When I survey the music scene, I cannot help but to be struck by the different levels of talent that have managed to lead to successful musical careers.
There are some musicians would seem by sheer luck and happenstance, end up with a hit or two, based largely on novelty.
Then, there are solid journeyman musicians who, by hard work, solid craftsmanship, clever marketing and good business practices, court a successful career in music.
Then there are those rare musicians are absolutely transcendent. From them, music flows as though some irresistible internal compulsion compels the artist to create the melodies, and maybe also to perform with a luminance few can match.
In my musical world, just off the top of my head, I think of artists like Oscar Peterson, James Taylor, Louis Armstrong, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I think of composers like, Mozart, Fredrick Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Richard Rodgers.
George Gershwin, both as a composer and a performer, was one of these.
And I cannot help but think of these two gentlemen, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder.
The linkage between the last two artists is not coincidental. They are not only just both blind and black. 12 years old Stevland Hardaway Judkins was renamed “little Stevie Wonder” by Berry Gordy, who signed the young man to a recording contract in 1963. One of his first albums released on his new label was “A Tribute to Uncle Ray” with the young artist introducing some new songs, but mainly covering hits of his idol, Ray Charles.
His early albums did not do well. In 1963, his breakthrough hit “Fingertips”, propelled 13 year-old “Little Stevie” him to considerable success. Multiple hit albums in the late sixties, seventies, and eighties established a now adult Stevie Wonder, as a musical icon.
I have never seen Stevie Wonder live. I have however, seen Ray Charles onstage. This occurred several years before his death. I recall a frail old man being helped out to his instrument by rather sturdy looking assistant. He looked so diminished that it was natural to wonder whether he would be able to give much of a performance.
I was wrong.
The moment that he touched the keyboard, he seemed to come alive. For 90 minutes Ray Charles was 30 years younger, with his characteristic swaying , his unique phrasing, and his ability to transform a song you thought you knew, into a completely different musical experience.
I’ve come upon several recordings of these men and thought I would share them with you. They feature Stevie’s song: “Living For The City”. First recorded by the author in 1973, it was the only song I know of, written and performed by the younger man, but also covered by “Uncle Ray” who in 1975 released his own very distinctive recording (title video).
The next clip is of a young Stevie Wonder in an extraordinarily well restored video of a performance for a European television show recorded in 1974. I actually don’t think he was as good a performer as he became in later years. At least in this session, he lacks the incredible vocal agility that has later become his trademark. Maybe he was tired. I do wonder whether it took Stevie some time to adapt to his adult vocal range.
The second video was probably shot sometime in the 1990s or the early “ought’s”. It’s a live concert featuring Stevie and Ray in the song they both have in common. The performance showcases the unique approach to the song taken by both men in their separate recordings.
Probably not long after this, Ray Charles died from liver failure; likely the consequence of a life that included some bad choices.
It is wonderful to watch two such talented musicians, who in some ways were competitors, meld their styles together so beautifully.
We are lucky to have had the genius of Ray Charles grace the music scene for 40 plus years.
And we are fortunate still to have a talent such as Stevie Wonder still performing at a very high level even in the seventh decade of his life.