Stevie Wonder returns to Motown for street dedication

Over 400 Detroiters and local leaders attended a ceremony to rename Milwaukee Avenue to Stevie Wonder Boulevard

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Motown legend Stevie Wonder addressed a crowd of more than 400 Detroiters, many of whom waited hours to see him in 25-degree weather, by doing what he does best.

“You are the sunshine of my life,” he cooed into the mic. “You are the apple of my eye, Detroit. Forever you’ll stay in my heart.”

Then he paused.

“I just wanted you to know I can still sing,” he said, laughing.

Wonder, 66, returned to Motown Wednesday afternoon for a ceremony that renamed Milwaukee Avenue — where Wonder grew up in Detroit after moving from Saginaw — to Stevie Wonder Avenue.

During the event, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, City Council President Brenda Jones, Motown Museum CEO Robin Terry and others made remarks honoring the singer. The Cass Technical High School marching band and Detroit School of Arts choir also performed several of Wonder’s greatest hits, such as “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Sir Duke.”

The event was very much a hometown celebration for Wonder whose career took off after Berry Gordy Jr. signed him to Motown Records at age 11. Many of his early songs were recorded at Hitsville U.S.A., less than a mile from the newly installed street sign at Milwaukee and Woodward.

In a question-and-answer session with the media, Wonder reminisced about growing up in the area.

“I remember my brother Calvin and I walking on the street eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, (and) me trying to steal cookies when I was supposed to be asleep,” he said, wearing his signature black glasses that matched his black hat.

The Detroit City Council passed the resolution for the secondary street sign in November 2015, but organizers waited to host the event to accommodate Wonder’s schedule and officially announced the unveiling last week.

Organizers planned for about 200 people to attend, but hundreds more showed up, forcing organizers to tear down a tent wall in a College for Creative Studies parking lot and delay the event by an hour.

In her speech, Jones, who sponsored the street renaming resolution, said she hopes visitors will see Stevie Wonder Avenue and reflect on all the contributions Wonder has made, not just to Detroit, but the world.

“This street naming is a fitting tribute to an artist whose music has inspired generations, raised our consciousness and put the expression of love into words,” Jones said.

Taking the mic and turning to Wonder, Duggan told the singer: “You are Detroit.”

“You embody everything that we’re capable of, and Stevie Wonder Avenue is a way of saying thank you to all you have given us, but it’s also our way of reminding our children ... that this street was once home to a talented young man just like them whose music changed the world.”

Wonder was visibly moved by the Detroiters, family members, local leaders and fans — some waving his album records and wearing glasses in the shape of music notes —who braved the biting cold to attend the street unveiling.

“This is just an amazing moment,” Wonder said. “I know that things can’t last forever, but you know what, I’m going to freeze this moment in my mind. I’m going to remember it forever.”

Waterford resident Terrance Couch, 58, was one of the first to arrive at 8 a.m. in the tent at Baltimore and Cass. Couch listened to Wonder’s music growing up and said he couldn’t miss the opportunity to see a street named after an icon.

“I’ve heard people say what has he done for Detroit, but it’s not about what he’s done for Detroit,” Couch said. “He was born in Michigan and he’s contributed music to help a lot of people in Michigan.”

Colleen Murphy, 58, of Walled Lake came with her neighbor, Kelley Beck, 42. The two Wonder fans named “Superstition” as their favorite song and said the weather wasn’t about to stop them from seeing the legend in person.

“Thirty degrees is a lot better than when it was at 9 on Saturday,” Murphy said. “We thought ‘OK, we can handle this.’ ”

After the remarks, the Cass Tech High School Marching band led the procession to the northeast corner of Milwaukee and Woodward, where Wonder pulled a rope to uncover the newly installed sign.

As bystanders cheered and red and white balloons floated into the air, Wonder shouted, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Wonder’s cousin Sharon DuMas of Detroit chaired the Stevie Wonder Tribute Committee to name the street after Wonder and presented him with red roses.

In an interview before the ceremony, she said she was thrilled other family members like Wonder’s brother, Calvin Hardaway, and aunt (her mother) were able to attend.

“It’s so important that we give flowers while we live. That was one of the reasons we wanted to make sure that we did this,” she said, adding that the city missed a chance to honor other Motown alumni like Michael Jackson.

While Stevie Wonder Avenue was her main goal, DuMas said there’s one more step: The committee wants to open a Stevie Wonder Youth Center for Music and Fine Arts in Detroit.

“We don’t have all the plans in place,” she said. “We’re going to talk to Stevie about it while he’s here.”

This is the first street named after Wonder, but just one of his many awards and honors. Wonder has an Academy Award, Golden Globe and 25 Grammy Awards to his name. He’s sold more than 100 million records and has 32 No. 1 singles. In 1989, he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2014. He’s also a designated United Nations Messenger of Peace and is recognized for helping to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday, which Duggan acknowledged.

“You advocated for peace and pushed a badly divided nation to come together and honor a man who made justice his life’s mission, Dr. Martin Luther King,” Duggan said. “You changed history, and you did it getting your start right here in Detroit.”

Wonder now resides in Los Angeles, but has made a few visits to The Palace of Auburn Hills and Joe Louis Arena for his 2014-2015 “Songs in the Key of Life” tour.

To give back to the city, Wonder announced that he plans to bring his annual House Full of Toys benefit concert to Detroit next year. The fundraiser, typically held in Los Angeles, features several artists and asks concertgoers to donate new toys for children.

After the unveiling, Wonder expressed how touched he felt by Wednesday’s events.

“I guess I can’t say I’m lost for words because I know what I feel, but I don’t know if what I’m going to say will match how deeply I feel this,” he said, speaking to the media. “And that is that I love you all. I love you with my life. I love you with my heart. You are the fuel that make this engine go. You are the joy that creates this smile. You are the yes we can. Yes I can. You truly are the sunshine of my life.”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg