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Wondrous time

Stevie Wonder is a vibrant performer and host at a show in which veterans and newer acts flaunt R&B roots.

December 22, 2003|Steve Baltin | Special to The Times

The phrase "old-school" was thrown around a few times at the Forum on Saturday during Stevie Wonder's eighth annual House Full of Toys benefit, which featured Wonder along with a host of other acts, including Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, India.Arie and "American Idol" champion Ruben Studdard.

The show did feel old-school in certain regards. For starters, as guest emcee Magic Johnson pointed out, there was a "real band playing real music." Additionally, even the up-and-coming stars, including Arie, who mentioned Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway in her brief set, and Studdard, whom Johnson compared to Barry White and Luther Vandross after his crowd-pleasing, two-song performance, are direct descendants of the masters of R&B. And of course Wonder, Khan and Cole have been stars on the R&B scene for decades.

And it was the oldest act of all who made sure the night was more than just an exercise in nostalgia. Vibrant and vital in his role as host, Wonder set the tone early on when he joined Michael McDonald on Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" and a powerful version of "What's Going On."

Marvin Gaye's R&B anthem proved an accurate foreshadowing of Wonder's own headlining set later in the night, where he delivered the potent one-two punch of "Higher Ground" and "Living in the City."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Wonder songs -- A review of Stevie Wonder's House Full of Toys concert in Monday's Calendar incorrectly referred to the song "I Was Made to Love Her" as "I Was Born to Love Her" and to "Living for the City" as "Living in the City."

Wonder's treasure trove of hits was well represented during the night as he partnered with other singers. Following her gorgeous acoustic version of "The Truth," Arie led Wonder through the tender ballad "Summer Soft" and a hauntingly beautiful rendition of "Visions."

Khan, who was greeted with a standing ovation and kept the crowd on its feet with such forceful numbers as "Ain't Nobody," got Wonder halfway through "I Don't Know Why I Love You" before he stopped the music and decided the stomp-your-feet hit "I Was Born to Love Her" was better for the pair to do as a duet.

Brian McKnight, who used his status as a last-minute addition as an excuse for a wonderfully loose and spontaneous set, performed a raucous "That Girl" with Wonder.

The generous host also lent his harmonica skills to a few acts, including Cole during a lovely rendition of "The Christmas Song." Cole turned in one of the most impressive sets of the night, following Studdard with an elegant performance that rode her alternately dramatic and understated vocals to a deserved standing ovation.

Studdard, whose album "Soulful" entered the sales chart at No. 1 last week, held his own. His single "Sorry 2004" is a slickly produced track that recalls the soul chestnuts of such '70s bands as the Manhattans.

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