How To Be A Team Player: Stevie Wonder Edition

Stevie Wonder’s role in Netflix’s The Greatest Night in Pop documentary is as a secondary artist. He didn’t write the song. Yes, he’s a featured soloist, but a relatively minor one. And for all I knew before and after watching the documentary the first time, he’s just another pop star who was “there.” 

But then the wheel starts turning in my head. He was there. And there, and there, and every-Roy f***ing Kent-where all the way through the story. 

All without ever being a main character. All without ever being THE star. A star, sure. But never THE star. Wonder was always adding to the momentum of the project, even when he started scenes by seemingly working against it.

Who does this?

Stevie Wonder does. Why? Because,  

Stevie Wonder might just be the ultimate team player. 

From the beginning, when Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones are planning to write a new song and get all of these stars on board to sing it, Stevie Wonder is the first call for a co-writer spot. But Stevie works on Stevie time they joke, and the call is left unreturned. So Quincy decides on a second choice, and that’s how Michael Jackson gets involved. 

On the day when they’re demoing the song in the studio for the first time, meaning it’s already been written, scored, etc., Stevie shows up. Stevie thinks they’re just writing the song that day. Quincy has to explain how they tried to reach him, how the song is already written and done now, and they’re just demoing it to get tapes out to the artist. 

Stevie doesn’t need to hear it twice. He jumps into working on singing for the demo. Lionel, Michael, and Stevie gathered around a mic, recording a demo – incredible. 

On the night of the session, when all the stars are gathered in a single room for the first and only time, Stevie comes up with an idea for the song. If they’re singing for Africans, shouldn’t they sing some of the lyrics in an African language? He starts pitching some lines in Swahili. 

It’s a last-second re-write. A bunch of the stars are interested in the idea. One is not (Waylon Jennings was always gonna Waylon I guess). Quincy is visibly nervous this unplanned deviation is going to derail the progress they need to be making, but he can’t crush Stevie publicly on the spot. Bob Geldof intervenes and explains the point of the song is to sing to the people that can help – English speakers, with money – to direct attention to the people they can help. 

Stevie understands Geldof’s point. He withdraws the suggestion. Funny enough, a few hours later – this idea helps Michael Jackson come up with the (gibberish, but ethnic sounding) “Sha-la, sha-lingay” chorus vocal which is on the final cut. Right idea. Wrong time and presentation. 

BUT, the most incredible team player moment Stevie has, even better than the story about him walking Ray Charles to the bathroom and everybody laughing about, “The blind really are leading the blind!” or when they sing off Harry Belafonte and Stevie improvises a verse about how if you drink to much, “you’ll be driven home by me and Ray,” has to be when helps Bob Dylan with a solo.  

Dylan looks completely lost for the entire recording session. He’s not a singer the way these people are singers. This isn’t his thing, at all, except for as a humanitarian and protester. 

And Quincy Jones wanted Bob Dylan to lend his voice as a solo. A feature, soaring above the chorus of superstar voices. Yeah. 

On Dylan’s first take, he literally looks terrified, mumbles the words, and admits he doesn’t really know what to do. He calls out to Stevie for help. Maybe Stevie could come sit at the piano for a second and help him work something – anything – out. 

Enter Stevie Wonder, ultimate team player. 

Stevie sits at the piano with Dylan over his shoulder. He plays the chords. He opens his mouth. Stevie sings, in a perfect mimic of Dylan’s iconic drawl, how it could go. Dylan joins in matching him, with a smile creeping over his face. 

Let’s pause on this for a second. “Stevie is an insanely great mimic,” Steven Breskin of Rolling Stone says in the doc. Dylan and the others knew it, but who knows how much. What we do know is Stevie Wonder temporarily inhabited Bob Dylan’s voice and delivery in a way that Bob Dylan could then have the confidence to copy this copy of himself in front of everyone in that room. 

Team players elevate the work of the entire team. They don’t have to be the star. And they refuse to be a drag – by always pushing the limitations of the group, but knowing how to back off when it’s hurting, and lean in when it’s helping. 

Stevie Wonder is the ultimate team player. We can learn from him. Think of what he did next to all he didn’t do, one more time with me:

Stevie didn’t get to write the song. He didn’t get to add the lyrics he wanted. He didn’t get to do a super special feature solo. He just got to show up and play. And the night could not have happened the way it did without him in that room. 

Ultimate. Team. Player. 

Ps. If you haven’t watched “The Greatest Night in Pop” yet, do yourself a favor. And, if you missed this post, “Perform In Front Of Your Peers” – give it a read too. The lessons here are profound.