Like most things in his lengthy and legendary career, Stevie Wonder’s A Wonder Summer’s Night tour took a while to turn from inspiration to reality — but less time than usual for a guy who’s been know to take a decade between albums.
The seed was planted on May 31, 2006, when the blind Motown hero’s mother, Lula Mae Hardaway passed away at the age of 75. It was, not surprisingly, “a traumatic experience” for the 57-year-old Wonder — who was born Steveland Judkins, blind, in Saginaw — and his family. Adding to his consternation at the time was a wedding gig he had booked for two weeks later in Hawaii, which Wonder had understandably “mixed feelings about.”
But as he considered canceling, Wonder says, “in my heart and spirit something said, ‘You know your mother would want you to go and have a really great time and actually be part of helping somebody celebrate the greatest moment of their lives’ ... and bring some joy through the pain that I was dealing with.
“And so it was then that I decided to go and perform in the spirit of Lula Mae. It was the best thing I could’ve done for my spirit.”
That healing experience was what led Wonder to launch the 13-city A Wonder Summer’s Night outing, which began last month in San Diego. It’s his first actual road trek since 1995, when he played with orchestras in 11 cities on his Charge Against Hunger/National Wonder Tour. And the best news for the towns Wonder is not hitting yet is that he promises the tour “will grow as we go along. I’m sure at some point we will do a couple performances that will be benefit performances. We’ll just have a lot of fun, ’cause the greatest joy in life is love, and I want to share my love ... through song.”
Honoring his mother has also taken Wonder — who’s sold nearly 75 million albums — back into the studio for the first time since finishing his 2006 album “A Time to Love” which, after a 10-year wait, won a pair Grammy Awards, running his career total to 22. He’s recorded a project titled “The Gospel Inspired by Lula,” which is due out Jan. 11 — his mother’s birthday — and will be followed by “a completely different kind of tour.
“It’ll include visuals and all that kind of stuff,” he says, “because I have ideas in my mind. We’ll actually have those things that you see at a lot of performances, but in the way that I view them in my head.”
The whole endeavor is part and parcel of Wonder’s cosmic vision of music, the same sense of mission that drove classic recordings such as “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and “Songs in the Key of Life” in order to make music “completely as a healing experience for myself and for people. It’s for us to really come together and bond in this ... common place of healing, using the bond of music to bring us all together.
“A lot of my music is healing myself, related to the questions that I have,” he explains. “We all have a need for healing, too. We have a need for love. 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.”
Playing small and medium-sized venues for a more “intimate” presentation, Wonder and his 11-piece band — which includes his daughter Aisha Morris — are premiering some of “The Gospel Inspired By Lula” material at his shows. Mostly, however, he’s offering a career survey of hits ranging from ’60s singles such as “My Cherie Amour” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” through ’70s classics like “Superstition,” “Higher Ground” and “Sunshine of My Life,” ’80s favorites like the Academy Award-winning “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “Part-Time Lover” as well as songs from “A Time to Love.”
There’s a sense that, charged by his mother’s memory, Wonder is embarking on a prolific creative period. In addition to “The Gospel Inspired By Lula,” he’s in discussions with Tony Bennett about a full-fledged duets project to follow their Grammy-winning rendition of “For Once in My Life” from Bennett’s “Duets: An American Classic” album in 2006. “He’s my favorite guy,” Bennett says. “He’s so deep, and he’s such a creative artist at all times.”
Wonder doesn’t take that for granted, however. Noting that performing is “a way of me thanking God for the gift ... of song,” he says “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 8 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 12) at the Meadow Brook Music Festival on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills. Tickets are sold out but some may become available closer to showtime. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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