Stevie Wonder’s remarkable tribute to Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder’s performance at Aretha Franklin’s memorial service on September 1, 2018 was remarkable in many ways.

First of all, Wonder isn‘t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Even among other mourners and people who were paying tribute to the “Queen of Soul,” there was something direct and emotional about the way Wonder spoke that stood out. He doesn’t hold back anything, and speaks with an intimacy that can sometimes be disarming.

Then there was his music. Stevie began by playing “The Lord’s Prayer” on harmonica, as only he can. Wonder has a unique and very special way of playing the harmonica that’s heavy on vocal-like inflections. He plays the instrument in a way that’s similar to how he sings, just like Louis Armstrong, for example, played the trumpet the same way he sang. Same phrasing, same ornamentation, and some sound quality. (Miles Davis did too, by the way. Have you ever noticed that his trumpet tone changed drastically after he injured his vocal chords during the 1950s?). Wonder, like Satchmo and Miles, is a true musician and brings an overall approach to his music, no matter what instrument he’s playing, voice included.

In one sense, it’s remarkable that an instrumental performance was even included in the tribute to Aretha. Yes, I know that she was a vocalist, but she was also a serious pianist who studied the music of Art Tatum and others. She knew her instrumental music. But she was a part of pop culture, and there’s not much of a place for instrumental music in today’s pop culture except as a way to back up the vocalists. (Movie soundtracks are a welcome exception.) So it was doubly refreshing to hear Stevie play an extended harmonica piece, complete with ornamentation and improvised embellishments. Both Franklin and Wonder are/were instrumentalists in addition to vocalists, and to my mind, this brought a sense of completeness to the event.

And then he played keyboards and sang, magnificently.

I’ve heard Wonder twice in person and I get chills whenever I see him sit down at a keyboard, even if it’s on TV. Furthermore, I love the fact that he often keeps things “loose” by starting a piece by himself and letting the other musicians come in gradually. This accomplishes several things, including letting him set the tempo and establish he groove, and it also sounds very “gospelly.” His song choice, “As” (from Songs In The Key Of Life), was perfect, and culminated with a full orchestration complete with gospel choir backing him up.

Definitely take a few minutes to check out both songs. Not many performers can still personalize a melody like Wonder did on The Lord’s Prayer. It’s in the tradition of the classic jazz saxophonists such as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. And you’ll get a good, unfiltered glimpse at Wonder’s keyboard skills on “As,” especially right at the beginning. Be sure to watch that section a few times to fully absorb his funkiness.

Here’s the full clip:

Stevie Wonder pays tribute to Aretha Franklin

Let’s use this moment to reflect on Aretha Franklin’s life and career, as well as to thank Stevie Wonder for his remarkable performances at her memorial service.

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