MONTREAL – Stevie Wonder tinkered with the words of one of his biggest hits on Tuesday to honour Michael Jackson and insisted the pop icon should be remembered for his musical greatness and not the darker twists of his life.
It was a theme he invoked in a pre-show news conference and carried to his concert opening the 30th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival on Tuesday evening, where he told cheering throngs, “I want us to celebrate the life and legacy of Michael Jackson.
“We can continue to keep the life and the spirit of this man’s music alive forever,” he said. “Are you ready to celebrate?”
The crowd roared its readiness in response.
Earlier in the day, Wonder’s handlers had asked for a limit on the number of questions about Jackson at the news conference. The legendary singer was clearly moved when talking about his old friend and his voice broke several times.
But for all the praise he gave at the news conference about Jackson, who died suddenly last week, the most poignant tribute came when Wonder sat down at a piano and delivered a rendition of “I Just Called To Say I Love You.”
“Michael knows that I’m here and I love you,” Wonder crooned, his voice wavering slightly as he slowed down the song’s tempo and brought tears to some eyes in the room.
“We’re all here and we’ll never show how much we care,” he sang. “By playing and buying your music to show your family we mean it from the bottom of our hearts. Sure, we mean it from the bottom of our hearts.”
Wonder, 59, said he has been quiet about the death of Jackson, who he described as “someone very, very special to the world, his family and his friends.”
But he would not be drawn into discussing the darker side of the 50-year-old pop star’s life, which included accusations of child molestation and drug abuse, all of which have been denied.
He acknowledged there are pressures to growing up famous, although he said he didn’t know anything about those felt by Jackson.
His memories of Jackson as a youth included having to stop rehearsal when he worked with the Jackson Five so Michael could sit down with his school tutor.
“If you get hung up on expectations, then that can be a pressure,” Wonder said. “Fortunately, I’ve never been hung up on expectations.
“My expectation is really in pleasing God and everyone else is secondary, if not lower than that.”
He said he didn’t know what happened to Jackson over the years but in any case he believes “if you can’t say something good about somebody, don’t say anything at all.”
Saying people should celebrate Jackson’s musical legacy and forget all the negative things being said about him, Wonder took aim at what he called “spin doctors” who have commented freely on Jackson’s life in the media.
“I just want to say to the fans and those of the world: please, don’t get confused with what’s the most important thing. The most important thing is the music and the legacy that he’s left behind for us to celebrate. The songs we have sang and danced to, celebrated and cried to.
“Don’t get hung up in the negativity of what is being said by people that have nothing to do with understanding . . . whatever.
“At the end of the day, none of those things that people will say can bring him back alive. That will never happen. But what can keep him alive is us celebrating his music and his legacy.”
He added that to do anything else is “just a waste of time and a waste of energy.”
Wonder was presented with the Prix Jazz Festival Spirit Award in honour of his contribution to music in his nearly half-century career. Previous winners are Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.
Wonder was relaxed and friendly during the news conference, even inviting a local student music reporter to sit beside him while he answered a question about his playing style and illustrated his response by tinkling the piano keys.
He said he’s “excited” about the music he’s been hearing from the current generation of young artists. Among his upcoming projects are a gospel album inspired by his mother, who died three years ago, and a musical. A jazz album is also a possibility.
Wonder also shared a few humorous anecdotes about his career, including an encounter with an attractive disc jockey. His bandmates told him to compliment her on her red dress and when he did so, the astonished woman asked how the blind musician knew.
“I whispered in her ear, ‘It’s a gimmick’.”
(With files from Andy Blatchford)