On a personal note, the Christmas season officially begins for me upon attending Stevie Wonder’s Annual House of Toys Concert. This was billed as the 20th anniversary of the event which took place at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles. I remember attending the inaugural concert on a mid-December afternoon at the House of Blues in West Hollywood back in 1996. If memory serves me correctly, Stevie was accompanied by the Emotions, Brenda Russell and Sheila E. I’m sure someone will email me with the correct roster if necessary.
The event has only gotten bigger over the years, with Wonder rotating between the Forum in nearby Inglewood and the Microsoft theater. Artists the likes of Babyface, John Mayer, Justin Bieber, Drake, the Jonas Bros., India Arie, Jonelle Monae, and more have brought their talents to the stage throughout the 20 years. Friday, December 9, 2016 was no exception.
Ricky Minor and his band served as music director for half of the event, while Stevie’s regular touring band took over for the second half. It was amazing to see Stevie on either the keys or the piano accompany each and every artist who took the stage. He is the consummate musician.
Undoubtedly a contemporary and a peer, singer-songwriter Lionel Richie performed his signature songs “Easy” and “All Night Long,” in addition to an improvised yet emotional performance with Stevie on “We Are The World.” It was during the “…World” performance that Stevie, who was immersed in tears, made references to the recent election and how divisive the country has become. He made an impassioned speech for unity. Richie put his arms around Stevie, gave him a hug and kiss on the head, as the audience joined in on the chorus of the 32 year-old anthem.
John Legend would later perform “Ordinary People,” his latest single “Love Me Now,” and duet with Wonder on a pair of holiday classics: “This Christmas,” and “That’s What Christmas Means to Me.” But the seismic shifting performance came when Wonder called Jazmine Sullivan to the stage to perform Wonder’s inspirational ballad, “These Three Words,” from 1990s Spike Lee-produced Jungle Fever soundtrack. For Sullivan, John Legend and Stevie Wonder…it was soul-stirring to say the least; and once again another visibly emotional moment for Wonder, who has seen so many of his family and fellow musician friends pass away in recent years.
Although the show had a formal order, it became obvious that there were many random moments throughout the night. Other highlights included Pop stars Tori Kelly (who performed her single “Hollow”) and Rachel Platten (who performed “Fight Song”); up and coming R&B singer and showstopper Major; Queen Latifah (displaying both her talents as a chanteuse and pioneering rap artist with a performance of “UNITY”); Mike Phillips, who nearly stole the show with his saxophone acrobatics on Nat King Cole’s classic “The Christmas Song,” and a Sunday-in-the-park jazzy vibe to Earth Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love”; and not to be overlooked, recent 2-time Grammy nominee Anderson Paak, who enthusiastically exhibited his uncanny skills as a drummer with Stevie and the band on “All I Do,” in addition to his own emerging hit single, the funk-driven “Come Down.”
It was nearly 11:30pm at this point: Wonder couldn’t leave the house without performing his signature hits: “Master Blaster,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” and “Superstition.” He informed the packed-house that he was being charged $3,000 for every 5 minutes he went into overtime; so he declared that he would play on for additional 15 minutes, clocking the full show at 3 hours and 45 minutes. It was definitely worth every moment!