NEW YORK — The first time Stevie Wonder performed at the Apollo, he was just a child, and he remembers being so nervous, he dropped his bongos on the stage floor.
Wonder had no such butterflies Monday night as he was honored during the famed theater’s spring gala with induction into the Legends Hall of Fame, which includes Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown.
Though Wonder was the main attraction, the audience was also wowed as he collaborated with a cast of friends and admirers including Tony Bennett, Chick Corea, Paul Shaffer and Doug E. Fresh.
“It’s a moment to cherish and remember, relishing in the memories of times that I’ve been at the Apollo, as well as this night, the great people that came out to support me being here,” Wonder said in an interview. “It’s a great thing to be one of those people in the Hall of Fame for the Apollo.”
Bennett presented the honor to Wonder, who in turn lauded the legendary crooner for his commitment to the Apollo and to civil-rights causes.
“As much as I may never see the color of his skin, I’m able to feel the color of his spirit,” Wonder told the audience. “When it was not fashionable to hang out with the brothers and sisters, you did.”
He then recalled Bennett singing one of Wonder’s signature songs “For Once in My Life.” As Wonder began to sing the tune, Bennett joined in for an impromptu performance that ended with a standing ovation. It was one of several during a concert that featured Raphael Saadiq, gospel singers Yolanda Adams and Kim Burrell, Melanie Fiona, ?uestlove, Corea and others.
Beatboxer Fresh joined Wonder on an unusual and riveting performance of Wonder’s classic “All I Do,” while Wonder played the harmonica as Corea led on piano during a rendition of Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” Wonder also sang some of his other classics as well as a Barbra Streisand cover, “People.”
Wonder, 61, has been making hits for five decades, getting his start as a child prodigy and then evolving into one of the most lauded and respected artists in music.
He’s also an activist, leading fights against racism and other social problems. He was one of the integral figures in getting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday recognized as a national holiday.
Wonder didn’t forget his political side during his acceptance speech, calling for better health care and criticizing those who fail to help others.
When asked about his comments, he later joked: “I just did it, I wasn’t even thinking about it. It was on my mind. I kind of did the Kanye (West) and expressed myself.”
But he lamented the divisiveness in much of the country and was critical of the media for focusing on things that he considered trivial, and distracting from larger issues.
“This is happening too frequently, too much, things that have nothing to do with the real issue. As opposed to talking about global warming and what’s happening to our oceans and what’s happening to the changes in the weather, they want to talk about what’s happening under somebody’s clothes, and to me it’s just silly,” he said. “I just think that people need to focus on what is really important to the people.”
The Apollo spring gala raised over $1.2 million. The funds will be used for its educational programs and to preserve the historic theater’s legacy, organizers said.