Stevie Wonder showed up on a stage in Dilworth Park on the west side of City Hall just after 3 p.m. on a sweltering Philadelphia day. After warming up with a few instrumental selections before the highly excitable crowd gathered Monday to see him, he took a few minutes to explain what he was doing there.
“Hello, Philadelphia, I’m so happy to be here,” said the 65-year-old musical genius, who had just arrived from Washington on a whirlwind journey to announce the final 20-city leg of his tour for the 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life. He’ll play the Wells Fargo Center on Oct. 7.
“It’s all about love,” Wonder said. “And I truly believe that love is in need of love today,” referring to one of the album’s signature songs. “We truly are in need of getting things right. There are so many things that we read about, that people talk about, that need to be fixed, not just in this country, but on this planet. Negativity breeds negativity. We can’t go out like that.”
Wonder, who in November brought Songs in the Key of Life to the Wells Fargo Center in a spectacular three-hour-plus performance, followed up with his concerns about gun violence and abuse of power — “I have no respect for anyone who is irresponsible with their authority.” He proceeded to sing “Love’s in Need of Love Today” backed by a four-piece band, his keening voice soaring skyward so captivatingly it seemed the Billy Penn statue atop City Hall would turn to listen.
Before the performance, Mayor Nutter (whom Wonder later referred to as “Mayor Nutley”) talked to Wonder backstage.
“He said he loves Philly,” the mayor said. Asked who was cooler — Wonder, Pope Francis, or Jay Z (whose Made in America festival is Sept. 5 and 6) — Nutter was noncommittal. “They’re all unique,” he said. “We’ve got Stevie Wonder now, then Jay Z, then the Pope, then the Dalai Lama in October. It’s not bad for Philadelphia.”
When Wonder was asked about the relevance of the 1976 album and the response it has gathered from fans nearly four decades after its release, he spoke of the joy of recording “Isn’t She Lovely?” for his yet-to-be-born daughter Aisha, and how much he enjoys singing about being a “nappy-headed boy” on “I Wish.” And thematically, the sprawling Songs in the Key of Life puts his music message of inclusion across loud and clear. Rather than stress what divides “people of different races and ethnicities,” he said, the songs emphasize “how much alike we all are.”
The Grammy-winner used the pop-up concert, labeled #AWonderMoment on social media, as the official announcement of the final leg of his tour.
The concert was kept a secret until Monday morning. Wonder’s fans had just a few hours’ notice Monday, giving many an excuse to leave work early or take a late lunch.
People from all over the city packed into Dilworth Park to see the music legend perform. “We were at a union meeting and left,” said Tanya Sutton, an employee of Hospital and Healthcare Union District 1199. Sutton and colleague Krystal Wright were bopping and dancing to every song on the grassy part of Dilworth by the back right of the stage.
“This is awesome,” Sutton yelled over the sound of Wonder’s voice.
Maryanne Culbertson showed up just after 1 p.m. to score a shaded seat.
Culbertson, of Southwest Philadelphia, brought 4-year-old grandson Solomon with her. The pair took the train into City Hall, and Solomon played in the splashing fountains at Dilworth until the concert started.
Culbertson, a big Wonder fan, said she didn’t want to miss the concert but added she would have been happy to see any artist.
“It’s nice to have anyone come for free,” Culbertson said. “This is a family atmosphere.”
Wonder’s music also brought together people who otherwise might never have met.
Victor Ricks, a retired veteran, offered Sara Ronsvalle, a yoga instructor, his spot on a railing in the shade so she could get a better view. The pair watched the concert together, and at the end parted with a hug and promises to keep in touch.
The gritty “I Wish” was one of a handful of Key of Life songs Wonder performed at least partially, including “Sir Duke,” the instrumental “Contusion,” and “Always,” for which he was joined by a melismatic Jazmine Sullivan, with the Strawberry Mansion-reared singer reading the song’s lyrics on her phone.
Before Sullivan could leave the stage, Wonder made her promise she would “come jam with us” at the Wells Fargo Center. And then — when she had again started to leave — he once more pulled her back by starting up “Superstition,” the climactic workout from 1972’s Talking Book with which he usually closes shows. “I love you!,” he said and got up to go.
Wonder had reason to be in a hurry. After flying from Washington to Philadelphia — whose influence on his music he celebrated by name-dropping Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, remembering American Bandstand, and singing a snippet of McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” — he was off to New York City to end with an evening show at the Central Park SummerStage.
There he was scheduled to announce the tour’s final performance at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 24. He’ll thus end what’s become a yearlong tour in the same town where it began.
Asked whether he had ever performed in two cities on the same day before, let alone three, Wonder genially answered — in song — that he had not, “never in my life.”
Tickets for Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life show at the Wells Fargo Center go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday on LiveNation.com.
By Dan DeLuca from The Philadelphia Inquirer