Rocking a stylish black suit, white shirt and jaunty black beret, Stevie Wonder strode onstage to the first in a series of standing ovations during Saturday evening’s (Dec. 18) House Full of Toys benefit concert in Los Angeles. In addition to marking its 23rd anniversary, the holiday event also celebrated its return after a three-year break owing to Wonder’s successful kidney transplant in 2019 followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Standing alongside music director Rickey Minor, the 71-year-old Wonder stood before a packed Microsoft Theater, acknowledging, “Thank you all for being here. A lot has happened in the world, my world and your own worlds. But the blessing is that we are all here to give to those less fortunate.” Concert-goers were asked to bring an unwrapped toy or “unwrapped gift of joy,” which were placed in bins outside the theater on behalf of Wonder’s nonprofit We Are You Foundation.
Wonder then briefly reminisced about his mother, her crying over his blindness and his feeling as a youngster that “maybe God has something else for me.” Also recalling his career start at Motown, he told a laughing audience that [founder] Berry Gordy told him then that “we’ve got to work on that voice — but the harmonica playing is good.”
And with that, the icon spent the next two-and-a-half hours delving into his deep catalog of hits. As one audience member said as he walked out of the theater, “This was definitely not a disappointment … it was amazing.”
Among the evening’s highlights were these memorable takeaways:
Like father, like daughters: To the audience’s surprise and delight, Wonder brought his two youngest children onstage — daughters Zaiah and Nia Morris (“She’s 7 going on 27,” prefaced the artist of Nia) — to sing “What Christmas Means to Me.” Dressed in identical long black and white dresses, the two naturals didn’t miss a beat or a note as they took mics in hand to sing at the top of their voices. As the show wound down at 11:30 p.m., the pair returned to join Wonder’s four background vocalists in dancing to the concert’s last song “Superstition.”
Remembering Jacqueline Avant: The evening’s most emotional moment occurred soon thereafter. After ripping through roof-raising audience singalongs to “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” “Higher Ground” and “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing,” Wonder began tickling out the intro to “My Cherie Amour” on the piano. “I’m going to play, you’ll sing — and you better know the words to my song or we’ll break up,” teased the singer-songwriter. Halfway through the song, he paused to recount how he wrote the song at 15 years old while attending the Michigan School for the Blind. “I think about the many people who liked this song including two very special people who were young and in love, Clarence Avant and the love of his life, who was killed,” said a faltering Wonder as tears streamed down his face. “It breaks my heart to know that happened to Jacqueline. As I think about their 54 years married, I dedicate this song to Jacqueline and anyone who loses their life to violence. Guns and more guns aren’t the solution — quit bulls—-ing.”
‘Anything’ for Stevie: “She can sing,” Wonder said while introducing Ledisi as the evening’s first guest performer. She warmed up the audience with a slow, jazzy rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Then she segued into “Anything for You,” which earned the singer-songwriter her first Grammy Award for best traditional R&B performance earlier this year after 14 nominations. Proving Grammy voters and Wonder right, Ledisi mesmerized the audience with her powerful, four-octave vocal range as she exquisitely spiced her full-bodied voice with sultry scats and soaring, sustained notes.
Near the show’s end, another performer hit the stage. Coaxed by Wonder who accompanied him on piano, Johnny Gill fired up a stoked audience with an arousing performance one of his signature ballads, “My, My, My,” that he dedicated to “all the ladies in the house.” Afterwards, Gill exhorted the crowd to salute Wonder, noting, “The higher power put Steve Wonder here to be a messenger and leader. We should celebrate him. So get up on your feet and give him the respect he deserves.” Acknowledging the audience’s latest in a string of standing ovations throughout the evening, Wonder said, “I live to love you … all of my life.”
New take on a classical favorite: You haven’t heard “Ave Maria” until you’re treated to the Wonder-ized version. Noting he’d promised to sing the song “even though my throat’s a little broke,” the singer turned in a valiant performance punctuated by his uniquely soulful harmonica — later co-signed resoundingly by a cheering audience.