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my 15 minutes of fame....

When I was 31, in front of an audience of about 3000 at the Valley Forge Music Fair, I volunteered and was chosen to sing "Ebony and Ivory" with Stevie Wonder towards the close of his concert.  Three weeks later I was able to obtain a tape of the performance that was recorded by one of the Music Fair staff members.  The original recording was made on a very cheap cassette recorder, so the quality of this recording is not very good, in particular, you cannot hear the instrumentation very well, but I am still forever grateful to have been able to obtain the recording.

the rest of the story.....
The location was the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, PA.  It was one of the best music venues in the Philadelphia area, mainly because of the seating arrangement and sound system.  Stevie Wonder had booked an entire week of sold out shows beginning on  Monday November 28, 1983.  I attended his opening show with two friends, Bill and Delphine.  There was no opening act; so it was all Stevie for at least 3 hours with a 20 minute intermission.  Sometime during the second half of the program, Stevie said something like, "hey, I need a white brother and some backup singers down here to help me out with a song".  Nobody reacted, so Stevie repeated the request, actually 2 or 3 more times before the audience realized he was serious and wanted some volunteers to join him on stage.  Eventually, some people made it down to the stage and Stevie told them that they were all going to perform "Ebony and Ivory" together.  Taken by surprise, the guy volunteer didn't know all the words, but had a very good voice - so good, that after they had finished the song, Stevie asked him if he wanted to sing another song.  They ended up doing "I Feel Good", the James Brown classic and this same guy who had stumbled somewhat through the "Ebony and Ivory" lyrics, nailed one of the most classic soul songs of recent decades! And it DID "feel good".... he brought the roof down!  James Brown would have been proud... not to proud to beg, but very proud. 


I remember being very envious.... a chance to share the stage with the eighth Wonder of the world.... gee, I could've done that had I known!   By no stretch do I consider myself a vocalist, but I thought I could half-decently sing Paul McCartney's part in "Ebony and Ivory".  There's only one verse to the song, the same verse is repeated after a brief interlude... the harmonies fall naturally in thirds in the key of E major... I could certainly handle that, right?  Sure, I could.  I later told Bill and Delphine that I was considering buying tickets to another one of his shows that week and shooting down to the stage as soon as Stevie said he wanted a volunteer.  I did just that - I bought tickets to his very last performance that week, a Sunday night, December 4th, 1983.  I was married back then and went to the concert with my wife, Faith. Our seats were in the next to the last row, so if and when Stevie made the request, I would have to move through some people in our row quickly and dart down the aisle as fast as I could to one of the stage entrances.  As it turned out, when Stevie gave the word, at least 50 people also darted down from all over the place.  That's when I then realized that others knew he was going to ask and were also ready to rush the stage.  Perhaps they had been to a previous show as I had.  Dog gone it, my chances or odds of being chosen had quickly slimmed.  Now what?!!!


At the particular opening point of the stage where I landed, there stood Stevie Wonder's brother, Milton Hardaway.  Milton is usually the guy you see guiding Stevie onto stages any time he performs live.  I began to talk as fast as I could, pleading with Milton that I should be the one chosen because I knew all the words and could also sing either harmony, top or bottom - I was practically begging.  I kept repeating myself to him, and he had this look on his face as if to say, "yeah, yeah, yeah, we've heard that line every night this week?"  There were 4 other stage entrances and people were backed up at each one, where other staff members were.  I'm sure they were pleading to get on too, but suddenly Milton raised his hand up high and got the attention of the other staff and said "I got 'em".  It happened, I was chosen!  Holy cow, I'm gonna sing with the great Mr. Stevie Wonder! I was thrilled to death and was led up onto the stage and sat down on the piano bench right next to him.  On this particular night, he did not ask for any volunteer backup singers as he had when we saw him 6 evenings prior.

Stevie conducted a brief interview with me first, asking me my name, where I was from, what I do, etc.  I wish that had made it onto the recording that I eventually obtained, because that was priceless by itself.  He was humorous and made me feel at ease.  I wasn't all that nervous though, because I knew the song inside out, and because the Music Fair served alcohol, I had also downed three double shots of Southern Comfort throughout the evening, which had almost no effect what so ever due to the adrenalin rush that was overcoming me all night.  If anything the alcohol brought me down to earth a bit.  He asked if I knew the words and I enthusiastically replied, "yes, I do!", adding that I could take the "top or bottom".  Though Stevie knew I was referring to either harmony, he also knew most of the audience didn't know what I meant by "top or bottom" and seized the opportunity to joke in an innuendo way that many would anticipate, which resulted in the expected laughter.

Finally it was time.  He started the song and we began to sing.  OK, so I stepped on his line a little in the first verse, give me a break !  But beside that, I did OK in the song for not being a vocalist.  And I'm sure Stevie was pleased that I knew the tag harmony which occurs at the end of the song, as you can hear him chuckle and say, "he's got it down!".  But following that, when I thought I was through, Stevie put me on the spot.  He's very spontaneous during his performances and I was not expecting what he did at the end of the song.  He wanted me to improvise and he goes through this whole explanation and I didn't even realize he was talking to me - I guess I was still sort of recovering from the shock of having just sung with him.  So he begins this improv part and I don't come in as I should, so he halts the piece and explains to me again - what? oh no.... he's asking me to improvise over the chorus background vocals of the song!  Lord have mercy,  now I am nervous! (another double-shot of Southern please!) I was so taken by surprise and didn't have a clue what I was going to do.  I'm not very good at coming up with lyrics in general, even when I have plenty of time to do so, let alone come up with them on the spot.  So, as you'll hear (or heard already), I just decided to do some scat singing, much like jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong sometimes do... sort of imitating an instrumental solo using the voice, and which incidentally, I also suck at.  But the audience was very kind and seemed to react in a positive way, so I was happy and continued on until Stevie says, "Let's give Dennis a hand y'all".  ( I think he had enough - ha ha )

  I leaned to Stevie and spoke into his ear, asking if I should go back to my seat.  He can be heard telling me that I can stay on stage if I want to, but I thought I might as well head back to my seat.  So I left the stage and made my way up the aisle.  The audience in my section gave me another round of applause and I was on cloud nine.  Faith had told me that while I was on the stage, people around her were asking if I was part of the act - yeah, right !  - flattering, but  it wasn't THAT good. :-)

When the show was over, just a few minutes after my performance, Faith and I left our seats and shuffled through the crowd to make our exit.  About every 10 feet or so, someone would yell out, "there he is", or something similar, pointing at me.  A few may have shaken my hand, or high-fived me.   To my amazement, even driving out of the parking lot in my car, I saw people point in my direction and smile.  The smile on my face was almost permanent.  It surely lasted the entire drive home.

When I finally arrived home, the adrenalin still very much occupied every cell in my body.  I never slept all night. I know what some of you are thinking - so what's new, right?


 In 1983,  I worked as a psychiatric aide at Eastern State School and Hospital and was due to be in at 7:00 A.M.  I had been telling people at work all week long that I had been planning to sing with Stevie Wonder on Sunday, but I'm sure some, if not all, didn't believe that it would actually happen.  I was on time, walking into the office where I was to relieve the third shift.  A friend named Ed Lewis was the staff member I was taking over for that morning.  (thanks Dave and Sue for remembering his last name!)  He was one of many that I had told my plans to earlier in the week.  I walked in and just about screamed it out, "I DID IT!"  He smiled and said "no s--t!"  Yes, I did it, but unfortunately had nothing to show for it - no pictures, no recording.  Ed suggested that I put an ad in the newspaper, requesting that if anyone had attended that particular performance and took pictures, or recorded anything from it, to please call my home number.  I thought it was worth trying, so I did just that.

I ran the ad for a week.  I'd estimate that about 20 people responded.  Though I was clear in the ad that the only performance I was interested in was Stevie's December 4th evening performance, I had received calls from people that were there throughout the week.  In fact only about four people that called were at the show where I performed.  I told them I was the guy that sang "Ebony and Ivory" that evening and had nothing to show or prove that I had done so.  Some seemed suspicious.  I think they thought I was looking for people that illegally recorded or something.  One curious only caller asked me why I was only interested in Sunday evening's show?  I explained to him that I had sung with Stevie that night.  Well, he had no problem believing me because, coincidentally, he identified himself as the fellow that sang with Stevie on on that opening Monday night!  What a coincidence!  I told him how awesome he was when he sang the James Brown song and he wished me luck in my pursuit for a tape of my performance.  He also had nothing to show for his Stevie debut.


Finally, a guy from West Philly, a staff member at the Music Fair, said he was there every night and that he even remembered me and my performance.  He said he had taped various segments of the concerts throughout Stevie's week-long stay and that he would check to see if he had mine.  My hopes were high !!  Unfortunately, he called back the next day and told me he did not have my segment.  Gosh,  I was so disappointed, but thanked him for looking.  As the week progressed, the calls dwindled, and the ad expired.  I did not bother renewing it..  I conceded in my mind, "that was that, I have no choice but to settle for the memory".  And if I didn't have proof, I know I would eventually cease telling the story.

But 3 weeks after the ad had expired, to my amazement, I got a repeat call from that fellow in West Philly, the staff member that taped segments.  He now said he DID have my performance on tape after all!  I asked him how he knew it was me and he just replied that he was absolutely sure that it was me.  Not convinced, I asked him to please play a little bit over the phone.  He did so and I got goose bumps !  A recording existed !  I thought to myself, "how much is he going to ask?... who cares, I'll give him anything he wants!!"  I told him I'd come down right then and pay for a copy, but he said he'd just GIVE me the tape.  I told him he could name his price but he still he declined.  What a guy !  And it truly saddens me that I didn't write down and keep his name, but in 1983, there was no internet yet, at least not as it exists today, and I had no clue that I would want to document this entire experience someday on a webpage.  If I knew where he was, I would send him a huge Christmas gift certificate, annually, for as long as I live.  I still hope that by some incredible coincidence, that I find this guy some day to thank him again.

I made the trip to West Philly in record time and knocked on his door.  He invited me in and we listened together. Wow, I am going be able to play this for my children someday !  Again, I offered him money, anything he wanted, but he still said no thanks.  I wasn't having any of that, so I threw some cash on his table and told him I wasn't taking no for an answer.   He simply shook my hand and I could not stop thanking him.  Again, I am so sorry I didn’t keep in touch with this guy who, quite obviously, went out of his way to re-contact me, knowing how much it would mean to me.  God bless you forever, where ever you are, my friend !


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