Producers of the CBS-Grammy Awards all-star concert tribute to Stevie Wonder looked on during rehearsals Tuesday as singers Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Ariana Grande sat on black stools rehearsing Wonder's 1970 hit "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." They quietly debated how to get Grande off that stool and get her a little more animated.
At that moment, Grande leaned into her microphone and asked, "Could I get up and dance here?"
FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2015
Given Wonder's body of work, Grande's idea was practically beyond argument. Along with 25 Grammy Awards he's collected over a half-century-plus recording career, Wonder is one of the most critically lauded artists of the 20th century, and his influence can be heard in broad swaths of pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop musicians.
The tribute concert drafted several of Wonder's peers as well as a younger generation who appeared on Sunday's Grammy telecast, including Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, John Legend and Pharrell Williams along with Andrea Bocelli, Gary Clark Jr., Janelle Monae, Jill Scott and Wonder's daughter, Aisha Morris.
But producers didn't tell Wonder who would be performing or what songs any of them would do, keeping the details under wraps in hopes of throwing him a high-profile surprise party.
"I only stand on the shoulders of those before me who made it possible for me to be here, to receive these honors, and these accolades of my peers," he said a few hours before the taping of "Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life — An All-Star Grammy Salute" began in front of a capacity audience of about 7,000 people at the Nokia Theatre. "It's not always that you're able to smell the flowers while you're living, and so in these times, when I'm still in a youthful place in mind and spirit— and somewhat in age," he added with a laugh, "I feel really honored and very thankful."
The show will air at 9 p.m. Monday, a Grammy show spinoff akin to last year's salute to the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Last year's Beatles special generated strong enough ratings that CBS set in motion an annual piggybacking of a TV special making use of so much pop music talent in town for the Grammys. CBS has been doing the same thing for years off the Academy of Country Music Awards show, typically held in Las Vegas.
But choosing a musician to follow in the footsteps of the Beatles wasn't easy.
"We had to have an artist with a body of work that would be able to support this kind of show, and someone with the same kind of respect and influence," Jack Sussman, CBS' vice president of specials and live events, told The Times.
Enter Stevie Wonder.
Not that the show was without complications. When illness forced Usher to bow out of his scheduled performance, organizers put in a quick call to Annie Lennox, who'd given one of the most lauded performances on Sunday night's Grammy Awards telecast. Lennox had to rejigger the late-afternoon taping of a TV appearance to make it down to the Nokia to quickly work up her contribution to the tribute show.
Many of the participants took time on stage to tell stories of their connection to Wonder and his music.
Before a jaunty performance of "I Wish," Lady Gaga addressed Wonder from her seat at an electric piano, saying, "The first CD I ever played on my own, that I put into a CD player and pushed 'Play,' when I was 6 years old, was a Stevie Wonder album. As a pianist, I can definitely say if it were not for your music, I would not be here today."
Show host LL Cool J said it was one of Wonder's more politicized songs — "Living for the City" — that taught him an early lesson about injustice in the world.
"I remember being 8 or 9 and my mother played me 'Living for the City' over and over again," he said during rehearsal. "I remember learning from that song that there are people in the world you can't trust. I was shocked — shocked — to find that out. I also remember thinking about what the music looked like to him."
During rehearsal, Wonder's influence as a voice for social change was also cited by the sibling members of country trio the Band Perry, who weren't born when Wonder had his extraordinary run of creative and commercial success with the albums "Innervisions," "Fulfillingness' First Finale" and "Songs in the Key of Life" from 1973-76.
"He could be very political," said the band's bassist, Reid Perry, after running through their version of "You Haven't Done Nothin'," a song originally targeting President Nixon. "But he did it with such catchy music that everybody was singing it. That's one of the amazing things about him."
Wonder, who for years used his celebrity to help lobby Congress to designate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, said that despite daily reminders in the news of social and political injustice in the world, he refuses to despair, or become cynical.
"The deepest part of me in these times is not ego or attitude but gratitude," he said. "I'm always thinking, 'What can I do to better my craft? What can I do to serve the one who made it all possible? How can I bring people closer together? How can I use this time, this life, to move things forward that are behind?'
" 'How can I show my love and my pain for those mothers, those fathers, those children, who have lost their children, or lost their parents, to violence from guns, from people in positions of power who are irresponsible?' " Wonder asked. "From people who say they're doing something in the name of God, or in the name of Allah, that has nothing to do with God or Allah. It has to do with ego and wanting to own and possess and demand and control.
"So I always go there," he said. "How can I do better? How can I be used up?"