Why would a blind man stand on a piano bench? It’s dangerous. It’s risky. What is to be gained?
Steveland Judkins was born 57 years ago, prematurely, and was blind from infancy. As a child, he formed a singing group with a friend from his Detroit neighborhood, John Glover, and they called themselves – not surprisingly, since they were kids -“Steve and John.” They mimicked popular artists of the time, like Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson.
One day Glover introduced his blind friend to Ronnie White, a member of the Miracles, and White introduced him to Berry Gordy from Motown Records, and Gordy liked him so much that even though the kid was only 12, he signed him to the label with a new name:
Last week, four decades later, Wonder was back in Detroit, on stage, belting out a nearly three-hour concert barrage of hits, from “A Place in the Sun” to “Part Time Lover.”
At one point, toward the end, with the audience already on its feet, roaring, clapping, singing along, Wonder, who has never seen the crowds that adore him, stood up on the piano bench. And he seemed to take it all in.
The perfect opening
I have been to many concerts. I rarely write about them. But then, I have rarely witnessed a performance as emotional as that of Wonder back in his hometown.
For starters, there was the opening of the show. No pyrotechnics, no theme music, no undulating dancers. Wonder walked out to an unpopulated stage, on the arm of his daughter, Aisha, and spoke about his mother, who died last year. He talked about the sadness. How he had considered shutting everything down. How her spirit convinced him otherwise. How he was playing now to thank the people who had supported his music and helped him make a better life for her.
Then there were the sing-alongs. Not to choruses of his most popular songs. Stevie Wonder’s music is so melodic, so memorable, so almost innate, that people actually sang the instrumental riffs, like the infectious horn section line from “Sir Duke,” the guitar-thwanking funk line that opens “Superstition,” and the “la-la-la’s” of “My Cherie Amour.”
Then there was the way Wonder moved from song to song, often stopping before the finish, yelling “Hold it” to his band, then reaching for a keyboard – sometimes over a band member’s shoulder – and plunking a new chord until the band recognized where he was going and joined in.
And then there was the moment he launched into “Isn’t She Lovely,” a song he wrote after the birth of Aisha (she was the squealing baby on the record). The daughter, now in her 30s, playfully tickled her father, pushing the microphone away the way a young child would as he smiled broadly and sang the words, “Boy, I’m so happy/we have been heaven blessed. ”
The ultimate finish
Not to sound old here, but there is a lesson our kids could learn from Stevie Wonder on stage. For one thing, he writes nearly all of his music, can play nearly every instrument, produces and arranges his songs, and has a magnificent voice that, in his 50s, seems as powerful as it did in his 20s. Watching him perform is a stark contrast to Britney Spears in her underwear, slogging through dance steps and lip-synching a forgettable piece of engineering.
Then there are his messages. For the 40 years he has been making music, Wonder never resorted to what I call “ooh baby, let’s have sex” songs. He’ll ponder society (“Living for the City”), race (“Ebony and Ivory”), the human spirit (“If It’s Magic”), religion (“Heaven Help Us All”) but mostly love. Always love.
Through his blindness, through a terrible car accident years ago that left him in a coma, even through the recent loss of his beloved mother, Wonder always has emerged positive. He exudes hope. A blind man. No angst. No drugs or booze. What a concept, huh?
He closed his show in tears, crying at the appreciation the audience was showering on him, urging people to heal their differences, as the band played on. I still do not know why he perched himself atop the piano bench. But it was not the first time Stevie Wonder stood taller than us all.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).