By Andy Richardson
She used to sing his songs in her bedroom back in Wolverhampton. Beverley Knight grew up on a diet of Stevie Wonder.
He was one of the soul giants whose music provided the soundtrack to her life. And in performing his songs on a 10-date UK tour, she feels as though she’s come full circle.
When she takes to the stage to perform the soul icon’s music she’ll have all manner of things running through her mind. She’ll remember the little girl she was, back home in Wolverhampton. She’ll consider the incredible impact that Wonder had on the musical landscape, which he forever changed. And she’ll also contemplate the many technical aspects of her performance – a woman singing a man’s songs – to make sure her translation is accurate and faithful.
Wonder was, after all, one of soul music’s greats. A ground-breaking artist who redefined the terms of contemporary culture, his music transcended the boundaries and constraints that often confronted black artists, particularly in the 1960s and 70s.
”The first song I ever heard on the radio was Sir Duke,” says Knight. “I must’ve been…four? I didn’t know the words, I just knew the melody of the chorus, and drove everyone mad singing it. My whole life is defined by music and Stevie’s was the first voice I ever heard on radio. He has been a constant in my life, since my very formative years, and still is.
“I remember Sir Duke coming out of the radio: Beacon 303. As a tiny child I couldn’t form the words because I was too young. But I very quickly became obsessed with the melody.”
Re-imaging those classic songs is a privilege and a responsibility. When Knight takes to the stage, she will be both a fan and a performer.
“The memories that are bound up in Stevie’s songs, in anybody’s songs if you’re a fan, are so tangible that you can’t mess with people’s emotions like that. I have a job to do those songs justice, do them right, be true to myself and interpret them in the way that I see is fitting for them to be interpreted. But at the same time, not go off so far that people listen and go, ‘that doesn’t sound like the Stevie song that I know’.
“But then, I’m a Stevie fan too, so of course, I will faithfully reproduce some songs, some of the funkier songs, they will be as you know them. On some of the other songs, you’ve got a few key changes and things like that, so there will be a different resonance just for technical purposes because I’m a woman.
“But I will keep the melodies and the notes and all of that the same. And hopefully, people will walk away and have their memories enhanced.
“It’s too exciting. They are some of the best songs ever written and recorded. There’s an ethical aspect to it. I’m a woman, Stevie’s a man. So some things I can sing in the exact same key because he had a high voice for a man so I can keep them as they are. Some in the lower tone, I have to change the key to give the song what it deserves. That’s the technical side. Emotionally, Stevie was writing from his own position, whatever era that may be, and from a male perspective. I’m a woman in the 21st century so there’s a different emotional resonance. My vocal interpretation will be different.”
Though Knight will hit the ground running with a slew of hits, the show has also given her the opportunity to delve into the soul master’s back catalogue. And fans will also be treated to a number of lesser-known numbers that will help to amplify the songwriter’s genius.
“People won’t know all the songs, I need to explain those songs through my voice. The emotional stuff is the bigger job. The songs are just stunning. They are songs I’ve been singing through my life. I have been so fortunate in my career to sing with some of the greatest ever to do it, but to be handed a living genius’s songbook – ‘Here you go Bev, you’re the ambassador for this man in this country’, well, that’s just incredible. It’s such an honour.”
Knight has met and worked with some of the biggest names in music. Prince was famously so enthralled by her voice that he not only invited the singer to support him on his O2 residency but also insisted she perform at his elite Oscars party. The music legend flew Beverley out to Los Angeles to perform in front of Hollywood’s glitterati.
When her management told her that Prince wanted her to open for him at the O2 she thought my life was made. “That was it for me as it was so wonderful. When I first began performing I just knew I wanted to sing forever and I was going to do whatever it took to fulfil that dream and ambition.
“However, there is no way I could ever have imagined that one day I would be standing with Prince whilst he played one of my songs and then I performed one of his. You dream about meeting your heroes but not only did I meet him, I got to sing with Prince. I thought that was the zenith of my career. Until a few months later I received a call completely out of the blue to say Prince wanted me to fly out to LA that weekend. They asked could I come?”
No matter what she was doing, she was going to LA. Then she discovered along the way that she was going to be singing at Prince’s Oscars party with the great and good of Hollywood there. She couldn’t have predicted that. It was the stuff of dreams.
There have been other brushes with greats. Her 2016 Soulsville record was recorded at the legendary family-run Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, where classics by Al Green, Otis Clay, The Staple Singers, Chuck Berry and Ike & Tina Turner were recorded.
Beverley said: “Royal Studios was amazing. There was myself, my manager, my husband and my best friend and we just walked into the studio and immediately smelt that air – and history. I swear they haven’t put a Hoover in the place since Al Green recorded his classic albums. You could feel the history the moment you walked in. I ended up using Al Green’s microphone which was brilliant.
“Boo Mitchell’s (manager/engineer) father Willie owned the studio and Hi Records and the whole family were still there. Every day they would come in, sit us down and tell us these fantastic stories such as their time on tour with The Temptations. My experience of Memphis was incredible and I also got to sing at BB King’s. For someone like me who is completely music to my core it was like a trip to the holy land.”
Performing an evening of Stevie Wonder songs ranks alongside those achievements. Knight has met her hero on two occasions and hopes the legend will approve of her shows.
“Yes, I’ve met Stevie twice. I met Stevie face-to-face backstage at Hyde Park, gave him a cuddle and took a photo which is going in a frame. I told him I was doing this tour, and he said he’d like to hear it, which I was thrilled about.
“But years before that, Prince flew me to LA to do an Oscars party. He then invited Stevie Wonder to join us up on stage. I was floored, as you can imagine. So I’ve got two geniuses up on stage with me. Like, how does that happen, you know? It was the single greatest musical moment of my life.
“I hope when he gets to hear this show he smiles to himself. I hope he thinks the songs are in good hands. When we were in rehearsal initially I had to remind myself to sing and remind myself that Stevie wasn’t here. I’m half expecting him to come in and sing along as well. So I have to remind myself it’s me doing his songs and not him.
“I will never forget this. He’s not a well man, of course, because of illness. But it would be incredible if he recovers enough to come over.”
Knight has worked hard for her success. She was born in 1972 and grew up in Wolverhampton. Like many other soul queens, she began singing in school and church choirs.
She took the UK soul scene by storm in 1995 with her debut album B-Funk, which included hits such as Moving on Up.
1998 saw the release of the hugely successful second album Prodigal Sista which broke her out of the UK soul diva stereo type and put Beverley in a class of her own. And in 1999 Knight triumphed at the MOBO Awards winning Best R&B artist and Best Album for Prodigal Sista.
The star was inspired by such soul sensations as Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan and her own celebrity following has included David Bowie, Jamiroquai and more.
Her proudest moment was singing her track Greatest Day in front of Nelson Mandela, at the South African freedom day in London. Another was singing Happy Birthday for boxing legend Mohammed Ali.
She still makes regular trips to the Black Country to spend time with her family, though in recent years she’s been busy with such musical theatre hits as Cats and The Bodyguard, with which she’s enjoyed huge success.
She signed up for Cats as Grizabella in 2015 at the request of songwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show, at London Palladium, was a huge hit. Her role in The Bodyguard was also a smash.
“I am a musician first. That is my heart, my soul and what I have always done. It is difficult to compare the two as the way they work is completely different. If I had to come down on one side it would be a musician as that is what I have always loved to do although I absolutely love theatre.”
Keeping her career on track hasn’t always been easy and Knight has suffered racism and discrimination at various points. When she started out she felt she was “maybe too dark” to find success.
At the time, the music business was full of “young white lads playing guitars looking at their shoes” and Knight felt like “a square peg in a round hole”.
“It was easier to market someone who was much lighter, with more European features. But I’ve always been an optimistic, happy and driven person, and I was very secure about myself in my music. I was insecure about how I looked. I felt I had all the things that were needed – strong music and vocals – except what a star was meant to look like.
“Then I started to put on weight in my mid 20s, which made me feel sluggish. I just felt terrible about my appearance. It took years and years, but now, in my late 40s, I’m secure. If people try to tell you what you should be doing, at this age, you can slap them down very quickly. There’s a respect that’s naturally afforded to you.”
Knight is thrilled to have survived 25 years in music – and there’ll be a celebratory album later this year: BK25.
“Some days, I feel old. But honestly, I feel absolutely ecstatic that I’m in my 25th year. And not in the sense of ‘I’m in my 25th year, thank you and goodnight,’ I’m in my 25th year, and it’s still on an upward trajectory. Somehow, it seems to be defying convention and expectation, that at my age, at this point in my career and in my life, it’s growing and building. It’s incredibly exciting.
“I’ve got a live album out in November, which celebrates my 25 years. Again, with the Leo Green orchestra which is a lot of fun. I will be doing lots of shows to support that. Next year, I will be going back to the theatre, putting my theatre hat back on, which I’m very excited about. It’ll be my big return to the West End. So life is wonderful, life continues to be wonderful.”