Stevie Wonder doesn’t need the money, that’s for sure.
Impressive bank account statements, however, haven’t kept other rich stars from touring consistently throughout the years. Yet while acts like the Stones have continued to roll, Wonder has kept the tour buses parked in the garage for more than a decade.
Some fans were beginning to think the Motown music legend might never hit the road again, which is one of the reasons why the recent news of his 13-city tour was greeted so warmly.
That was certainly the case in this neck of the woods, where Wonder will perform Aug. 26 at Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord and Sept. 4 at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga (both shows are sold out). The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s previous Bay Area outing was in January 1995 at the Paramount in Oakland.
During a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles, the 57-year-old legend spoke first of what motivated him to finally mount another tour.
“The greatest inspiration was my mother,” he says softly. “It was inspired by the kind of love that she gave me. She was so encouraging to me.”
Wonder’s mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, died last year at the age of 76. An Alabama native, Hardaway played a key role in her son’s career, both as a staunch supporter and as a talented co-songwriter. She helped pen three of Wonder’s best-known early-era songs - “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Don’t Know Why I Love You” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”
“All I can do is celebrate her life, celebrate what she did and how it was, through her, I was able to do the things I was able to do in my life,” Wonder says.
This tour, dubbed a “Wonder Summer’s Night,” is also Wonder’s attempt to repay audiences for the huge difference they made in his and his mother’s lives.
“Through the appreciation I’ve received from my fans, I was able to do things for her, in her life, that may have never happened (otherwise),” he says. “There’s just an appreciation to you all for making those things happen, in my life and for my family. So, through song, I want to say thank you.”
That gratitude will manifest through fan-friendly set lists that should share much in common with Wonder’s better “best of” compilations. According to the shows’ promoter, Live Nation, Wonder will be performing “all of his classic hits.”
At the risk of overly simplifying things, Wonder’s career can be broken down into four distinct periods. The first began in 1962, when Wonder, at 11 or 12, depending on whom you believe, signed a record deal with Motown founder Berry Gordy. Over the next nine years, he recorded a number of signature tunes, including “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” He also penned tracks for other Motown acts, including “Tears of a Clown,” which turned out to be a monster smash for Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
All of those songs remain fan favorites and, even four decades later, Wonder says he still feels good about playing them live.
“The reason that I do feel good about it is because I take myself, or put myself, in the place of the experience of it,” he says. “While I’m doing a song, it’s like the first time.”
What’s commonly referenced as Wonder’s “classic period” began with the release of two albums - “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book” - in 1972. The heart of the order was 1973’s “Innervisions,” 1974’s “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and 1976’s double-disc “Songs in the Key of Life,” all of which, amazingly, managed to capture album of the year honors at the Grammy Awards.
That era produced such fan favorites as “Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” as well as one legend that still swirls through music circles to this day.
As rumor has it, Wonder went into the `70s with most of his classic cuts already written, and he smartly parceled them out over time to create what is surely one of the most satisfying runs of consecutive albums in popular music history.
There is some truth to that legend, Wonder says.
“There were certain songs that I had that were complete,” he says. “But a lot of them were not even born, or weren’t complete. Or I may have had the melody and music and the basic idea for some of them.”
Even greater fame and commercial success awaited Wonder in the `80s, which can be considered the third era of the songwriter’s career. The decade began as the singer released what would become his first-ever platinum album, 1980’s “Hotter Than July.” Over the next few years, Wonder racked up a string of No. 1 singles, including the collaboration with Paul McCartney on “Ebony and Ivory,” the uptempo “Part-Time Lover” and the ballad “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
He would also turn his attention toward helping others and social causes, participating in two high- profile charity singles - the African-famine-targeted “We Are the World” and the AIDS-directed “That’s What Friends Are For.”
Wonder’s willingness to lend his voice to social and political causes has remained a constant throughout the years. For instance, he recently participated in the Live 8 concerts to raise awareness about global warming.
He shares Al Gore’s concern for the environment, but says the issue that he currently finds most troubling is “the annihilation of human beings,” particularly when it is in the name of religion.
“They are prostituting God,” he says. “How can we know we are made in God’s image and yet there would be those who would say, `OK, as much as we were made in God’s image, we need to kill somebody.’ It doesn’t compute.”
For timeline purposes, let’s say the fourth and current era of Wonder’s career began with the release of his soundtrack to the Spike Lee film “Jungle Fever” in 1991. Overall, it’s been a comparatively inactive period for the singer-songwriter, at least in terms of recording full-length solo albums and touring. Since “Jungle Fever,” Wonder has only released two studio sets, 1995’s lightly regarded “Conversation Peace” and 2005’s positively received “A Time to Love.” But he’s stayed busy with collaborations and guest spots, appearing alongside rappers Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes, as well as on “American Idol.”
He’s currently working on a gospel record he plans to dedicate to his mother, and says fans might even hear some of the new songs in concert. For the most part, however, he plans to keep the shows centered on the songs his fans all know by heart. Wonder says there won’t be any drastic rearrangements of the hits. He intends to play them in the fashion that fans are used to hearing them.
“For the most part, I feel really comfortable with what I’ve given to the people,” he says. “I want to give it to them again.”
// Notes from the Road
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