Stevie Wonder, by Unanimous Consent

Newly crowned
Newly crowned "American Troubador" Stevie Wonder entertained a Capitol Hill crowd. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007

The legislators are swaying -- especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is rocking emphatically in her seat at the foot of the stage -- when the guest of honor calls out a change. "Let's go E-flat," Stevie Wonder declares. " Everybody go E-flat !"

The band switches keys as Wonder's voice goes higher for the chorus of an old hit, "I Just Called to Say I Love You." And a strange thing happens: There's harmony on Capitol Hill -- a few hundred voices, Democrats and Republicans alike, singing together, and in tune, in the Cannon House Office Building's Caucus Room.

There's no discord tonight, because the honorable Stevie Wonder is in the House.

The Motown legend came to the Hill on Tuesday night to accept an award that previously didn't exist. This one was from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which gave Wonder, 56, its inaugural American Troubadour Award, "in recognition of his music, activism and leadership."

To pay proper tribute, ASCAP invited some musical notables to perform Wonder's songs before he took the stage in a ballroom-ish space overflowing with invited guests from the worlds of music and politics. The result: a funky Washington cocktail in which the music industry spiked the bland congressional juice with a bit of cool.

Before the gathering, in the greenroom (actually, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee Hearing Room) pols are munching on beef skewers and mini-spring rolls while the singer Joan Osborne is marveling at Wonder's greatness. "Who doesn't have a connection with Stevie Wonder if you love music, especially soul music?" she says as Reps. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) wander by.

And there's rapper Wyclef Jean, joking (we think) about promotional plans for his next album. "I can't wait for Nancy Pelosi to be in one of the videos," says Jean, who performed at the speaker's swearing-in soiree in January.

And: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) posing alongside Tony Bennett -- until the presidential aspirant realizes that the guy with the camera is trying to photograph his friends next to the crooner. At which point Kucinich awkwardly steps aside.

And then dinner begins, and there's a seating crisis. Latecomers are turned away. Fits are thrown. It takes an act of Congress to find a seat. Or, maybe, diva status: The ushers find a chair for Chaka Khan, who arrives 90 minutes late.

Composer Marilyn Bergman, president and chairman of the ASCAP board, delivers a speech imploring Congress to "remember the value of the American song." The ASCAP event is meant to remind lawmakers about legislative issues important to members such as music copyright protection.

And then come the hits, in rapid-fire succession, over the course of 90 minutes.

Trumpeter Jon Faddis opens with an instrumental version of "Sir Duke." Osborne sings "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" as Wonder sways his head. Brian McKnight sits at the Steinway for "Lately" and then blows kisses at his idol.

Jean leads the house band in a hopped-up version of the reggaefied "Master Blaster (Jammin')," then declares: "Stevie, I gotta remix it for you." In a freestyle rap, he blasts President Bush and rhymes "stop the war" with "send our people to Darfur" before imploring the pols to "stand if you love Stevie Wonder." They do.

There's more music: soul siren India.Aire, the old Motown hands Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, jazz singer Dianne Reeves. Khan reprises the elastic funk of "Tell Me Something Good," a scorching performance, with the diva hitting all the big notes.

"I'm supposed to follow that?" an incredulous Wynonna Judd says. She laughs, then dives into "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," her fiery vocals matching that flame-red hair.

Then come the big guns. Smokey Robinson, looking particularly natty in a blue pinstriped suit, calls Wonder a genius and sings "Tears of a Clown," which he wrote with his old friend.

Bennett glides onto the stage and talks about "For Once in My Life," which he'd performed many years ago, as a ballad, before it became an up-tempo hit in Wonder's hands. The soul man and the crooner recorded the song together last year, and it won a Grammy. Bennett is about to call Wonder to the stage to sing it live when he's handed a note. "Stretch," Bennett says, reading the note aloud. Laughter. Then, this: Bennett, the old pro, nods to his pianist, ditches the mike and breaks into an unamplified "Fly Me to the Moon." By song's end, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is wiping tears from her eyes.

Wonder eventually materializes and talks about songwriting and music as "a vehicle through which I can be used to inspire and encourage," and about songs being "part of a symphony that says to the leaders of the world, 'Let's end war.' " Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, applauds politely from the side of the room.

Finally, Bennett and Wonder do their duet, and then the award, and then another speech before Wonder sits down at the piano and starts to play. And play. And play, much to the crowd's delight. There are five songs in all, including "My Cherie Amour" and "Overjoyed," and at various points, people shoot out of their seats, their hands stretched skyward. Testifying on Capitol Hill has never been more wonderful.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company