Music Appreciation: Two American Musical Geniuses Named Steve, on Their Birthdays — Sondheim and Wonder
By Evelyn Rosenthal
It just so happens that this spring we’re celebrating milestone birthdays for two of our most influential and treasured musical geniuses. The Broadway theater giant Stephen Sondheim turned 90 on March 22, and Stevie Wonder—for my money, the greatest popular music composer of the last 60 years—turned 70 on May 13.
To celebrate Sondheim, on April 26 Broadway.com presented Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, a nearly two-and-a-half-hour online concert, now available on their YouTube account.
The assemblage features suspects usual (Sutton Foster, Kelli O’Hara, Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mandy Patinkin, Lin-Manuel Miranda) and not so usual (Randy Rainbow, Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt). Like so much of our quarantainment, each segment was recorded chez the artists; a few even roped in their adorable children for bit parts or intros. Some of my favorite performances: Elizabeth Stanley’s “The Miller’s Son” (from A Little Night Music) — expressiveness for days; Christine Baranski, Streep, and McDonald getting hilariously sauced in “Ladies Who Lunch” (from Company); and a particularly touching a cappella version of “No One Is Alone” (from Into the Woods) by Peters. Whether you’re a Sondheim geek or have maybe only seen the movie versions of Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods, this video is a fabulous way to be reminded of or discover what all the fuss is about, and why the man is so revered.
For more Sondheim, check out these full-length videos of two of Sondheim’s greatest hits: his reimagining of the artist Georges Seurat and his masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte–1884 (1884/86, in the Art Institute of Chicago), Sunday in the Park with George and his homage to the tales of the Brothers Grimm, Into the Woods.
Those of us of a certain age have been listening to Stevie Wonder since he first hit the Motown scene at 13, blowing his harmonica and exhorting everybody to say “Yeah!” on “Fingertips” parts 1 and 2. Over his six-decade career Wonder’s genius has shown itself in his musical innovations, from synthesizers and electronic instruments to his use of vocal melisma in his deeply soulful singing (a style much-imitated but never equaled), to his early adoption of one-man-band production, where he overdubbed himself playing most of the instruments. There may be no better run of albums by any figure in popular music than his 1970s “golden period” — Music of My Mind; Talking Book; Innervisions; Fulfillingness’ First Finale; and Songs in the Key of Life. He has written a staggering number of gorgeous, funky, soulful, romantic, and politically pointed songs, some of which were recorded first (or only) by the likes of Aretha, Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, Minnie Riperton, and ex-wife Syreeta Wright. I could go on.
So, yes, I’m a big fan, and I found out that on Stevie’s birthday this year, Questlove, the estimable DJ and drummer for The Roots, organized a 24-hour celebration, to be shown on Instagram. Starting at midnight on May 13, Quest and five other DJs —Gilles Peterson, DJ Tara, D-Nice, Natasha Diggs, and DJ Spinna—each did four-hour sets. Quarantine being what it is, I didn’t manage to tune in until the 8 p.m. set by DJ Spinna, a master of the trade and expert in all things Stevie. Not being versed in the hip-hop and DJ scene, I had no idea what to expect. What I got, though, was pure joy—for four hours I sat mesmerized by this producer and DJ’s ability to serve up track after track of hits and B-sides, obscurities and covers, mashups and brilliant segues, building a set that sent me and scores of others on the Insta feed—including Mariah Carey, India.Arie, and Wanda Sykes—into musical ecstasy. Really. Some highlights: José Feliciano’s jazzy version of “Golden Lady”; the original recording of “All I Do” by Tammi Terrell; the duet with Minnie Riperton on “Take a Little Trip”; long, funky mixes of “As” and “Another Star,” “Summer Soft” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and of course, Stevie’s MLK tribute, “Happy Birthday.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video or other recording of the set, so I guess you had to be there. You can check out Spinna’s discography, which includes 3 volumes of Stevie compositions and covers.
Although I missed Questlove’s opening set, it’s now available on YouTube via The Roots’ page and is well worth a listen. Mining his 200,000-LP collection, Questlove came up with a rare demo of Stevie and Minnie’s “Take a Little Trip”; international versions of tunes by others and by Stevie himself — “My Cherie Amour” and “For Once in My Life” in Spanish and in Italian; songs recorded by the Pointer Sisters, Labelle, Smokey Robinson, Abbey Lincoln; a mini-set of some of his most beautiful ballads — “Lately,” “Visions,” “Creepin’,” “Blame It on the Sun,” “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” and a superb live version of “Ribbon in the Sky.” A self-proclaimed lover of “bad covers,” Questlove gave us Bob McGrath– “Bob” of Sesame Street — doing “Sir Duke,” complete with a kid chorus, quipping, “This is so square it’s hip!” And who could forget the Anita Kerr Singers — purveyors, as he said, of “elevator music” — singing “Looking for Another Pure Love”? If not as technically innovative as Spinna’s set, Questlove’s was an equally satisfying tribute to this inspired, and inspiring, artist.
Evelyn Rosenthal is a singer specializing in jazz and Brazilian music, a freelance editor, and the former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She writes about music and musical theater for the Arts Fuse.