From the archives: Austin musicians size up Stevie Wonder

The last time Stevie Wonder played Austin, in 2015, it was a three-hour thrill ride of a performance that took a packed Erwin Center audience on a breathtaking journey, remarkable for its rarely matched musical mastery and its profound spiritual reach. He’s one of the few artists of the modern era who has rightfully earned the title ‘living legend,’ and he’ll be back in town to close out this year’s Formula One Grand Prix festivities on Sunday night. 

Stevie Wonder. Erika Rich/For American-Statesman

Back in 2011, when Wonder headlined the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Statesman contributor Chad Swiatecki asked local artists about the impact the R&B kingpin had on their musical development. Here are their responses from the story that originally ran on Sept. 17, 2011.

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Thomas Turner, drummer, multi-instrumentalist in Ghostland Observatory

Austin360: What makes Stevie so special?

Pretty much the overall feeling of everything he does, that feeling of Stevie that is so different. There’s lots of soul there, of course, and as his career went on he wasn’t afraid to experiment with things like the Tonto, which was one of the first modular synths and this huge thing that was the size of like a garage, and he used it on “Innervisions.” I remember hearing him on the radio growing up, which wasn’t uncommon at the time, but when I was getting into music my dad’s neighbor was the one who told me to really start checking him out, and I started talking with him about what Stevie did and how ahead of everyone else he was.

As a lyricist, what makes him special?

I love the words and descriptions he puts into songs because this is someone who can’t see saying these things. You listen to all of the things he’s putting into the songs, and it’s so vivid you can’t believe he was never able to see. In “Living for the City” he’s talking about the mom on the ground scrubbing floors and how his sister is wearing a short skirt on legs that are sturdy. It’s just amazing.

Favorite song?

I like “Yester-Me Yester-You Yesterday, ” because it’s a song where if the words were changed just a little bit you’d absolutely think it was a church hymnal that’s really touching. I like that he was able to pull off that kind of versatility.

Stevie Wonder plays ACL Fest 2011. Laura Skelding/American-Statesman

Jonathan ‘Chaka’ Mahone, MC in Riders Against the Storm

When did you first become aware of how important Stevie Wonder was as an artist?

I think it was a song like “I Just Called to Say I Love You”; that’s the kind of song where I would hear it as a kid, but wasn’t aware of where it came from. What did it was when he was on “The Cosby Show.” My family didn’t spend a whole lot of time together growing up, but we made time every week to watch that show, so when he was on there doing that song, that was big. That mattered. I didn’t know he had started as such a young artist, and he’s now in there the same way George Clinton or James Brown are considered timeless. You could take his music to anyone at any point in time and they’d be moved by him.

What’s his effect on contemporary musicians?

Every hip-hop artist who’s a student of music looks up to Stevie Wonder and he obviously influenced a lot of the neo-soul movement with artists like Musiq Soulchild, Angie Stone, D’Angelo and Maxwell. They all took something from him. A lot of the inspiration is because he’s always had such a unique voice and feels like a chosen spirit, like he’s come here from some other place to enlighten and uplift us.

He managed to be political at times during the height of his career but stayed popular. How did he do it?

He called out the U.S. government on things like Vietnam with a song like “They Won’t Go When I Go, ” but he was also subtle about it. Lots of his music was subtle about being on the side of the oppressed and standing for unity. He was never so far as being a Black Nationalist, but he definitely spoke out about apartheid and Vietnam and even though he didn’t speak out often, he was never quiet.

Favorite song?

“As, ” first of all because it was my wedding song. It just captures the feeling of being in love with someone, and it’s very joyous. Lots of his work was in gospel and you can see him drawing from that. …

Stevie Wonder plays ACL Fest in 2011. Laura Skelding AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Mark `Speedy’ Gonzales, trombone player, Grupo Fantasma

What’s your first memory of Stevie’s music?

I was born in ’72 when he was releasing some of those first big albums, when he was all over the radio. I was a big music fan and the more I studied music, the more I realized how his writing, his singing and playing were so far different from everything else. I still use him as a reference point when I’m writing my music, and obviously for my own enjoyment. I’ll use something like the structure if I’m trying to come up with something from scratch, just to see what he did and see what kind of inspiration and insight I get from it.

What’s special or unique about the way he composed songs?

The biggest thing is his use of chord progressions, and the way he put melodies over them so they sound so beautiful. A song like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life, ” it has a very simple sounding chord progression, but there’s a lot going on there, and it’s deceptive in how it’s put together. Being able to get the feel down of his songs is the toughest part of playing them. The rhythm of a song like “Superstition, ” everybody plays it but almost nobody gets it right.

When you see him, what do you hope he plays?

I almost don’t care. Any of it. I’ll love every song that could possibly come up in a concert like that. There are certain artists who every song they play is something that you love, and you realize that what you’re hearing was a No. 1 hit at one time. And with him it just won’t end. He’s my favorite artist of all time.

Nakia Reynoso, rock/R&B singer, competitor on NBC’s `The Voice’

When did Stevie Wonder first matter to you?

It happened when I was a kid listening to the radio and those ’80s pop hits like “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “Part Time Lover.” I remember at that time I was so stunned by his voice and just tuned in on it. In high school I got some anthology of his work, and all the early music on there blew my mind because he was so dedicated to his ideas and what he does. When you look at the arc of his career, you see moments where he’s dedicated to putting out this pop product that is still very good, and other times where he’s only worried about making himself happy and doing what he’s inspired by.

Can you explain how intricate lots of Stevie Wonder songs are?

It seems like a lot of people overlook that just listening to him. For a long time my band did “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and the cadence of that song is so tough. Or to sing something like “Sir Duke” . . . you just have to be on the very top of your game, but when you get it, it feels so great. If you’re going to sing one of those early period songs where the choruses are so driving, you have to have a group behind you that is strong enough to have an amazing rhythmic pocket. That’s what does it, and if you don’t have that, then forget it.

You saw him live recently in Hollywood. What should people expect?

It was my first time seeing him live and it was fantastic. That’s the only word for it. When he kicked into “Superstition” and “Higher Ground” it was like 18,000 people had been taken to another planet all at once. People who see him at ACL are in for a legendary performance.

Joe Woullard, baritone sax player for Hard Proof and Black Joe Lewis

What does Stevie mean to you?

He’s one of the greatest ever as a player, writer and a composer, and there aren’t many people who have done so many things in so many areas. He was the first to bring that heavy funk and Afrobeat and gospel influences into popular music. He introduced me to a lot of that, and as I get more into African music and artists like Fela Kuti, I’d find things that reminded me of what I’d heard on “Higher Ground, ” like those triplet rhythms versus a regular 4/4 (rock) beat. You can say that his popular music was never dumb, and that’s a compliment. He never confined himself to one genre or approach, and as he became more successful, he brought more things in, even though lots of people told him there’s no way he could make a pop song out of something like “Sir Duke, ” which has these long, Duke Ellington-style solos.

Favorite song?

I have a strong affection for “As” because it has such an unusual structure, it’s long and it just goes into a jam. It feels like an emotional high on that album (“Songs in the Key of Life”), like he’s giving his pledge to someone special, and if you were the recipient of those words, you’d feel pretty great.


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