete retreat by this prodigy-turned-man genius. He did not tour after the release of this remarkable record, even though he could have sold out any hall on the planet many times over. Stranger still, Wonder’s subsequent albums seemed to be almost afterthoughts. It was a full three years later that he finally released his next project — a strange, largely instrumental album of soundtrack music for a movie that nobody saw, called The Secret Life of Plants.

Hotter than July was released in the summer of 1980. It’s a good, if largely unremarkable album, saved in part by the inclusion of “Master Blaster (Jammin’).” After that, another soundtrack — this time for The Woman in Red. Both records yielded hit singles, but it appeared that Stevie Wonder had abandoned his desire to be an album artist and was now again satisfied with having songs on the radio. This is something he could still do, seemingly at will. “Send One Your Love,” “Part-Time Lover,” “That Girl,” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” were all big hits in the years and decades following Songs in the Key of Life. But these singles were not culled from cohesive album projects, as in the 1970s. Instead, Wonder had gone back to recording and releasing mere collections of songs.

After Key of Life, it was never the same for a lot of us. Our respect for him could not have been greater; his music was absolutely on a level all its own. And yet, it was as if something had gone out of the man once the album was finally released. If Fulfillingness was the end of his powerful trilogy, then perhaps Songs in the Key of Life should be viewed as the curtain call.

So, it was with some amazement when I learned that Stevie Wonder had launched a brief string of dates on which he would be performing the entire Songs in the Key of Life album. I discovered this fact the night before Wonder was to play Chicago, a mere two hours south of my Milwaukee area home. I investigated. The hall was sold out; scalpers were charging high dollars for poor seats. It was final exams week; going anywhere would be problematic, much less a foray into the Loop. I resigned myself to playing the album that night at high volume.

Then my wife saw that Stevie was ending the brief Key of Life tour in Los Angeles, where our son lives. We were planning to visit him in December, so it was arranged that I could stay and attend the concert. My son bought us tickets for the show, which had not yet sold out, to be held at L.A.’s recently refurbished Forum.

The mood in the sports arena that night was expectant, and many had arrived well dressed for the evening. I thought that my son would scan on the young side, as he has at so many other concerts we have attended together. But to our mutual surprise, the audience covered a wide age spectrum. It was also clear that Wonder had not lost his African-American audience — a major frustration for some popular musicians of the past like Louis Armstrong and, later, Jimi Hendrix.

Audience members found their seats at a casual pace, discussing both the holiday season and the evening’s event. At precisely 8:30, the Forum’s house lights went dark and the stage was illuminated. Stevie Wonder made his way to stage right — closest to our seats — and addressed the crowd. His opening remarks were spiritual and hopeful. Wonder thanked the audience for attending and he thanked God for giving him the 21 songs that made up the Songs in the Key of Life album. He was inclusive in his acknowledgement of many religious beliefs, but his remarks centered primarily on Christianity, stressing that this season was to be remembered for the birth of Christ.

Wonder said he would like to do a little Christmas music but was aware of the large amount of material they needed to perform, so would defer for the moment. He introduced a beautiful woman named India.Arie, who had led Wonder to the lip of the stage for the opening remarks, saying that she had been with him for many tours.

As Wonder again thanked the audience for attending, he surprised many by sincerely stressing that his own performance would be superior to the last time he played the Forum. “Three years ago, I was having trouble with my voice. That won’t be a problem tonight.” Honest, and accurate — as we would soon discover.

Wonder retreated into the wings while the 40-member KJLH Radio Free Gospel Choir entered and took their places. This Los Angeles singing group was positioned at four different spots on the vast stage, in clusters of 8 and 12 members. The director gave the down stroke and the beautiful sound of choral music filled the Forum. My son recognized their opening selection as one he himself had sung with the Gospel Choir of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The piece was called “Total Praise,” composed by Richard Smallwood. This 25-minute set by the KJLH choir concluded with Donny Hathaway’s moving “This Christmas.”

The spiritual matters that Wonder had spoken of were being clearly incorporated into the performance, beginning with this gospel prelude to the evening’s program.

As most of the choir departed, the night’s working band settled-in for the main event. On each side of the very back of a wide stage was a percussionist, separated by a six-piece horn section. In front of the horns were two drummers with full sets. On either side of these drummers were platforms where background singers would stand, four on each side Located between the drummers were two guitarists, who would switch instruments depending on the song being performed, as did several of the horn players.

A Yamaha grand piano was positioned at center stage, within close proximity of Wonder’s surprisingly concise keyboard array. Electric bassist Nathan Watts was positioned stage left, by one set of background singers and in a cluster with two electric keyboard players. Greg Phillinganes, the music director/conductor, played a single keyboard, not far behind Stevie’s own set-up. Electric guitarist Ben Bridges was also on this level, near the conductor. These three players, Watts, Bridges and Phillinganes, each had the distinction of appearing on the original Songs in the Key of Life album.

The fact that he had horns and a grand piano indicated that Wonder wanted the sound to be real and right. Although an early advocate of synthesizers, and having no less than three keyboards backing him, these songs called out for other, non-synthetic instruments. With that in mind, it was no surprise — but still very impressive — that Wonder also had an eight-piece string section at the side of the stage.

Throughout the evening, players would quietly come and go. For some segments the strings completely left. The horn players too would sometimes unobtrusively slip away for several songs when not needed. On most of the numbers, only one of the two drummers would play. Only occasionally were both men simultaneously performing. With this configuration, Wonder was usually backed by a 16-piece core band that had a certain amount of fluidity. And while I earlier called Greg Phillinganes the conductor of the large ensemble, it was no secret that the night’s true conductor was Stevie Wonder. Every music cue and each intonation began with him.

And begin they did, with a full-bodied sound on the opening of “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” It filled the Forum, and caused a unified gasp throughout the audience. After listening to the record for so many years, it was remarkable that this piece could sound new and fresh. But it did. And that was one of the keys to the success of the entire evening — that Wonder could make these songs retain their relevance, both in sound and in lyrical content.

The audio mix was perfect: Background singers could be heard distinctly, as could each instrument. The tempo was not hurried, not sluggish. It was a magnificent performance of a full-length version of the song, which set the bar high for the rest of the night. The band then immediately kicked-in to “Have a Talk with God,” which included guest vocalist Deniece Williams. Multiple keyboards and numerous rhythm players gave this song the distinctive Stevie Wonder funk feel.

As the audience expressed their prolonged appreciation for these opening two numbers, Wonder slowly made his way, sans assistance, to an empty area of the stage near the string section. A spotlight on the performer, now standing, was the only illumination; the strings the only sound, as Wonder began an impassioned version of “Village Ghetto Land.” Deep into the second verse, the singer faltered. Wonder stopped; his head sank. Was his voice not in as good of shape as he thought? This was very early in the night for throat trouble.

Then it became obvious; Stevie Wonder had become profoundly saddened by his own words. The disturbing portraits painted in “Village Ghetto Land” are among the bleakest in his canon. The song’s sad vignettes of underprivileged children — especially during Christmas — briefly seemed to overwhelm the singer. If there was any doubt about Wonder’s sincerity concerning is own lyrics’ subject matter, he unintentionally dispelled it here.

The hot guitar feature “Contusion” followed. After the stark nature of tales from the ghetto, this joyful instrumental provided needed relief for audience and performers alike. Some were hoping that Wonder would use this number as a departure for a few extended solos and funk exercises Instead, this piece was contained to the exact lines that are executed on the record. It’s clear that Wonder thinks of this as a true composition to be played with precision, and not as a groove vamp.

Then came the double shot. Wonder counted off and the horns took the band into “Sir Duke.” The audience began to dance. The party was officially under way! Without a break, bassist Watts next started the recognizable lines of “I Wish.” The ovation was prolonged as Stevie made his way from electric keyboards to the grand piano. After the intense bass of “I Wish,” the sparse instrumentation and lilting melody of “Knocks Me Off my Feet” served as a perfect counterpoint to the previous three hard-edged numbers.

It was during Wonder’s performance of side two of the record that the set list started to take on a life of its own. He certainly performed “Pastime Paradise” and “Ordinary Pain,” but within these numbers he also featured members of his backing ensemble. First, he challenged a background singer to a contest, of sorts. Wonder would sing a line of almost-scat syllables, and the singer would try to match him exactly. In this the singer succeeded two, three, and on the fourth time of increasingly intricate challenges, Wonder conceded: “OK; you’re good.” The audience loved it.

Wonder then introduced the vocalist as Keith John, the son of Little Willie John, who had a big hit with “Fever,” later covered by Peggy Lee and many others. Wonder asked John to sing a bit of it — and, of course, he complied. After this, Wonder challenged members of the string section to the same matching contest. He would sing a line and they would have to play it back exactly. It was clear by the reactions of the string players that this was not a canned exercise; they were on the hot seat. Wonder told the audience that all musicians love to jam, and then encouraged two of the violin players to take solos on their own, which each handled with grace and ease as the rhythm section vamped behind them.

After generously featuring some of his backing musicians, Wonder made good on his word. He stood alone by the grand piano and sang a moving version of “The Christmas Song.” Beautiful. He reiterated his thanks for the audience’s attendance and stressed the reason for the Christmas season. But as entertaining as these unexpected sections of the concert had been, it struck me that there was a heck of a lot of music yet to be performed if they were really going to get all the way through the four album sides and EP of Songs in the Key of Life.

Concluding the ballad “Summer Soft,” Wonder next introduced Shirley Brewer to sing the woman’s “reply” on the song “Ordinary Pain.” Brewer sang this rebuttal on the original recording, and she was greeted warmly by the audience. With a background singer flanking Brewer on each side, the trio provided a powerful vocal response to Wonder’s first section of the song.

Using Shirley Brewer to recreate her part was an extremely classy move by Wonder. Earlier in the night, when Deniece Williams had been included on “Have a Talk with God,” I was briefly worried that the concert might become one of multiple guest stars, at the expense of hearing Wonder performing his own songs. I thought this unappealing scenario had a greater likelihood in Los Angeles than at most venues. But my fears were for naught: This was Stevie’s show, through and through. He was gracious in sharing the stage with his band, to be sure, but Wonder remained in control and was the focal point throughout the evening. And after all, Shirley Brewer was not really a guest; she was a part of the original album!

“Ordinary Pain” concludes side two. I had heard there was a planned intermission, so was surprised when the band began the powerful chords of “Saturn.” As with the album, this song describing a Utopian society was among the highest peaks of the night. Stately, majestic, a beautiful reading of this uplifting song. The audience responded in kind.

Then came the uber-funky “Ebony Eyes.” Wonder sat at an upright piano that been brought to the stage specifically for this song. The instrument’s striking mallets had thumbtacks added to them, so the sound was extremely crisp, like a barrel house bar piano. A good-time feel was set within multi-layered rhythms, and this celebratory love song had the audience dancing again. As the number reached its conclusion, Wonder leaned into the microphone and said, “See you in 15 minutes.”

I looked at my watch. They had just presented two solid hours of music. The first part of the album itself had taken 90 minutes. Stevie was giving it the full treatment, no doubt about it, and I was glad that he didn’t appear to be in a rush to get through it. Nothing was truncated. These were all complete versions, and more. The lights came up and we had a few minutes to reflect on what we had just witnessed. Even during the intermission, I was still finding it somewhat difficult to believe that I was attending a concert where Stevie Wonder was performing the entire Songs in the Key of Life album.

During the past few years, many acts have adopted the idea of playing some of their older albums all the way through in concert. I first heard of it when Cheap Trick announced their plan to do this, about seven years ago. Bruce Springsteen picked-up the idea and in recent years has performed Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town in their entirety. Springsteen is known for long shows, but only once has he given a complete concert performance of his own double album The River.

Before this trend of playing complete albums became fashionable, the only time I ever attended a performance where an artist ran through an entire record was at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 1979, when jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty played his then-new release A Taste for Passion all the way through. And he didn’t make a big thing of it; he just performed the four selections from side one of the album. Ponty talked to the audience a bit about the music, and then played the pieces from the record’s second side. Fine. Logical. If an artist likes the way the record is sequenced, why not present it that way in concert? But as I say, Ponty was the only performer I ever saw do this. Until fairly recently.

As the house lights dimmed at the Forum and the less than 15 minute intermission concluded, I thought that Stevie Wonder would likely become diligent in presenting the rest of the record. The stage lights rose, showing Wonder standing next to one of his female back-up singers But this was not just any backing vocalist. This was Stevie’s daughter — Alisha Morris — the woman about whom “Isn’t She Lovely” was written. They spoke to each other a little and laughed. “What was it I said on that record?” Wonder asked her. “Get out-a the water, baby,” replied his daughter. She retreated to be with the other vocalists, sound effects of a baby crying came through the sound system, and the band launched into “Isn’t She Lovely.”

Two noteworthy things about this song’s performance were omission and inclusion. Wonder opted to leave out all of the subsequent baby sounds after the opening bars. The welcome inclusion here was Stevie Wonder’s most extended harmonica solo of the night. Chorus after chorus, with the band popping behind him, the man reminded the audience of just what a versatile cat he is. The song was long, but the solo never faltered.

Wonder moved back to the grand piano for “Joy Inside My Tears,” another absolute pinnacle of the night. During his opening remarks to the audience, Wonder talked a little about how he had not toured after the 1976 release of Key of Life. Because of this, he said, there were several songs on the album that he had rarely performed live until undertaking the idea to present the entire record. “Joy Inside My Tears” was one of these lesser-heard songs. If anything, Wonder took the number at a slower tempo than the recorded version. He soaked in it. It was magnificent. A double stop that I feared had prematurely signaled the end of the song only served to underscore the fact that Wonder was taking his time with this one. If I had thought he would be rushing through this second set, I was happily mistaken.

“Black Man” concludes side three of the record and is a funky, upbeat history lesson And in one of the very few missteps of the program, Wonder decided to include the album’s recording of teachers’ and students’ voices that shout the names of famous Americans during the song’s conclusion. A well-executed live performance of this rubric would have been more successful, I believe. But the other problem was that the recorded voices were too loud, getting in the way of the band’s groove. A minor criticism, to be sure. And in some ways this complaint serves to underscore just how well the rest of the concert was presented.

I was again surprised at the order of the set list when the band next went into the introduction to “All Day Sucker,” from the Something Special EP. This infectious and (once again) funky number was followed by “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call).” And then I understood why Wonder had programmed these two songs between sides three and four. As a conclusion to the lengthy album, “Easy Goin’ Evening” was an appropriate and gentle, instrumental good-night. But for the end of a concert, it might not be the right closer for the main set.

“Easy Goin’ Evening” was given a lovely trio performance with Stevie Wonder, joined by Frederic Yonnet recreating Stevie’s harmonica part from the record, and Ryan Kilgore on tenor saxophone. Huddled around Wonder’s keyboards in a single spotlight, the Forum took on an intimacy that belied the huge room’s normal atmosphere.

The lights came up full for the sprightly “I am Singing,” a joyous celebration of life offered in Spanish, Zulu and English, on which Wonder was again joined by the resplendently dressed India.Arie. This number also featured the Marcodi harpejji, a stringed instrument similar to a dulcimer with the vague appearance of an auto harp. Placed in the performer’s lap, played by tapping the strings with one hand and fretting the fingerboard like a guitar, the harpejji brought a unique melodic and percussive voice to the song. At one point, the instrument began to slip from Wonder’s grasp. Quickly reestablishing control, he began to play “The Little Drummer Boy” which gave way to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

A final ballad graces side four, just prior to the two stretch vamps that close the album proper. The setting described in “If It’s Magic” is located across the tracks from “Village Ghetto Land,” certainly. But Wonder asks why life can’t be positive. Why are we more concerned with clothing styles than with taking care of our children? The message is pointed and harsh, yet encased in this beautiful musical setting, it is never strident.

With this number Wonder again demonstrated what a generous performer he is. During the intermission, my son correctly noted that he had not seen a harp on stage, an irreplaceable instrument that would be needed to present “If It’s Magic” true to the recorded version. Before beginning this selection, Wonder told the audience that he would be accompanied by a tape recording of Dorothy Ashby’s harp performance, taken from the Keys of Life record itself. The reason, he said, was that shortly after completing the song, Ms. Ashby was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently died.

Wonder stressed that Ashby had played the part perfectly, and also wanted to use her recording as a tribute. Wonder told one interviewer that she “had made the harp sing.” A photo of Dorothy Ashby was projected onto the hall’s large screens at the end of the number. And speaking of visuals, there were almost none. The stage itself was far more interesting to watch than the occasional projection of moving shapes on the back wall of the concert hall. Large video screens on each side of the stage were used well for close-ups of soloists and, of course, were often focused on Wonder. But extraneous stage designs were unnecessary. The musicians were the show — musically and visually.

Applause subsided and the ensemble began the song “As,” a long groove that proclaims the singer’s everlasting love. This number provided a major showcase for the background singers. It also gave Wonder the opportunity to use a variety of his own vocal styles during one song. And as with so much of this record, this selection contains another strong statement of faith.

Although lengthy, this song came to a surprisingly abrupt end, just as it does on the LP, and the band went immediately into “Another Star. The party had been in full swing for some time, but now it reached a new level. All of the musicians were on stage, including the KJLH choir from the evening’s opening set. I initially estimated there were about 60 performers involved. Then I took the binoculars and decided to do a specific count. There were 83 musicians on the stage during “Another Star”! I don’t think that even George Clinton, in his largest Parliament/Funkadelic days, used 83 musicians at one time. It was remarkable.

During the second half of the concert, more and more shouts from the audience had gone up. These were not requests, but exultations of encouragement. The later we got into this set, the atmosphere was increasingly reminiscent of a gospel meeting. This was never more true than during “Another Star” and the subsequent curtain calls.

After this type of performance, I was expecting a brief encore and a heartfelt, if hasty farewell. Wrong again. Wonder does not physically leave the stage before performing an encore. It is logistically impractical. So as the applause subsided, the crowd began to sit down and hear what the night’s star had to say.

Wonder first thanked the audience for their continued support throughout his career and touched upon some of the spiritual themes that had become the most important of the evening’s motifs. He then told us, “OK, that was the Stevie Wonder part of the concert. Now I am your DJ Tick Tick Boom.” He insisted that the audience repeatedly shout “Tick Tick Boom,” until we acknowledged that this was now his name. He good-naturedly taunted the Los Angeles audience for being too hip to play along, saying that “the women of Toronto” had yelled louder than this crowd.

Using this alter ego, the performer-turned-DJ continued to toy with an audience still eager to hear more. Using some pre-recorded backing tracks to tantalize, he filled the arena with the sound of “Master Blaster.” Wonder sat at his keyboard and played along for a bit and then abruptly stopped the recording. The audience moaned and shouted and laughed. He did the same with “Higher Ground,” “Do I Do,” and one or two more. He was messin’ with us, but we loved it. This odd little section also served to remind me of just how deep this man’s catalog goes. We had just witnessed Wonder the album artist; but he is also the master of the hit single, with over 25 Top 10 entries!

Finally, Tick Tick Boom seemed to evaporate and Stevie Wonder again addressed us. While the band members readied themselves, Wonder told us that he hoped we would enjoy our Christmas, but that there would be no Christmas joy for some people. He mentioned Ferguson, Missouri, and Michael Brown by name. The singer told the audience of his belief that most law enforcement officials were good and just people. But whenever someone is placed into a position of authority and power, stressed Wonder, it is essential that the person use that power justly. Softly spoken “amens” were heard throughout the arena.

It was clear that these were not casual comments; Wonder was truly passionate about this point, and about each address he made to the audience. We were not being lectured, but he wanted us to know where he stood on matters of faith and social justice. These beliefs are all spelled out in his music, but Stevie Wonder obviously wanted the ideas expressed in clearly articulated speech as well.

Wonder then said that he was going to get serious and sing something that he wished he didn’t have to perform any longer, but he felt he must since it is still relevant. The opening chords of “Living for the City” filled the hall, and I felt slightly guilty for enjoying it so much. This was a great rendition, and Stevie’s voice was still in peak form. After playing this song that cries out for justice, Wonder got funky one last time and burned slowly through “Superstition.” He thanked the crowd, and the night was over.

Stevie Wonder had just completed a four-hour concert! Maybe this should not have come as such a shock. After all, Songs in the Key of Life has always been closely associated with the concept of time. It had seemed an eternity for the album to even be released. Then when completed, the running time of the music was too long to be included in a conventional double album.

Time has proven to be Wonder’s friend. His masterwork has resonated with audiences since its release in 1976 and will surely continue to bring joy and inspiration to those who choose to listen. As highly regarded as many of his albums and radio hits have been, the artist knows this project is unlike any of his other recordings. Wonder himself recently told an interviewer that Songs in the Key of Life was “more than just a bunch of songs put together.” And this was more than just a concert.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Wilmeth
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