x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Wonderland: the cultural and historical importance of Stevie Wonder

Motown's most enduring and recognisable performer will bring his storied legacy to Yas Arena, and his fans have every reason to expect that he won't set aside his piano anytime soon.

Stevie Wonder is a man of astonishing achievement. To date he has won 22 Grammys, as well as an Academy Award.
Stevie Wonder is a man of astonishing achievement. To date he has won 22 Grammys, as well as an Academy Award.

It took 60 years for Stevie Wonder to make his way to Abu Dhabi, a journey he will mark with a concert that will no doubt shake the foundations of Yas Arena this evening, a night when the man with an infectious smile will turn back the pages of time for a few hours. For the capital, this is no trifling event. Indeed, it represents a great leap forward of sorts, into the unmatched musical realm that one could call Wonderland. The engagement represents a leap forward too for the star of the show who, after years of globe-trotting performances, will alight in the Middle East for the first time.

The Motown legend - the only one to still record under the banner of the era-defining label - doesn't get around as much as he used to. But then, what 60-year-old could? During his days dominating the rock and soul charts, he was in constant motion, endlessly touring the world. Today, he takes his music where the spirit moves him. Meaning that he takes his choices of venues very seriously, something befitting a man who in 2009 was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace, as an advocate for people with disabilities.

Actually, he always did take such decisions seriously, even when he was lean, hungry and known as Little Stevie Wonder. Over the course of a fabled 50-year career - this being the golden anniversary of his signing by Berry Gordy to the Motown label - the native of Saginaw, Michigan has perhaps played in more countries as any other entertainer. He only ever took to the sky because he felt something telling him deep within that he would be better for going to a distant land, and so, by extension, would it. As a result, he has left more than echoes of his music in these places.

Wonder was one of the first black Americans to take his music to the land of its roots, touring Africa in the early 1970s. So clear and so urgent was that call to him that he even considered living in Africa, working with blind children. Subsequently, of course, he became the world's leading voice in the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.

At the same time, he brought home even more authentic African elements, giving bite to the synthesizer-based funk he practically created. This fuelled his most creative period - a time of four consecutive magnum opus albums that swept to Grammy-winning success in their day and remain classics now.

Wonder, of course, dominated music then, something we are reminded of every time Superstition, Higher Ground or Living for the City streams from a radio - which they still do, endlessly, hundreds of thousands of times every year, keeping him, like the Rolling Stones, among the world's wealthiest sexagenarians. But he is no golden oldie; remarkably, those old songs, sung and played with as much relish now as then, sound just as fresh, just as relevant today.

He is a man of astonishing achievement, having recorded more than 30 Top 10 hits in the United States and accepted 22 Grammys - more than any other solo artist - as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award and an Academy Award. He has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters' halls of fame.

If his newer albums, which continue to display his ever-regenerative creativity, no longer dominate the charts, they do, nonetheless, provide comforting reassurance that Stevie Wonder is still here, still strong in voice and as youthfully optimistic as he was when he was crooning Uptight, (Outta Sight) and I Was Made to Love Her. Several generations of musicians and singers have covered and sampled his music, with rap and hip-hop artists picking his catalogue as clean as a Thanksgiving turkey - listen again to the scalpel-sharp compositions Pastime Paradise and Village Ghetto Land and behold the birth of a new musical order, later to find new life as Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise and Warren G's Ghetto Village.

Even so, a masterpiece like I Wish can be sampled a thousand times - even by Will Smith - but only out of Stevie's mouth can it conjure all the possibilities a human soul can hope for. In other words, as two other Motown legends, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell once noted, ain't nothing like the real thing, baby.

This is why Stevie's visit to Abu Dhabi is such major news.

Bringing him here underlines once again the emirate's ambitions to establish itself as a cultural and entertainment centre. Indeed, prefacing Stevie's arrival, over the past 18 months, Flash Entertainment, the promoters of the concert, have delivered an enviable roster of talent to Yas Arena, including Beyoncé, Kanye West, Aerosmith, Prince, the Kings of Leon, Guns 'N Roses, Eric Clapton, and Thirty Seconds to Mars. For its part, the Flash Entertainment spokesperson Shatha al Romaithi said simply that the organisation was "delighted that Stevie agreed to perform on Yas Island and bring our Show Weekends to a fitting finale."

For Wonder, the decision to play that "fitting finale" in Abu Dhabi was not as straightforward as it may seem. Yes, one assumes, he will be well compensated for his troubles. That should hardly be surprising. He is, after all, an instantly recognisable figure, with dedicated fans in every conceivable age group. (Consider, too, that it was Stevie Wonder who broke the bank for all rock stars back in the early 1970s when he shrewdly negotiated a $32 million contract from Motown.) But it takes more than that. Wonder, who had regularly toured Europe as far back as the 1960s, did not play a single concert on the continent for eight years before suddenly returning for a major tour in 2008. As ever, it only mattered that it felt right to him.

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In these decisions is a looking glass into the essence of Stevie Wonder. A life, any life, is much like a song; it's about filling time and space, about form, metre and rhythm. Thus, the title of my biography of the man I call the Mozart of Soul - Signed, Sealed and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder.

That long (and still unfinished) journey has not merely been from the hardscrabble streets of Saginaw - where he was born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in 1950, the blind son of an alcoholic, failed musician who beat his sons and wife, then forced her to sell her body to the night - to the pantheon of contemporary popular music. It is also one from the deepest place within Wonder's soul. It is said, with only slight exaggeration, that Wonder never sleeps. "Stevie time," is what his associates call the erratic rhythm of life around him - though he may have coined the most knowing phrase for it, in the title of his brilliant anti-apartheid anthem The Clock of Now.

Relieved of the common routines of daily living, he is bathed only in the visions of his mind. What we hear in his music is not what we hear in other artists' music. To Wonder, the cosmic can happen at any given moment. As he puts it, "I understand that when you don't hear anything and then you hear this very high frequency, that's the sound of the universe."

Not that Wonder is caged by his own genius. To be sure, he has meandered into troubled times. But these periods have never blunted his love of life and of mankind. This has allowed him to maintain his unrelentingly sunny nature and moral compass. There is, after all, something envious in that keyboard-wide smile of his. It is as if he knows he has something more to smile about than the rest of us.

For one thing, celebrity is something he never courted, never felt comfortable with. This is one of the many dichotomies of Stevie Wonder - that a man who speaks for and to so many, and can portray in the sweetest, most evocative words and music the precise nature of love, is in fact at ease with so few. Always though, his music has saved him.

It was the breadth and splendour of his work in the Seventies that took Stevie several light years deeper into his journey, from the infectious street rhythms of Motown to the metaphysical bliss of Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life. Anyone looking for clues to anything that can be defined as soul or funk or rap or hip-hop can find all of them in these works, and much, much more that cannot be defined. Wonder began working in digital formats before that word had any meaning for musicians. Calling him the fountainhead would be an understatement, since he still makes music that breaks new ground -higher ground, if you will.

Signed, Sealed and Delivered is not the story of a saint. The contradictions that streak through Wonder's life do not paint him as perfect, nor a model for anyone to follow. There simply is though no other artist like Stevie Wonder. It is, rather, a case study in how and why a unique man has filled the time and space of so many lives and imaginations. His appeal is written in his name, a sense - actually, many senses - of wonder. For me, the joy started a journey to places I didn't know could even exist. As he moves deeper into his sixties, how many more places will he take us? The answer, as John Lennon once sang, is written in the stars. And in Stevie's mind.

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How much should we envy Stevie for what he sees? The barriers of conventionalism simply do not exist in his private sight lines. He can, and probably has, done what we can only dream of doing. There was the time when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the evils of apartheid and, feeling the groove, broke into an impromptu song.

A similar groove, on an obscure Bob Marley record, led him to hop on a plane to Jamaica and jam with Marley, then cut an album not to copy Marley's reggae beat but to fuse it with US soul, a profound milestone in rock and roll. Wonder does not jump into something idly, or without real conviction. He laboured long and hard to make the martyred Dr Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday in America - he was in the gallery of the Congress when the bill was passed - and to rally a flood tide of entertainers to boycott apartheid-era South Africa's Sun City resort. His has never been the superficial role of a dilettante. During the apartheid fight, he was arrested outside of the South African embassy in Washington DC.

Today, many of the battles he fought have been won. The Motown sound that once was so daring, and was in many ways the soundtrack of the American civil rights movement, long ago achieved its initial goal by crossing over into the mainstream, becoming infused into the marrow of contemporary pop.

There's no deeper message in soul music than pure enjoyment, And this is why Stevie Wonder persists, why he comes to Abu Dhabi. He is nothing if not walking history himself. Forgotten now is how utterly relevant he was even at the age of 13, when the joyous noise of Fingertips (Part 2) wafted from transistor radios through the humid air above the Lincoln and Washington memorials on August 28, 1963, the day Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. It was then the No1 song in America and a testament to the gospel joy that stoked the passion of the black struggle.

The closing of this circle happened when a black man was elected president. For Wonder, it was beyond anything he had dreamed of. He had laboured hard for Barack Obama's election, and at the inauguration stole the show with a rollicking set. Last year, he received the Gershwin Prize one of the top honours for any musician, at the White House, presented to him by the president for whom in many ways he had helped clear a path.

All of this, then, is a prelude to every Stevie Wonder song in his extensive catalogue. He walks through the history he has written. Once, nothing was beyond his musical grasp. His breathtaking spectrum of idioms was such that he was able to make your blood boil with the racial bile of Living in the City, then, barely taking a pause, turn your insides gooey with the romantic yearning of You Are the Sunshine of My Life, then get you on your feet grooving to the exhilaration of Sir Duke and Master Blaster. Wonder had all the bases covered: R&B, blues, jazz, rock, soul. When FM radio was young, he lifted the roof of what had been a white rock bastion, making room for the fusions he unleashed. When the Rolling Stones enlisted him to open for them on their infamous Exile on Main Street American tour, crowds left humming his tunes.

That was so long ago, too long for many to care to quantify, but when Wonder sits at his piano and begins tinkling the keys tonight, this rock elder will be very much alive and kicking, his genius and instincts still keen. Friends talk about him as if he were plotting for yet another comeback, gauging when time and space will merge with creative impulse and detonate a new round of recording. A man named John Glover may know him better than anyone. He still is the only person to ever play in a group with Stevie - when they were both pubescent performers back on the streets of Detroit.

Glover, who subsequently moved to Motown himself as a producer, thinks he can read his old friend's mind. "With Stevie," he says, "it's always, 'Hey man, wait till you hear what I'm doin'.' And I believe he's got something up his sleeve. Something that he really believes is the best he's ever done. Nobody's ever made important albums at [his] age, not the Stones, Dylan, McCartney, anyone. They accept that. But Stevie doesn't."

That is a constant with Wonder, the sense of anticipation and timing that give birth to his next brilliant work. It may never happen, but if it does, we all will sit up and listen. Hard. Mozart cannot be ignored.

At the very least, during those few historic hours at the Yas Arena - yet more historic hours for Steve Wonder - the world will stop and listen. And, in many ways, discernible or perceived, Abu Dhabi will never be quite the same. That's what being in Wonderland is all about.

Mark Ribowsky's book Signed, Sealed and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder is published by John Wiley & Sons. He is currently working on a book about the Beastie Boys.