Part award presentation. Musical show and tell. Mini social summit. That’s what the packed house at the Loews Hollywood Hotel was treated to during Stevie Wonder’s closing keynote session at the ASCAP I Create Music Expo Saturday (April 15).
The illuminating session inside the Dolby Ballroom opened with the presentation of ASCAP’s inaugural Key of Life award. “The Key of Life award is presented to Stevie Wonder, who inspires and elevates the world through his songs, his spirit and his boundless heart,” said ASCAP president/chairman Paul Williams. After noting that Stevie had read the award’s Braille inscription backstage, which included Williams’ name, the ASCAP chief jokingly added, “Both of our names on something? I’m so excited at last.”
Escorted onstage by singer/songwriter/actress Janelle Monae, Wonder said, “I cannot thank any of you enough, so I’ll just spend the rest of my life doing that — whether you like it or not.” Then the 25-time Grammy award winner sat down next to his keyboard for a one-on-one conversation with Monae: “So I guess you’re going to ask some questions, getting into my business,” he said as the audience laughed.
For the next two hours, the audience journeyed with Wonder as he reflected on his beginnings as an 11-year-old music prodigy at Motown, his 50-plus year love affair with music, what inspires his songwriting and the inner workings behind some of his classic songs. He also performed several of those songs for the enthusiastic, sing-along audience and an equally awed Monae, who wore a dress emblazoned with various Wonder song and album titles. “I’m not Janelle Monae,” she told the audience. “I’m student Janelle.”
Among the songs Wonder chatted about: “Superstition” (“The drums came first; I was singing the melody to the song as I was playing the drums”), “Visions” (“I wrote the words in Los Angeles, sitting in a car. I knew what I wanted to write about but you can’t rush it. You just have to let it come.”), “Girl Blue” (“Yvonne Wright, who we lost last year, wrote an incredible lyric; it’s one of my favorite songs on the Music of My Mind album”) and “Golden Lady” (originally titled “Little Lady”).
Wonder even performed a new ballad, “Where’s Our Love Song” — the melody for which he’s had since 1971. The first verse goes as follows: “Where’s our song of love / Where is our song of love / Not a love a song between you and me / But a song of love for humanity / Where’s our love song / I desperately need a song of love.”
“I knew I wanted to do this song at some point,” related Wonder. “Then I witnessed what’s been going on recently, all of the negativity. So when I did come back to the song, I was able to write the words because it represented what my heart was feeling.”
At the end of the keynote conversation, Wonder offered the opportunity for ASCAP to select emerging songwriters to collaborate with him on four songs he’s been developing. He also invited Monae and ASCAP’s Williams to write on two more of his uncompleted songs.
Among Wonder’s many other memorable soundbites:
Joining Motown at such a young age: “It was just exciting to go to the studio and play the instruments. And it was a wonderful thing because I had a chance to grow up in music with the great musicians and singers there. I was just taking it all in. I loved music so I did it all the time. There was no [formal rehearsal] schedule. I’d beat on the walls in front of the house until someone would come out and say get that boy in the house, he’s making too much noise.”
His unique harmonica playing: “I was given a harmonica by my Uncle Steve. And I immediately I thought of that particular harmonica as a small saxophone. I wanted to kind of get that sound from it like on ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ [performing a brief riff]. I just wanted to imitate that [sax] sound so I’d go in the attic, walking around in a circle all day playing the harmonica.”
Staying committed to music: “You have to put work into that which you love. Then you’ve got to listen objectively. It’s fun to get to a place where you can challenge. When I was doing Songs in the Key of Life, I had this little transmitter that I hooked up and would listen, listen and listen. It’s all about the feeling every time.”
Meeting deadlines: “I wish I could do that. Everyone at Motown would love if I could have done that. The bill collectors would love if I did that. I’m not challenged by, ‘OK, you’ve got to get this out by this time.’ I try to do that but I don’t lock my self into It. If it’s doesn’t feel right, it’s just not done.”
Artists’ social power: There’s always power in the work. This isn’t the first time that people have protested and marched. But I would say don’t be afraid to express your truth but do it with love. So those of us who have been blessed with the gift of expression, don’t be afraid to express your truth. But do it with love. When you think about it, music is probably the most integrated thing that we have. We’re all influenced by each other.”
PHOTO: Lester Cohen/Getty Images for ASCAP