With literally thousands of songwriting credits, dozens of Grammys, and decades of musical experience assembled in one venue it’s hard to imagine that any single person would dominate the room with their mere presence, but despite his humble demeanor Stevie Wonder managed to do just that Saturday night at the inaugural Epitome of Soul Awards.
Held at the Cannon Center for the Preforming Arts and hosted by the Consortium MMT, a local nonprofit devoted to cultivating the Bluff City’s music industry, the event featured a lineup of celebrity singers performing lyrical tributes to Wonder while occasionally mixing in a few of their own songs that lead up to a performance by Wonder himself that brought the crowd to a thunderous roar at the intimate yet raucous venue.
“[We’re] recognizing the one who is the personification of the greatness that all artists inspire to be,” Consortium MMT founder and Songwriters Hall of Famer, David Porter said while presenting the award. “His lyrics and his messages are so powerful and profound that it is something not only to live by, but to love by.”
Close friend and 10 time Grammy winner, “Queen of Funk” Chaka Kahn was also on hand to present the award.
“He has been like a brother to me since I first started singing,” Kahn said. “I love him so much he’s like a guardian angel to me. He’s one of the few people in the world that can make me actually blush.”
But it was Wonder who, upon receiving the award, summed up the night in manner that only he could have.
“When we think about soul, we have these various categories,” Wonder said. “When they say R&B soul it normally means black, when you hear pop it normally means white, and it’s all funny to me because I’m not looking at either one of them.”
The first artist to preform was former “American Idol” winner and R&B singer, Jordin Sparks who opened with Wonder’s “Superstition.” The house band, which remained stationary during the flux of artists was anchored by former “The Tonight Show” bandleader, Rickey Minor.
Sharon Jones of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, was next up and preformed “Signed, Sealed Delivered, I’m Yours” and “Isn’t She Lovely.” Jones, who recently battled with pancreatic cancer, expressed her gratitude to be able to perform at the show cancer-free.
Ledisi had the crowd singing along to “All I Do,” and Eddie Levert of the O’Jays brought everyone to their feet when he performed his song “Backstabbers.” Next was BeBe Winans who sang “I Wish.”
The last act to perform before Wonder was Kahn, who at one point responded to an audience member’s profession of love with a coy “You don’t want none of this, honey” that reminded the crowd of her status as a preeminent diva. The atmosphere was electrifying during her rendition of “Tell Me Something Good,” which was actually penned by Wonder.
However, it was Wonder’s finale that truly demonstrated why he was chosen as the pioneer recipient of the award. The 64-year-old, 22-time Grammy winner captivated the crowd while seamlessly transitioning between different keyboards and harmonicas and performing hits like the crowd favorite “My Cherie Amor” before being joined on stage by several of the other artists to sing the Porter-penned tune “Soul Man,” and finally ending with the uplifting “Higer Ground.”