Stevie Wonder guided us through his “Song Party” at the Park Theater on Wednesday night. As the crowd swayed and sang, I recalled partying with Stevie while watching “Sesame Street,” and listening to “Songs in the Key of Life” on vinyl, through headphones, loudly and poorly singing along to all the words.
It is not possible to pinpoint when our first party was, because Stevie Wonder’s voice and music and image have been around all of my life. I can remember watching an episode of “Sesame Street,” with Wonder performing the song with his full band and a bunch of kids my age.
I don’t know why Wonder was on the show that particular day — maybe the program was brought to us by the letter “W.” But I recall how he smiled from behind those shades, and the cultural spectrum of kids who rejoiced in the song.
One kid in particular held the railing of an outdoor staircase and flipped his hair around. I wanted to be that kid, or at least be his buddy.
To enjoy Stevie Wonder it didn’t seem to matter how good a singer you were. Everyone just shouted to his songs, following along as if he were the instructor — and during “My Cherie Amour” in Wednesday’s show at the Park Theater, he referred to himself as a teacher.
Even off-key, we are welcome in the song party. This has been the case forever.
When my parents brought home a copy of “Songs in the Key of Life,” I commandeered the album and took it to the family stereo, in a corner across from the old Zenith TV. We had a pair of these oversize headphones that were white and made of some kind of space-age plastic. The earpieces were covered with thick foam-rubber, so all you could hear was the music from the vinyl album. I remember my parents shouting at me to quiet down as I called out these songs.
I listened to “Key of Life” endlessly, it seemed, my elbows pressed deep into the shag as Steve’s singing was trapped in my head. I gazed at that album cover, those orange circles around the artist’s face, as if being hypnotized by the music. There were even four extra songs on a disc I’d later know to be called an EP. Four more songs! I considered it a musical dessert.
As Wednesday’s show played out, it occurred to me that Wonder had introduced me to so much. When I was 10, I had no clue who “Sir Duke” was. I only knew this Duke Ellington person must have been important if he merited the title of that song. Satchmo was Louie Armstrong, Ella was Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller … a musical education in a single verse.
I’m sure the first time I’d heard a harmonica on a record was even earlier, on “Fingertips,” and I did not even known much about blindness until watching Wonder perform on TV, whether it was “American Bandstand” or “Soul Train” or “Sesame Street.”
Inspired mostly by Wonder, I took piano lessons as a child. I once asked my instructor how this man could perform so wonderfully and effortlessly without being able to see the keys or read any music.
She explained, “Because he is a genius.”
Deep into Wednesday’s set, Wonder fired up the first reggae song I’d ever warmed to, “Master Blaster.” Man. It was time to get up, groove up, and let it out. As if subconsciously, I sang every word to that song, “From the park, I hear rhythms! Marley’s hot on the box!”
And I had not heard “Master Blaster,” end to end, in about 30 years.
Such penetrating brilliance defies explanation. An entertainer friend who was also in the audience said later, “I was watching that and it was like, ‘Yeah. OK. He wrote all those songs. He’s the best of his era. Top five all time.’ ” Wonder has two more shows, Friday and Saturday, at the Park Theater.
Afterward, because we sometimes live in ridiculously good fortune, I was invited to meet the man. One condition was I would not try to interview him — so neither of us would be working as I said hello. But I was able to say “Welcome to Las Vegas” to Stevie Wonder. I told him I’ve seen all the shows in Las Vegas, and I’ve not seen any better than his. I said I hope he’d return, too.
Then Stevie Wonder asked if I had fun. I said, “I think I had as much fun as you did.” We clasped hands and posed for the requisite backstage photo. And the whole time, he smiled in a way that made me feel like a kid again.