If you think that the early to mid 1970s brought the Golden Era of pop music, then there is one crowning achievement: Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double album (plus an EP) “Songs in the Key of Life.” It’s the culmination of What’s Going On, Tapestry, Still Crazy After All These Years, Band on the Run, and Blood on the Tracks.
So Stevie Wonder launched his tour last night at Madison Square Garden playing the album, with a large orchestra run by Greg Phillinganes– who’s also on the original album–from start to finish. That’s all four sides (remember albums?) plus the four songs on the spillover EP. Stevie had so much music that there was literally a single in the sleeves with the “etcetera” of the collection. The single included “Saturn,” sung gorgeously last night by resplendent special guest star India Arie (one of the many singers Stevie has launched — including Chaka Khan and Sheryl Crow).
In the audience: Whoopi Goldberg, Paul Shaffer, Spike Lee and god knows who else. MSG was as packed as it could be, not an empty seat anywhere. It was also the most multi-racial crowd I’ve ever seen there, a real rainbow. Stevie Wonder cuts across race, color, class, age.
Stevie told me when the show was over: “It was an emotional night for me.” Well, he led this orchestra and singers– including daughter Aisha–through this unbelievable set of hits that also cut across genres. There is jazz (“Sir Duke”), R&B (“I Wish”), funk (“Black Man”), lush ballads (“Knocks Me Off My Feet”), social commentary and near-classical (“Pastime Paradise”).
The whole thing crests with a phenomenal dance-Caribbean disco combination of “As (Always)” and “Another Star.” The album also contains Stevie’s masterwork “Isn’t She Lovely.” You kids don’t know this, but he didn’t release it as a single because radio wanted a 3 minute edit of the 6 minute piece. Stevie refused.
To watch Stevie Wonder on stage is really a lesson in genius. You will never see this again. He is the captain of this vast ship, and he never loses focus. His voice is strong and more on key than ever. Plus, he tells a lot of jokes. He also advised us that he is not having triplets– as reported in the tabloids. He brought out his youngest child, she’s 2 and cute as a button. Stevie preached gun control, also, and introduced a Sandy Hook family.
“Songs in the Key Of Life” runs about 80 minutes– because there were four sides, and records could only accommodate 20 minutes of music per side. Stevie and the embellished them with jazz riffs and showed just how well constructed the songs are. You just marvel at how the poured out of his head. And thank god they did.