How can the issue of arts education programs be made as compelling as, say, global human rights?
Put Stevie Wonder in charge of it.
Who else could turn the phrase "music education in the schools" into a funky call-and-response chant? That's what Wonder did--twice--in appearances during the taping of the fourth annual VH1 Honors concert Thursday at the Universal Amphitheatre, an annual benefit dedicated this year to music education.
The show, which was scheduled to premiere on the cable music channel Friday, offered a strong lineup of chart-toppers past (Wonder, James Taylor, Steve Winwood) and present (Sheryl Crow, the Wallflowers) and one eternal mystery (the artist still known to everyone but him, his family and staff as Prince).
And the evening lived up to the channel's "music first" motto--with speech-making mercifully short and succinct.
Presenters ranging from Alice Cooper to Richard Dreyfuss pleaded the case for music education as an essential element of a healthy society.
But it was Wonder--on the day in which Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had argued that the entertainment industry, not the government, should fund public arts programs--who best cut through the rhetoric to get the evening's point across.
Fittingly, Wonder's music has already done much to demonstrate music's power to inspire and unite. His first spontaneous chant came tagged on to the end of his enduring urban portrait "Living for the City," during which he was joined by surprise guest George Michael.
That teaming was emblematic of the evening, which transcended the standard awards show format via spirited collaborations. Each performer--save for Prince, who is notoriously individualistic, and Celine Dion, whose performance was pretaped--made at least one appearance with another.
Emmylou Harris brought her aching, angelic voice to a duet with Crow on Lou Reed's lovely "Pale Blue Eyes." Shawn Colvin joined Taylor for a gorgeous version of Taylor's "Shower the People." Taylor was also joined by young cellist Abby Scoville, a Pasadena student, for "Another Day."
Winwood seemed involved in nearly every performance of the night, leading host Fran Drescher to quip that the concert was actually "Steve Winwood and friends." The English singer was paired with Wonder for the opening medley of "Higher Ground" and "Gimme Some Lovin', " and with Chaka Khan for "Higher Love" and Sly & the Family Stone's "Family Affair."
Prince, the crowd favorite to judge by the applause at every reference to him, could have benefited by such teamwork. While his appearance with the soulful "Holy River" was dynamic, his energetic but too-brief medley of "Take Me With U" and "Raspberry Beret" was anticlimactic.
The show raised $150,000 for VH1's Save the Music program, which collects instruments to donate to schools and to expand music education.
Harris said backstage that regardless of government funding status, the arts community has a responsibility to contribute to education initiatives. "We've got a good bunch of people and resources in this business," she said, "and we're blessed, so we should be giving back to the community. It's the right thing to do."