President Barack Obama presents Stevie Wonder with the Library of Congress Gershwin Award on Wednesday at the White House. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday thanked musician Stevie Wonder for creating "a style that's uniquely American" as he presented the singer-songwriter with the nation's highest award for pop music.
Obama, who called Wonder the soundtrack of his youth, gave the star the Library of Congress' Gershwin Prize for Popular Song during an East Room tribute that featured Tony Bennett, Martina McBride and Wonder himself. The president joked that the group was "the most accomplished Stevie Wonder cover band in history."
Wonder, 58, is a native of Saginaw and grew up in Detroit. He signed with Motown Records when he was 13.
Emotional at times, Wonder thanked Obama for the award and reflected on what his election as the first black president means to the United States.
"What is truly exciting for me today is that we truly have lived to see a time and a space where America has a chance to again live up to the greatness that it deserves to be seen and known as, through the love and caring and the commitment of a president -- as in our president, Barack Obama," he said.
Wonder cited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his faith and his mother during an acceptance speech that flowed into a set of Obama's favorite songs. The Grammy-winning musician -- he has 25 of the awards -- said he looked forward to writing more love songs.
Obama praised Wonder's career and a style that has blended pop and funk, R&B and gospel.
"Stevie has always drawn on the incredible range of traditions in his music and, from that, he's created a style that's at once uniquely American, uniquely his own, and yet somehow universal," Obama said. "Indeed, this could be called the American tradition -- artists demonstrating the courage, the talent to find new harmonies in the rich and dissonant sounds of the American experience."
First lady Michelle Obama spoke in more personal terms, calling Wonder "one of the world's greatest artists."
She recalled how she and her grandfather would listen to Wonder's albums together.
The first album she bought was Wonder's "Talking Book," and she and the president used "You and I" as their wedding song.
Although the president is a well-known fan, the Library of Congress had decided to honor Wonder before Obama won the election.
Wonder's performance will be broadcast today on PBS stations -- 8 p.m. on WTVS (Channel 56).