He was due to call at about 1 p.m. About an hour after I had learned Stevie Wonder was immediately available—and only immediately available—for a quick phone chat.
These things happen. It’s one of the insanely gratifying luxuries of this job: One day you pass on a press conference plus miniperformance because it’s impossible to get to on a Thursday afternoon, the next day you wake up and the star of said press conference—one of the greatest of all living musician-composers, pop or R&B or otherwise—is suddenly available for a one-on-one.
It wasn’t hard to figure the photo-op event was to announce a tour—that’s how Hall of Fame names jumping back into action do it. Turns out this trek, Wonder’s first nationwide outing in more than a decade, is a limited engagement—just a 13-city run, with a stop Sept. 5 at the Greek Theatre in L.A.
That show sold out very rapidly, even though we SoCal Stevie fans are rather spoiled when it comes to in-person opportunities. He may not have hit Chicago in ages, but nary a year goes by that he doesn’t turn up performing somewhere in L.A. at a benefit concert. For years now, every December, he has presented his House Full of Toys program, spotlighting everyone from Smokey Robinson to Alicia Keys.
But, as he’ll point out to me later, at those shows he usually does maybe a half-dozen hits, sometimes in medley form. So this Greek gig—the first time he recalls playing the venue since his 20s—is a rare performance after all. To my knowledge, it’s the first full-length show Stevie has given locally since February 2004, when he and his large band lit up the House of Blues on Sunset Strip. I’m guessing, given the price and paucity of tickets, you weren’t there.
He played 22 cherished songs that night, most of them culled from `70s masterworks like “Talking Book” and “Innervisions.” True, he has issued a new album since that show, 2005’s “A Time to Love,” his first in a decade. But I can’t imagine it would be the focal point of this coming set, especially considering how quick Stevie is to discuss how the May 31 death of his beloved mother, Lula Hardaway, served as inspiration to tour once again.
Stevie was due to play at a friend’s wedding not long after her passing, “and I said, `I don’t think I’m gonna do it.’ ... We were all very destroyed, just knowing what had happened unexpectedly.”
In her 2002 biography “Blind Faith,” Hardaway recounts rising from poverty and extreme marital abuse to see her blind son emerge first as a teenage phenomenon (after moving the young Steveland Morris to Detroit, where he attracted the attention of Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr.), then watch as he rapidly developed into a pop-music pioneer and, eventually, what he is now—a national treasure. To say mother and son were as tight as can be is still an understatement.
“But at some point, after deciding not to do that thing, the spirit of my mother came to me and said, `You know what, you need to go out and sing, and celebrate.’”
So Stevie did the wedding anyway—and the good feelings that washed over him led to wanting to do these shows, under the billing “A Wonder Summer’s Night.”
“I decided ... it was time for me to do something where I could go out and show the public my appreciation for, you know, what you’ve done for me, my career. ... Were it not for God’s blessings—that people were able to receive and like the music that I’ve done—I would have never been able to do the things for my mother that I was able to do, and for my brothers, for my family. I’m very appreciative.”
It was almost 6 p.m. by the time he told me this, however. Our start kept getting pushed back.
Soon it was 3 p.m. Then it was 5 p.m. And at about 20 to 6, Stevie’s soft, unmistakable voice finally said hello.
I keep referring to him as Stevie, by the way, because, like Mr. McCartney and Mr. Bennett, the 57-year-old musical genius responds to formality with informality: “Oh, you can call me Stevie.” Our 20-minute chat is so fun, in fact, it’s enough to fool a guy into feeling like he’d be welcome to drop in for tea and engage the master in a bit of who’s-got-the-hot-track-these-days banter.
I think I might hold my own. Stevie: “I like the song that Mary J. Blige and, uh ...”
His memory was failing him again. Moments ago he needed prompting to remember Eminem.
“With U2?” I offered. “The version Mary did of `One’?”
“No, with what’s-his-name. C’mon, you know. LaTonya!”
His assistant came back on the line.
“LaTonya, you know who I’m talking about!”
LaTonya: “Are we talking Elton John?”
Stevie, feigning incredulity: “Nah, c’mon, I can’t believe you ... Mary J. Blige and ... just won a Grammy ...”
“No,” I piped up. “I thought it was that, too.”
And then he gets it.
“Ludacris. Luda! LUUUDA!”
The duet he’s thinking of is “Runaway Love,” featuring one of Luda’s more trenchant commentaries, in this case about child abuse. “To me,” Stevie says, “that song was a great song, because there are a lot of molestations happening.”
I don’t have the heart to tell him it didn’t win a Grammy. Seeing as later on he mentions that maybe he’ll send me an early version of “As”—so I can really hear how that Satchmo’d-up vocal roar right in the middle of it came to be—I consider this a smart move.
But the time element involved in this has been included for a reason: See, it gave me all day to think up one good question to ask Stevie Wonder. Given the brevity of the call, keeping in mind both the softballs that had to be lobbed and allowing room to let the conversation steer itself naturally, that’s about as many good questions as I anticipated squeezing in.
Under the circumstances, I focused on live performance. “To what extent,” I asked, “are you able to key in on what other people are feeling during a show, how they’re receiving the spirit you’re putting out? Or does that come later, when you’re reflecting on the show and you’re not focused on the mechanics of the performance. How in the moment do you get?”
“That’s a good question because ... the truth of the matter is ... you know, a live performance is just that. You’re able to pick up the energies and feel the different things as you are in it ... and you hope that you are interlocking together, you and the audience. Based on what you’re getting back and what you’re putting out there, (that determines) what you then are able to feed off of.
“There have been times recently where I’ve done certain songs ... I did `As’ at this wedding that I went to that kinda inspired this whole thing ... and as I sang it, it became emotional because it was my mother’s favorite song that I had done.”
Here he broke into that middle refrain I mentioned: “We all know,” it begins, “sometimes life’s hates and troubles can make you wish you were born in another time and space.” He recalled writing the entire song in about 30 minutes.
“That summarized everything, that song ... you know, that we know we have things that we’re dealing with in life, as we all do. And sometimes you can feel like, you know, what the hell? But make sure with what you’re doing, and how you’re doing your thing, that you’re not contributing to the hell you say we exist in.”
“And you’re able to feel that at times in performance?” I wondered.
“Oh yeah. It’s a special thing, because I’m also a songwriter. So I can think about when I wrote the song. Or I can think about when I produced the song. Or when I sang it. Like when I did `Love’s in Need of Love Today,’ I remember feeling like Sam Cooke was in the studio with me, you know, when I did the vocal.
“So you can kinda hear that with how I’m seeing it. When you talk about live performances ... you know it’s all a feeling kinda thing—where you’re like, OK, we’re all here together. When people come to a live performance, we are all on each other’s time.
“After all is said and done, we’ll never be able to say we spent the time with no one else but each other.”