Wonder, 71, first heard John, 74, on the latter's breakthrough song, 1970’s “Your Song.” Similarly, he was instantly a fan. “When I heard [‘Your Song’] it just reminded me so much of an expression of love,” Wonder says. “I said, ‘he’s got a great voice’ and I wanted to hear more. The piano playing I liked, the arrangements I liked. It was just great.”
Though neither artist can remember exactly when they met (John thinks it’s when Wonder surprised him by serenading him with “Happy Birthday,” on Starship, the renowned private jet he and acts such as Led Zeppelin chartered in the early ‘70s), the duo have worked together numerous times throughout the years: That’s Wonder playing harmonica on John’s 1983 hit, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (“That was the run-through, by the way,” John says) and on “Dark Diamond,” from John’s 2001 Songs From the West Coast. They famously joined Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight for “That’s What Friends Are For,” the massive 1985 charity single that raised more than $3 million for American Foundation for AIDS Research at a time when charity singles were still a rarity. But “Finish Line” marks the first time Wonder has played keyboards and harmonica and sung on a John track.
“We wanted Stevie initially just to play harmonica and then it just grew. Then he put acoustic piano on it so he and I are playing piano on the same record, which is so great,” John says. “He wasn’t going to sing on it, I think he thought he'd done enough. I really wanted him to sing on it because it, for me, was like an old-fashioned soul song and that’s the music I grew up loving ... Andrew [Watt, producer] and I ended up twisting his arm and he did sing on it. … To be honest, it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever recorded. … I just think “I’m singing with Stevie Wonder and I’m playing with Stevie Wonder and I really like it!’”
John wrote the music, and then Watt, Ali Tamposi and Roman Campolo penned the lyrics, which address surviving tough times only to rise again stronger: “I’ve been down the darkest alleys/ Been to the bottom where the angels cry/ Thought it had all been, oh, for nothing/ Until I saw you at the finish line.” The theme of redemption appealed to both men.
“I’ve been through so many down periods in my life. I’ve battled alcoholism and drugs and I’ve been 31 years sober now,” says John, who is managed by his husband, David Furnish. “I’ve been through so many bad relationships. I’m now in a 28-year-old relationship. I have two beautiful children. Of course, I’m going to feel good by hearing this song because I have had redemption and I have now a wonderful life and I lead a good life. … This song really makes me feel very proud of who I’ve become, proud of working with someone like Stevie. Just for me, it’s everything I love about this kind of music. … It’s just that fact that I’m on this record playing. ... How could you not feel joyous about it?”
For Wonder, the song’s rising-above-the-odds theme recalls his youth when others already counted him out. “Going back to as a little kid … I remember a teacher said to me, ‘You know, Stevie, you’ve got three strikes against you … you’re blind, you’re Black and you’re poor.’ I said, ‘You forgot one. I’m bowlegged!’ She was saying, ‘You should just stop doing this music thing … because you’ll end up making potholders.’ I knew that that wasn’t going to happen, but I went into the restroom and I cried and [said], ‘God, this is what I’m supposed to do’ … I told my mother the story when I got home and she said, ‘Baby, baby, you will never make no d--- potholders’ and I said, ‘I know, mama.’”
Wonder, who also recalls surviving a 1973 car accident that left him in a coma for several days as well as his 2019 kidney transplant, sees the song as a salve in these troubling times. “We talk about the redemption and all that. The thing about it is this: We were down and there are many people that are down. I mean, listen, the [COVID-19] pandemic that we've been we've been in, the whole fight that people are having: ‘Should I wear a mask? Not a mask. Take a shot, not take the shot.’ I mean, come on. On a personal note, I took a shot and I took both of them. … But at this point, I want to live for as long as I can to do God's blessing.”
Though the pandemic and conflicting schedules kept them from recording the song together other than a brief Los Angeles studio visit by John, they were in touch via phone. “And the [connection] that we had, it felt so close,” Wonder says.
Over the decades, the two legends, who were the first two artists to have albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, often found themselves chasing each other up the charts: In 1973, John’s “Crocodile Rock” kicked Wonder’s “Superstition” out of the top spot to become John’s first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Oh, for God’s sake,” laughs John, when reminded he knocked one of Wonder’s most loved songs out of the pole position.
But even when they were competing for chart positions, they never considered each other rivals, even though others might have. “It’s really funny because I was thinking about that time when it was like ‘Elton versus Stevie Wonder. Elton John versus Stevie Wonder.’ To me, it’s always funny when people do that,” Wonder says. “I was thinking about that time, you know, Michael [Jackson] had a hit out and then Prince came out with ‘When Doves Cry.’ ‘We’ve got the King of Pop and we’ve got the Prince and who’s going to be the winner?’ It’s craziness. I guess it’s all PR stuff or whatever. It didn’t bother us. I love ‘Crocodile Rock’ and I’m sure Elton -- he better had -- liked ‘Superstition.’”
“I’d rather sing ‘Superstition’ than ‘Crocodile Rock,’ to be honest with you,” John admits. Wonder responds by breaking into an impromptu version of John’s 1973 hit “Daniel," which he calls his "favorite song."
Just as for their fans, it turns out John's and Wonder’s songs have provided the soundtrack to each other’s lives as well. “I was thinking about my brother, my late brother Timothy, he used to love the song ‘Bennie and the Jets.’ It’s emotional when I think about different songs,” says Wonder, his voice cracking, “because I can remember the moments and I can remember my brother’s smile and him singing the song … I remember all those different things and they bring back great memories.”
John and Furnish have a ritual whenever they go to their apartment in Venice, Italy. “The first thing we do before we even unpack is put on Songs in the Key of Life because that’s one of the greatest records ever made and it’s part of my life and part of David’s life,” John says of Wonder’s Grammy-winning album that came out 45 years ago this week. “It’s a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. Stevie’s an incredible songwriter, an incredible musician and they don’t come along very often like this. … The musicianship on his records, the way he plays, the chord changes. Being a songwriter and a musician, I’m impressed by that so much, so when you hear a song like ‘Love Is in Need of Love Today’ or ‘Sir Duke,’ ‘Living for the City,’ just wow. Every track is a gem and it still sounds as good today as when it first came out. He is without question a national American treasure.”
Adds Wonder, “I have much respect for [Elton]. And so it's my honor to be able to come and be a part of his musical celebration.”