As we are fully entered into the holiday season, the art of song holds sway, ranging from omnipresent secular carols to time-honored Hanukkah folk tunes to the majestic Handel’s Messiah oratorio. But this year as we approach the hallelujah winter equinox, Carnegie Hall rings in the festivities with a twist on the seasonal song cycle with a sing-along evening of music by one of the greatest tunesmiths of our time, Stevie Wonder. He’s one of the most commercially successful pop vocalists of all time (30 top-ten hits; 25 Grammy Awards), and his funky and lovely songs continue to resonate with his themes of love and magic blessed with his soulful, singular harmonica voice and his clavinet grooves.
The 67-year-old Wonder (born Stevland Hardaway Morris) burst onto the pop scene as a child prodigy. He was a Motown signee at the age of 11 and the next year broke into the winner’s circle in 1963 with his harmonica-drenched tune “Fingertips” (highlighted by an unforgettable showcase on the Ed Sullivan Show). Dubbed the 12-year-old genius at the time, Little Stevie Wonder (he dropped the name “Little,” a Motown sales-selling gimmick, a few years later) began spinning out hits in the ‘60s (a sampling: “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “Tears of a Clown,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” “For Once in My Life”). But he soared into the ’70 with a string of best-selling records that teemed with soul but also a social consciousness inspired by Marvin Gaye: 1972’s Music of My Mind, 1972’s Talking Book (including the monster hits “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”), 1973’s Innervisions (“Higher Ground” and “Golden Lady”), 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life (“Isn’t She Lovely?”).
Including significant collaborations with two musical icons Dizzy Gillespie (on “Do I Do”) and Paul McCartney (the hit “Ebony and Ivory”), Wonder has been active in recording up until the present (a favorite recent single: 2005’s “So What the Fuss”).
At Carnegie, Wonder won’t make the scene, but r&b/soul/gospel stars Leela James and BeBe Winans will, leading the singalongs under the musical direction of keyboardist and orchestral arranger Ray Chew. Two pianists of note will also make guest appearances: former Saturday Night Live and Late Night With David Letterman vet Paul Shaffer and the impressive 17-year-old wunderkind Matthew Whitaker who has been deemed “a child star of tomorrow.”
Chew was the mover-and-shaker of the event, says Jeremy Geffen, the senior director of artistic programming at Carnegie. “The Stevie singalong is an outgrowth of the shows we’ve been doing with Ray over the last two years,” he says. “We did a gospel singalong that was a huge hit and a lot of fun. And we also did a singalong of American popular songs. With the gospel show, we provided texts for the audience to sing, but they already knew all these songs. With Stevie, we’ll provide the words, but it’s likely that the audience will also know all the words.”
Geffen says that the idea, conceived by Chew and his wife Vivian Chew, was a natural outgrowth of the singalong concept of putting on shows. “There’s so much great music that people can have a wonderful experience with,” says Geffen. “Some people may come in with trepidation in singing aloud, but any form of judgment goes away quickly in the incredible spirit of community. Really, the repertoire belongs to everyone and makes everybody feel a part of the tradition. It’s a wonderful feeling with every audience member being part of the experience. There’s no division between the performers onstage and those in the audience. Imagine letting yourself go with 2,800 other people. You feel revitalized.”
While the song list is still under wraps by Chew, Geffen says to expect the singers involved to improvise within the songs. “This will further empower the audience,” he says. “As for the time of year for this show? All the other holiday music is well-covered. We wanted to do something a little different for this season.”
For more information on this event and to purchase tickets click here.
Cover: Audience from a previous singalong concert at Carnegie Hall; photo: Fadi Kheir.
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