Remarks by Drew Edward Davies, associate professor of musicology, at the annual commencement dinner on June 19, 2014

Good evening to all. As a historical musicologist and a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, I feel privileged to propose a toast to Stevie Wonder, one of the most accomplished and original figures in American music.

With roots in gospel, soul, R&B, reggae, big band, and jazz, Stevie Wonder’s music mixes irresistible dance beats with innovative electronic sounds and meaningful lyrics that he delivers with a joyful and singular performance style.

I have no doubt that everyone at this gathering knows many of his songs, which have earned him 25 Grammy Awards and tens of millions of fans worldwide.

Influenced by “the genius” Ray Charles, “Little” Stevie Wonder rose to fame in the early 1960s with a contract from Motown and a hit song, “Fingertips,” a largely instrumental number recorded live when he was twelve years old at the now demolished Regal Theater on Chicago’s South Side.

Producing an extended series of hits during the late 1960s and early 1970s, including “Superstition” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” Wonder released his critically acclaimed double album Songs in the Key of Life with Motown’s Tamla Records in 1976.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, Songs in the Key of Life includes numbers about love relationships, songs that raise awareness about social injustices, and one of my personal favorites, “Sir Duke,” a tribute to Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz musicians.

One of the things I love about “Sir Duke” is how, at the surface level, you experience the musical “flow” clearing your mind, while at the same time, its remarkable chord progression, creative interplay of instrumentation, and enough historical references to satisfy an academic like myself, make the entire package intellectually engaging as well as enjoyable. 

A thoroughly joyful celebration of the ineffable power of music, “Sir Duke” begins with the lines: “Music is a world within itself/ With a language we all understand/ With an equal opportunity/ For all to sing, dance, and clap their hands.”

Indeed, people of all cultures make music, and thinkers since classical antiquity have marveled at music’s power to move what René Descartes called the passions of the soul.

Shared musical experiences build communities, serve as conduits for intercultural ambassadorship, and incubate social progress.

Many of Stevie Wonder’s songs envision a utopian future of social harmony, equality, and universal justice, ideals that he has worked toward through his peaceful activism.

His efforts have contributed to the downfall of apartheid in South Africa – as brilliantly expressed in the direct lyrics of his song “It’s Wrong” of 1985 – to fundraising for AIDS research, toward the empowerment of children and adults with visual disabilities, and toward the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a United States Federal Holiday, a day our Northwestern community richly observes with lectures, performances, and opportunities for reflection and service.

We value Stevie Wonder’s humanitarian work, feel enriched and stimulated by his music, and take confidence in the countless people who regard him as a role model. And as music faculty, it is especially meaningful to me to see him join other musicians such as Oscar Peterson, Leonard Bernstein, and Dmitri Shostakovich as recipients of honorary doctorates from this University.

Besides his own outstanding work, Stevie Wonder seems to be destined to share the stage with conductors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Many of you might not know that his appearance this week alongside maestro Riccardo Muti to receive honorary degrees from Northwestern University follows a precedent set in 1996, when he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award together with maestro Georg Solti.

Thus, please raise again your glasses to toast and congratulate the incredible Stevie Wonder, who has transformed the Guild Lounge into the coolest venue in Chicagoland tonight!

  • Drew Davies