Stevie Wonder knows what Kanye West is going through right now.
Even as the 57-year-old pop, soul and R&B icon is going through a rejuvenation of sorts, hitting the road again after a 14-year absence from touring, his heart can't help going out to one of his younger colleagues during his time of unexpected mourning.
"I was again brokenhearted to hear of Kanye's mother," Wonder says by phone from Hartford, Connecticut, of the rapper losing his mother after she underwent a seemingly routine plastic-surgery procedure.
Stevie Wonder performs Tuesday, December 4, at Toyota Center, 1510 Polk,713-758-7200.
"I wish I could hold him and say, 'Hey man, I know how you feel, I've been there,'" Wonder says. "'You just gotta go through the pain you got to go through. But your mother would want you to do everything that you told her you would do and even more. Just do it. Just do it. Just be the inspiration for millions and millions of people that love you and your talent. Be an inspiration. Be a light. Because she was your light. It's good to be someone else's light.'"
When Wonder says he is "again brokenhearted," he's referring to the passing of his own mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, who died last May at age 76. While that was a day he calls his worst, he also says it was his mother's spirit who told him, "You better get your ass out there" and perform again. This advice apparently worked so much he's even working on an album, Gospel Inspired by Lula, which Wonder hopes will be done in time for a Mother's Day release.
Before one of his shows even begins, Wonder will usually grace the stage, accompanied by his daughter and backup singer Aisha Morris, and address the audience about these sentiments, as he did recently at a sold-out show in Philadelphia. Then his band shows up, and Wonder cuts loose with a nonstop, nearly three-hour show that has him performing everything from classic '70s hits like "Superstition" and "Higher Ground" to songs from when he was still "Little" Stevie Wonder, to those soft piano ballads certain to bring out the waterworks.
A Stevie Wonder concert can turn into a pretty emotional experience. On said night in Philly, Wonder sang "You and I (Can Conquer the World)," and his voice began to crack mid-song. He could barely complete the verse as he — and everybody else in the auditorium — began tearing up. He plowed through the song, closing with a big "Syreeta, you and I!" in honor of Syreeta Wright, his first wife and one of many collaborators, who passed away in 2004.
"Syreeta and I had some wonderful times together," he remembers. "And even after we were no longer married, we always stayed friends, and we always loved each other in a proper way. And I love her sons and I love her daughter. And even though I think the last man she was married to was a jerk, because he did some horrible things to her, that's their personal business.
"I don't even wanna talk about it," he continues. "The reality is she's not here, but she's here in spirit and she left so many wonderful things, you know, in songs and her voice behind. I think the person to me that sounds, you know, sweet like Syreeta did, in her voice, is Beyoncé, really. And if there's anything that I regret for Syreeta, [it] is that she really, really was never able to be the greatness that she really deserved to be.
"It's emotional. I mean, there are certain nights that I can handle better than other nights. Most nights I can handle it fine. But, if I focus on something too much, it does get too emotional. And that's okay."
But Wonder is being nothing but optimistic these days, especially knowing that he's out on tour and fulfilling the dreams of those who never thought they'd ever see him perform again live. His tour has certainly been bringing out a rainbow connection of folks, famous faces from R&B music pioneer Kenny Gamble and Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson in Philly to indie filmmaker Atom Egoyan in Toronto.
Even with all this attention, Wonder remains humble. He's well aware of the influence he's had, not just on the countless singers and musicians who have come after him, many of whom he's collaborated with ("Feeling You," his 2006 collaboration with British soul singer Omar, is worth downloading), but on the DJs and producers who have found their own ways to pay tribute to him.
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He knows about the "Wonderfull" club parties New York DJs Bobbito Garcia and DJ Spinna have done over the years, spinning his songs, covers or whatever else Stevie-related they've got at their disposal. (These nights have also spun off into a couple of CD compilations called The Wonder of Stevie.) He's also well aware of Stevie, the cover project that enigmatic, West Coast beatsmith Madlib did under his jazz-band alias Yesterdays New Quintet a few years back.
"I'm just very thankful, you know," he says. "I mean, I've talked with DJ Spinna some times, and I know they have given me, like, Stevie Wonder parties and stuff. And, you know, I'm just thankful to God for that and, respectfully, I appreciate everything that everyone has done, far more than I ever could have imagined.
"And I'm just thankful," Wonder goes on. "And I just hope that I can, you know, move to a whole 'nother plateau and really pull the family, meaning of African people and [people] of African descent as well — which is really everybody, whether you be white, black, brown, yellow or red. Just pulling everybody together — that's my desire, that's my goal.
"This year, you know, the Stevie Wonder thing is part of [what] I feel is God's ultimate plan for me," he concludes. "So, I'm just walking through it doing the best I can do. And I will continue to just do the best that I can do. And I want to thank you, too."