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Oh Happy Day – Singing With Stevie Wonder!

Many of you may already know that, as a singer, musician and songwriter, I consider Stevie Wonder my all-time idol and musical influence.

A few of you know that I’m also a singer and musician in the St. Agatha Gospel Choir, where I have been for the past eight years.

Something “Wonder”-ful happened on Monday, September 14, 2009.

I sang with Stevie Wonder.

Our choir was asked to play for the funeral of Skip Miller (link goes to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times), who was the president of Motown Records circa the late-’80s – mid ’90s. He was also the manager of Lionel Richie. His widow is a relative of one of the parishioners in my church. In addition to being a well-known figure in the music industry, he was also a Vietnam veteran, a draftee for the Oakland Raiders and a philanthropist.

Eddie Hilley, our choir director, assembled a number of choir members and musicians together for this weekday funeral. He also told us that Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder might want to perform for the funeral as well.

I had already met Stevie Wonder a decade ago, in August of 1999, at a random visit to Guitar Center in Hollywood. We were both shopping and I managed to approach Stevie (who was accompanied by his walking guide and also his 12-year old son) once the salesman left him alone. I whispered to his guide, “Is it cool if I say ‘Hi’ to him?” And instantly, Stevie turned towards me and said, “NO!” then extended his hand towards me and laughed.
We had a brief conversation, I told him he was my main musical influence, I got to shake his hand. No pictures or autographs, but the experience was more than enough for me.

After that serendipitous encounter, I promised myself, “Next time I meet that guy, it’s gonna be in a recording studio or performing live with him.”

Ten years later, I’m singing with the choir at the Chapel of the Risen Christ, located atop Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, off of Slauson Ave. The chapel also doubles as a mausoleum, with people interred within every wall of the building, inside and outside. Our musicians even had to set up directly in front of someone’s tomb. The cross-shaped building was filled to capacity for a man who touched many lives in the record industry as well as in the community (Miller was a huge supporter and volunteer of Project Angel Food). People were even situated up on the balcony level.

The choir was situated at the “head” of the cross, and 50 feet from us in the west-facing transept, sat Smokey Robinson. Directly in front of him, arriving just before the start of the service, was Stevie Wonder. Lionel Richie sat in the nave, towards the front.

During the funeral Mass, we sang gospel classics such as “Soon and Very Soon,” as well as some more contemporary numbers, and sang the parts of the Mass as well. I got a kick out of looking to my right every so often as we were singing, and seeing Stevie Wonder sing along with us.

Towards the end of the funeral, Lionel Richie gave a lively, unscripted eulogy for his former manager, who recounted Miller’s stoic mannerism, and the dedicated advocate he was for pitching many of the singer’s late ’70s hits to radio programmers, who were too obsessed with the skin color of artists.

“When you meet one nice person, he’ll lead you to the rest,” said Richie.

Towards the end, our choir director went up to Stevie, shook his hand, and whispered something to him. When he returned, he was adjusting his keyboard, mic stand and keyboard bench, possibly to prepare for Stevie’s performance.

The funeral Mass concluded with our choir singing the gospel standard, “Oh Happy Day,” which I sing lead on.

As I stepped up to the mic, I reminded myself of the deceased’s legacy, and how he touched the lives of all these people. I also took into account the fact that all these Motown greats were hearing me sing at this very moment, and rather than letting the thought of that frazzle me, it fueled my confidence and energy.

Then I looked to my right again, where Stevie sat.

Not more than seconds after I started singing, he got up with his guide, and started walking towards us.

“Hey, he’s gonna sing after us, that’s real cool,” I thought, as I was singing.

Then, before I knew it he was standing right next to me. With a microphone in his hand.

“!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I thought.

We were still singing, but at some point Stevie was going to sing too. No one else was gonna cue him in, sooo…

…I gave him a tap on the back.

Then he started ad-libbing to the song’s bridge (“He taught me how to watch, fight and pray…”), doin his thang. He was kind of low in the mix, I couldn’t hear him that wall, but he was turned up soon enough.

“OMG, I cued Stevie Wonder!” I thought.

I had no idea whether Stevie took over the song or I would sing again, I didn’t really care either way, this experience was too awesome for me at this point. One of my fellow choir members, standing behind me, lightly pulled me back, whispering, “Let him have his moment!” Of which, unlike our good friend Kanye West, I was glad to oblige.

Then the chorus came up again (“Oh happy day, oh happy day, when Jesus washed…”) and Stevie put his mic down.

Gulp – Guess it’s my turn to sing again.


Mind you, 2/3 of me was being professional about it and sticking to singing. You have to. You do not sing next to Stevie Wonder and wig out and mess up.

The other 1/3 of me was a total screaming fanboy. The bassist of our choir saw my facial expression.

I gave it my all, or at least as much as I can, knowing that I’m living in a moment that’s totally blowing my mind. But it’s important to just keep singing, and that I did.

As the song ended, Stevie turned and his guide quickly led him away.

Perhaps, to date, the most incredible four minutes of my life. By far.

Oh happy day, indeed.

One of the guests at the funeral, a woman who sat across the aisle from me, said, “You just sang with Stevie Wonder!” I replied, wide-eyed, “Yeah…I did.”

My choir mates gave me the same response, knowing that he was my idol. It was as if I was the rookie from nowhere that just hit a grand slam.

Afterward, the woman and I went towards Stevie and she volunteered to take my picture with him. I took out my digital camera – determined to get a picture this time – and we asked Stevie’s entourage if it was cool. They brought him to a room off to the side – I didn’t know whether he was being led away or not. His primary walking guide was still there, near where they sat, though.

The woman, who was a high school classmate of Miller’s widow, told me she had to go find her friend before she lost track of her. But one of Stevie’s people agreed to take the picture. A few minutes later, one of his people gestures to me, and I come forward. His guide stops me and says, “Okay, calm down…”

“Oh, I’m cool, I’ve met him before!”

I approached him and said, “Hi, I’m Elson, I was the soloist who sang “Oh Happy Day” with you.” I also briefly told him about our first meeting a decade ago.

He nodded, I forgot what his exact response was. Then, he clasped his hand with mine, and we posed for pictures:
Say chee…oops, wait, wasn’t ready! Let’s do it again!

Much better!

Right afterward, he has his picture with the priest who officiated the funeral Mass, Fr. Joseph Idomele, who is also a friend of mine. He told him how much he appreciated his music all his life and posed for his own picture. Before Stevie left, I shook his hand again and thanked him: “It’s been an honor to sing with you.”

As he walked away, the priest and I compared digital camera screens and we shared a giddy geeky fanboy moment. Then, I gave him a hug and said, “We’ve been blessed today! God is good!”

Surely a tech.geek like me shared the news on Twitter and Facebook, and exclaimed:
elsongs OMG JUST SANG “OH HAPPY DAY” WITH STEVIE WONDER!!!!!!!!!!! GOD IS GOOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WOW!!!!!!!!!!

I later discovered that someone else who attended the funeral tweeted about it as well:
HVW8 Just got back from Skip Miller’s funeral …. if you have Lionel Richie giving your eulogy and Stevie Wonder singing in the choir

HVW8 you must have been doin something right ….

I sent an @reply to him and told him who I was, and that person responded:

HVW8 @elsongs you sounded amazing! Sad but great experience, what a way to go out.

Unlike most of the people in attendance, I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to know Skip Miller, but I know how he was beloved by many, and made a difference in their lives. But I also realized that even after his life, he was able to make a difference in mine. God bless you, Mr. Miller.

I was fortunate to be one of the 21,000 to attend Michael Jackson’s public memorial at Staples Center in July. Interestingly, Stevie, Lionel and Smokey were there as well, as did many others in attendance on Monday. That was a wonderful event, viewed by billions across the world…but this experience totally outshined that.

After Michael Jackson’s recent death, I’ve told people, “When Stevie Wonder dies, I’ll be bawling uncontrollably for at least two weeks.”

I guess whenever that happens, I’ll be adding a few more months to that.

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