By Jeff Mays
HARLEM—Stevie Wonder was inducted into the Apollo Legends Hall of Fame in a star-studded event capped by a jam session that brought together stars from the world of hip-hop, jazz, pop and gospel music.
"I thank God for love and I thank God for song," Wonder said Monday during his acceptance speech after singing a short duet of his well-known song "For Once in My Life" with Tony Bennett.
The stars in attendance at the event, that also serves as a fundraiser for the Harlem theater, included Robert De Niro, Spike Lee, Phylicia Rashad, Gabourey Sidibe, Rev. Al Sharpton, Wyclef Jean, Sherri Shepherd, and host Sinbad.
Attendees said Wonder's music provided a soundtrack for the nation and even inspired social change.
Artists like Chick Corea, Melanie Fiona, Yolanda Adams and Take 6 lauded Wonder by performing some of his greatest hits. Doug E. Fresh joined Wonder for a beat box version of "All I Do," along with Questlove, drummer for The Roots.
"What took 'em so long?" director Spike Lee said about Wonder's induction. "A lot of time we wait until people are dead. Let's honor the greats while they're still alive and can enjoy it."
Wonder's fellow Motown singer Martha Reeves agreed.
"This awards ceremony is just in time. We've lost a lot," she said.
That's why Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of the Apollo Theater, said she was moving to honor as many music legends as possible. Last year, Gladys Knight's star on the Apollo Walk of Fame was revelead.
"I like the idea of recognizing them while they're still alive," she said.
Not that Wonder is going anywhere. Wonder said he was still a "young 61" before leading an all-star jam session of his songs that had the crowd on its feet for much of the night.
"He inspired me to be a better artist," said Yolanda Adams who performed a soulful version of "Love in Need of Love." "There are a lot of people who do one thing but they don't do everything. This man can do everything."
That includes inspiring the nation, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, noting that many commercial artists shied away from message songs, but not Wonder.
"He single-handedly got the whole nation to talk about Martin Luther King's birthday," Sharpton said of the song "Happy Birthday" that Wonder recorded to make the case for a national holiday for the slain civil rights leader.
"When Stevie came out with that song he changed the whole mood of America. He gave us the first federal holiday for a person of color in this country," Sharpton added.
Corea says Wonder's activism was always wrapped in amazing music.
"Stevie I consider to be one of the most important musicians who ever hit planet earth," Chick Corea said.
Wonder's music contains "a human rights message because it goes above any kind of religion or philosophy. It's a thing all of humanity can get behind. I consider him a guiding light," Corea added.
Wonder, who first performed at the Apollo in 1962, continued his long history of activism during his speech. Before he broke into song, he spoke about healthcare reform and what he felt was the silliness of the nation's politics. He said he's willing to pay taxes to provide for the needy.
"I'm fine with putting out a little more if it's going to help the less fortunate than me," Wonder said.
He also encouraged the city and the country to make life better for those with disabilities.
"There's no reason this city, this country can't be the first completely accessible country in the world," Wonder said.
The night wasn't all serious. Comedian, actor and talk show host Sherri Shepherd joked that she might not be here if not for Wonder's music.
"My parents were listening to "My Cheri Amore" when some stuff jumped off and here I am! Thank you Stevie," Shepherd said, joking that her parents named her after the song but spelled her name differently.
Actress Phylicia Rashad recalled being in her house and listening to one of Stevie Wonder's first hits, "Fingertips," when she was just 12. Decades later, Wonder's music is still a constant in her life.
"Stevie Wonder means good music, honey. Good music all the way through life," Rashad said.