Stevie Wonder brought the holiday cheer a bit early this year for his 20th annual House Full of Toys Benefit Concert at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Saturday (Dec. 9). Throughout the evening, the master of ceremonies brought out guests across the board — Tori Kelly, John Legend, Queen Latifah, Jazmine Sullivan and more — in an effort to infuse the holiday spirit prior to the Christmas.
For starters, the 66-year-old sat at the piano accompanying himself to “Ave Maria,” leaving the stage to let a gospel choir take hold to perform “You Are Worthy of My Praise.” He set the night off with an all-star friend joining the fray. Lionel Richie was one of the initial guests, originally billed, and came out to the tune of “Three Times a Lady” as Wonder tickled the ivories.
“What are you doing, you’re messing with my song!” Wonder joked with Richie. “Every time I see Stevie,” bantered Richie, “you say the same line: ‘Good to see you, Lionel!’ And I get nervous.” The crowd chuckled as Wonder threw it back: “Better than saying, ‘Good to feel you!’”
Richie, best known as a member of the iconic group Commodores, stayed on stage to run through “Easy” and “All Night Long” on his own before Wonder returned to accompany him for a brief version of charity single “We Are the World,” during which Wonder flubbed the lyrics up front before regaining his footing. It was then that Wonder had his most emotive moment of the evening, and a surprisingly touching one at that. He turned his attention to the recent election, where Donald Trump beat out Hillary Clinton for the presidency, as tears streamed down his face.
“You just let the president elect know we cannot change the way we been, we will not change our destiny,” he said, with Richie comforting him from his side. “We must be a united people of these United States of America. Anything less than that, is bullshit.” He took a beat and then he clarified his stance before running through “Knock Me Off My Feet”: “Anyone who may have taken offense to what I said, I’m so passionate about us coming together and not being divided.”
It was then that Wonder appeared to lose the plot of the evening. He tapped a wildly diverse assortment of guests, and almost all of them were called to the stage out of order and left to their own devices. Maline Moye’s Drive Hope Foundation Choir, accompanied by Wonder, opened the show in the support of disadvantaged youth with “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Nita Whitaker came next with her original “Keep a Little Christmas,” followed by Major, an R&B singer who apparently attempted to sing a song that wasn’t on the set list and drew ire from Wonder when he returned to the piano. Pop singer Rachel Platten came next, but with a delay (“John [Legend] thought he was next,” she told the crowd). Wonder and Platten duetted on “Someday at Christmas” and he left the stage for her to try to rouse the audience with “Fight Song,” with little return.
From there, Wonder entered and exited the stage seemingly at random, and held some artists in the spotlight longer than they visibly anticipated. Of the few that seemed befuddled by the order and duration of their appearances, John Legend looked uncomfortable as Wonder directed him to sing “Ordinary People” first — Legend demurred before going with the flow — and kept him by his side as Jazmine Sullivan joined the fold, fumbling with her earpiece for a trio performance of “This Christmas.”
Tori Kelly sang her single “Hollow” on her own, expecting Wonder to come out for a Christian standard, but consistently stared to the side of the stage and was left to her own devices. When he finally reemerged, after her cover of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” for the upcoming film Sing, she was unsure of where to go as Queen Latifah appeared for “Georgia Rose” and “U.N.I.T.Y.,” and silently crept out the back.
Anderson.Paak, who was recently nominated for the Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Urban Contemporary Album for Malibu, made the most of it. He manned the drums for “All I Do,” nailing a proficient solo, concluding with Wonder repeatedly demanding, “I want you to hit it!” Paak didn’t seem to understand until Wonder left the stage and he descended to sing “Come Down” as his son Soul Rasheed danced beside him. As the song came to a finish, Wonder yet again left him hanging; Paak instead gave an acapella rendition of “Boogie On Reggae Woman” while conducting a dance-off with Soul.
Wonder may have scrambled the lineup of his benefit, but the soul was there, and Wonder is still in mint condition two decades out from the inaugural House Full of Toys Benefit Concert, which kicked off in 1996 at the former Sunset Blvd. House of Blues to benefit the non-profit We Are You Foundation, meant to assist families and children in need.
Past guests have included Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Drake, Maroon 5, Common, Janelle Monae and more, and prior events have been staged at The Forum and the Nokia Theater L.A. Live.