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Detroit homecoming for Stevie Wonder and band

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

When Stevie Wonder performed his “Songs in the Key of Life” concert a year ago to a rapturous audience at the Palace, he promised he’d bring the tour back to Metro Detroit soon.

“Soon” is now upon us. Wonder, 65, and his stellar group return for a Nov. 21 concert at Joe Louis Arena.

While the concert is still a song-by-song recreation of his classic 1976 album (not quite in exact order), this being Stevie, there will be some surprises.

“Every night, Steve is a riot,” said his trumpeter (12 years with Wonder), Detroit’s Dwight Adams. “When he’s on the stage, he’s in the moment. Even though we have this set song list, he always manages to bring new life to the music every night, so it never gets stale.”

Jazz man Adams is a Henry Ford High School and Kentucky State grad, and one of several Detroiters in the group, along with Keith John on background vocals (30 years with Wonder) and Nate Watts, bassist and music director (41 years with Wonder).

John, Wonder’s only male background singer for some three decades, recently returned to the tour after a brief medical leave, and the boss will undoubtedly point him out Saturday for some special attention.

All the background singers get a little moment in the spotlight on this leg of the tour, as do the horn players.

At 65, Wonder still has his pipes. While he practices, and as singer John says, “the healing of voice is to sing,” he was gifted from the start.

“God-given,” said Watts. “Sixty-five years old, still singing like that. God said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna be a hell of a singer for the rest of your life.’ ”

Watts played trumpet in Northwestern High School’s band, but taught himself the bass — so well that he draws comparisons to legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson. “I have nothing but good to say about him,” Watts said, of Jamerson. “And he did it with one finger!”

A few years back, Watts reminded Paul McCartney that he’d played bass on the Michael Jackson/McCartney recording “Say Say Say.” “I learned so much from you and James Jamerson,’ I told him. Well, McCartney said, ‘Stop right there. We learned so much from James Jamerson.’ Here’s one of the most famous, melodic bass players in the world, and he owed this to Jamerson.”

Watts was playing Ben’s High Chaparral Club in Detroit in 1974 when he got a call from Wonder’s camp to come audition, at Ray Parker Jr.’s suggestion. He made the cut.

He’s had 41 years to get all those songs down pat. “He’s the only guy who has a catalog so big that you could play a song you ain’t played in 20 years,” Watts said. “We call it the School of Wonder. When you get through the School of Wonder, you can play anything.”

Saturday will be a special concert for Wonder, who moved to the city with his mother and siblings when he was a small boy, from Saginaw.

“He’s got a love affair with Detroit, he might not tell you how deep it goes,” said John. “But this is a town where he used to jump off from garage to garage, do crazy things that his brothers were doing even though he couldn’t see where he was landing. There are so many memories for him in Detroit.”

Wonder and his group are bonded as a family, and for him and for his musical family, emotions flow freely, and the loyalty runs deep.

Watts put it simply: “I gave him my word when I joined. I said, ‘I’ll be with you for life.’ ”

Stevie Wonder, ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ tour

8 p.m. Saturday

Joe Louis Arena

Tickets: $29, $49, $79 and $149, at, or call (800) 745-3000.