For the previous 16 Decembers, Stevie Wonder has successfully gathered together musical friends in Los Angeles for his annual House Full of Toys benefit, a show dedicated to helping children in need around the holidays.
This year’s show faced some major obstacles coming in: The host was battling a severe sore throat that forced him to get a shot of antibiotics during the day to even go on, and the next biggest name on the bill, Bruno Mars, was unable to perform due to his own throat problems. But being the professional he is, Wonder persevered – with the help of several friends – and delivered another night of musical memories at L.A.’s Nokia Theater.
Coming out in a Santa suit a little after eight, Wonder addressed the crowd with frivolity before turning to the matter of Friday’s shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. After asking for a moment of silence for the victims, during which time no one even moved, he took on the subject of gun laws. Backstage after the show, he spoke to Rolling Stone about his feelings on the issue.
"I think we’re at a very interesting time now where we can use again tragedy such as this, which is a major tragedy, as a way to moving forward to something that we need to confront. I think people can’t think like they’re living in the wild, wild west going into 2013," he said. "With guns and their accessibilities, there have to be stronger and stricter gun laws. It’s okay saying no, it’s okay particularly when you know some people are not as mentally stable. So you don’t want them to have a gun or any other kind of weapon at their disposal."
He didn’t mince words for those who argue that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. "Here we are in this time where we’re all in pain because of the loss of some 18 children and 12 adults – it’s ridiculous," he said. "No matter how you look at it, it’s ridiculous and if you don’t see that there’s a need to think differently, to see things a little differently than you did in the past, then you’re not in touch with today, you’re still lost in yesterday."
Even casual fans of Wonder would have been disappointed if the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer hadn’t addressed the topic, as his adult career has been marked by frank political discourse. But just as he took on societal issues in "Living In The City" and "Higher Ground," he has also delivered consistently crowd-pleasing music for five decades, and he understood that while it would have been remiss to not mention the Newtown tragedy, fans had come for a party, which they definitely got.
Wonder and his daughter Aisha Morris, along with the night’s emcee, Doug E Fresh, started off the music with Fresh beatboxing while Wonder and Morris did a robust a cappella rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."
Wonder then settled into his role as musical collaborator, first performing with 14-year-old Interscope recording artist Ahsan. The two performed their version of Wonder’s "Ribbon In The Sky." After his performance, the beaming teenager told Rolling Stone that he only found out on Thursday he’d be coming to perform the song live with Wonder.
"I love this prank," he said, recalling his surprise first meeting with Wonder when he was brought to a studio to sing "Ribbon In The Sky." "I was singing with my eyes closed, jamming when I felt this hand on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Stevie Wonder," he said.
Wonder is known for his generosity with young artists, and that was the theme of this night. "This was unique in that a lot of the talent were up and coming artists, people just discovering them," Wonder said to Rolling Stone regarding the lineup. "Obviously Melanie Fiona people know, some of the people they know, but for the most part new people."
There were still plenty of highlights, including The Voice singer Amanda Brown recreating her spectacular version of Aerosmith’s "Dream On." "It’s a great song and I feel honored that people kind of enjoy it," she said of what has become her signature hit. "It’s a huge iconic rock song."
The best was saved for last, when Wonder closed out the night performing Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Going On," then his own "Superstition" with surprise guest Raphael Saadiq, before leading an all-star finale of "Higher Ground."
After the show, Brown summed up what Wonder meant to so many of the artists on the bill. "I never in a million years thought I’d be singing one of Stevie Wonder’s songs with Stevie Wonder," she said. "I can’t talk about it because I’ll start to cry."