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Stevie Wonder Keeps Pushing For Higher Ground

Of the Oakland Press

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When Stevie Wonder launched his A Wonder’s Summer Night tour late last summer, it was a last-minute affair with modest ambitions.

“Originally it was gonna be just myself and a couple of musicians,” says the 58-year-old Motown star onetime child prodigy who now ranks as one of the legendary label’s elder statesmen.

“But I did a couple performances like that, and I just decided, ‘Y’know what? The people haven’t seen me in a long time, so for me to go out and just sit at a piano, it wasn’t

enough for me. Maybe some day we’ll do that, but this was not that day and time to do that.”

A Wonder’s Summer Night — inspired by the death of his mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, in 2006 — brought the multi-faceted artist back to the road for the first time since his 11-city Charge Against Hunger/National Wonder Tour in 1995. He did two legs in North America in 2007 and has his first European tour in more than a decade scheduled for September, after a 14-date romp through the U.S. that started last week. “I want to go throughout the country and some cities we haven’t performed in yet (and) sincerely thank everyone,” explains Wonder, who was born Steveland Judkins Morris in Saginaw but was raised mostly in Detroit where he signed to Motown in 1961.

“To have the opportunity to perform and do the things I’ve done, you have to also thank everyone.”

And Wonder has certainly done a lot in the 46 years since he released “The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder.”

The numbers alone are staggering. He’s sold more than 75 million albums worldwide, has had 49 Top 40 singles, 32 of which made it to No. 1. The list starts with his 1963 charttopper “Fingertips Pt. 2” and continued witha body of work “Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Higher Ground,” “Living For the City,” “I Wish,” “Sir Duke,” the Academy Award-winning “I Just Called to Say I Love You” — that sit in the world’s pop culture vernacular alongside anything written by George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Cole Porter or John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

He’s won 25 Grammy Awards — the most recent in 2007 for a duet with Tony Bennett on “For Once in My Life” — and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and has received a Kennedy Center Honor and the Billboard Century Award.

Wonder has also established himself as a leader on the political and social action fronts.

He was a major proponent in establishing the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday in 1983.

He was part of U.S.A. For Africa’s 1985 famine relief single “We Are the World” and Dionne Warwick’s anti-AIDS single “That’s What Friends Are For,” and has been active in campaigns to stop apartheid, drugs, drunken driving and handgun possession.

Those concerns still remain top of his mind. “There is time for a change,” Wonder says. “This world’s in need of some kind of something.” And in his mind that may well be Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, who Wonder has been vociferously supporting since last year, well before the primary season swung into gear.

“What I like about Obama is it’s a change. It’s different,” explains Wonder, who has seven children — including daughter Aisha Morris, who sings in his band. “I like what he’s talking about. I’ve seen him have a kind of universal feel. Being from an interracial family, he seems to have had a sense of being in a black and white world. It’s a new place.

“But whoever is elected as president, their platform will be true and they’ll say something like ‘We must become united people of these United States,’ because that’s the only way that it’s gonna work. There is so much potential for this country ... and we’ve got to get there.”

Wonder will be watching, of course, but he’ll have music on his mind as well. In the wake of his mother’s death he began work on “The Gospel Inspired by Lula,” which he describes as “a wide spectrum” of music ranging from covers of some of her favorite songs to original pieces influenced by international styles. “It will be songs of celebration, really,” Wonder says.

He missed the album’s hoped-for Jan. 11 release date — on what would have been his mother’s 77th birthday — but that comes as no surprise considering Wonder’s notoriously slow-moving, perfectionist ways. “You know how we roll,” Wonder — whose most recent album, 2005’s “A Time 2 Love,” was his first in 10 years — says with a laugh.

“I think obviously it’s good to have a record come out, but I just can’t work with some ‘You gotta pump it out’ mentality,” adds Wonder, who notoriously sparred with Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., over his exacting pace. “The bottom line for me is that it’s good — very, very good. I’m very hard to please with that kind of stuff.

“There’s always expectations,” he adds. “I don’t really trip on other people’s expectations. If you listen to every single opinion and every single thing people say to you, you’ll go crazy. I trip to my own expectations first; ultimately, I have to answer to myself, and I’m my own worst critic.”

And, Wonder acknowledges, the emotional impact of “The Gospel Inspired by Lula” makes him that much more careful about how he’s proceeding with it.

“A lot of my music is healing myself, related to the questions that I have,” he explains. “I figure there’s got to be someone out there who feels the way I feel about life; maybe if there’s somebody who doesn’t understand, they can listen to my music and I can help them in that way.

“But I must tell you, the greatest feeling for me is just knowing the creator is allowing me to come up with different songs and stuff after all these years. I feel like there’s not much more I can ask for.”

Stevie Wonder performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (June 24) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $89.50 and $49.50 pavilion, $30 lawn with a special lawn four-pack for $99. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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