Think Positive

Stevie Wonder is one of the most successful artists of all time, selling 100 million albums worldwide and receiving 25 Grammy Awards, the most of any solo artist.

His innovative take on R&B music, adding synthesizers and creating full-length concept albums drove the genre forward.

Despite becoming blind just after birth, he overcame his disability and was a child prodigy in the music world, which led to his original nickname, Little Stevie Wonder.

His recording career began at age 11 and he had his first hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Fingertips” at age 13. Over the course of his career, Wonder racked up 10 No. 1 pop hits and 20 No. 1 R&B hits.

Along with his vocal talent, he plays harmonica, piano, percussion and the Clavinet, which was Wonder’s signature tool he used to create the sound of an electric guitar, as heard on his mega-hit “Superstition.”

Wonder is also known for his songwriting abilities. He not only writes material for himself, but has contributed many popular songs for other artists, such as Smokey Robinson’s No. 1 hit, “The Tears of a Clown.” Wonder was the first Motown artist to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, which he won for his 1984 hit single “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” from the movie “The Woman in Red.”

Wonder’s illustrious career has inspired many musicians, including performer Doug Starks, who found a connection to the positivity and passion in the music.

“All along when I was growing up, Motown music was kind of the backdrop in my life, especially Stevie Wonder,” Starks said. “I really loved his lyrics and how he talked about inclusion and love and positivity. That was something that I just naturally gravitated to. As far back as I can remember, there was always a Stevie Wonder song that was kind of like the backdrop for different seasons in my life.”

As a child, Starks didn’t feel as though he quite fit in, but music was a joyful outlet for him.

“Music was something that I had to entertain myself, because I wasn’t a very social kid,” Starks said. “I started singing in the Pentecostal church. I actually stuttered as a child, so singing was one of the rare occasions where I didn’t stutter.”

He got a boost of confidence after watching a dynamic performer whom he could relate to.

“I remember watching Sammy Davis, Jr. on television and he was much like me, small framed,” Starks said. “Something inside of me lit up when I watched him on TV. Then my father took me to see him when I was 7 or 8 and I actually got a chance to watch him in person and I decided this is what I want to do. I always felt small, unattractive, unspecial. Watching him released something inside of me that felt very at home to me. It was music and singing and helping bring joy to other people who may have felt odd.”

Like Davis, Starks had a knack for comedy as well, which paired with musical talent, opened up several opportunities for him.

“Comedy was something I loved because laughter is so healing for me,” Starks said. “It’s a natural thing for me to do. In growing and getting more familiar with myself, I realized, I’m not just one thing, I’m a lot of things. To be really me, I started incorporating all of those things. I had the first opportunity of doing that in Las Vegas. I worked for David Cassidy, who produced a show called The Rat Pack is Back. He invited me to be Sammy in his show. For years, I got the chance to perform music and comedy and dance in that show and it was just like, ‘Whoa, back to Sammy again.’”

Through music and comedy, Starks has also been fortunate to open for some of the top names in R&B.

“I’ve been really blessed,” he said. “I’ve opened for Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Smoky Robinson, The Temptations, The Four Tops and more. I opened for them as myself, as a standup comedian and singer. All of those people I’ve been with on the road, not just a one-time performance, and I learned so much from all of them.”

Starks has performed in Laughlin in The Rat Pack is Back, but for this trip to town, he is bringing a new show dedicated to his other early influence.

“After doing Sammy for over a decade in Las Vegas, I moved to Southern California, and I wanted to reinvent myself,” he said. “I thought about what felt really natural for me, and it’s that positivity, that love, that connection that I have with Stevie Wonder music. I don’t do an impersonator show, I just re-present the music in the spirit that I believe it was given.”

The trick was finding musicians who also appreciated that same spirit.

“I have a 10-member band and it was a process selecting the musicians,” Starks said. “They’re all absolutely fantastic, but it wasn’t so much about finding talented musicians, it was about finding musicians who connected with the music and felt the same way about the music as I did. A lot of conversations were had to find people who were just as excited about pushing positivity out and inclusion. It’s been a perfect blend since day one.”

Starks will hop around between instruments while also providing lead vocals for his tribute, called Higherground: Celebrating the Music of Stevie Wonder, which plays at the Riverside Resort, Wednesday-Sunday, Sept. 7-11.

“I’m self-taught on the harmonica — I learned to play the harmonica as a kid, because Stevie played the harmonica,” Starks said. “I love playing it, it’s something that I can play anywhere. I play several different instruments and I play mostly by ear, because I’ve never been taught formally, except I did take piano lessons. In the Stevie show, I’ll be playing percussion, harmonica and keyboards.”

Starks and his band perform a large selection of Wonder’s music through the years.

“We cover a quite extensive overview of his catalogue, not just songs that he performed, but songs that he wrote for other people that some people don’t know Stevie wrote,” Starks said. “We also cover some of the people that covered Stevie Wonder hits and had success with them, like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. He wrote ‘’Til You Come Back To Me’ for Aretha Franklin, he wrote ‘Tell Me Something Good’ for Chaka Kan and he wrote ‘The Tears of a Clown’ for Smoky Robinson. I’m an impressionist as well, so I do those songs in the voice of the artist mentioned, except for the female vocalists. I have some very capable female vocalists who do those renditions.”

Higherground promises to produce a night of fabulous music played with heart and soul.

“If you have room for a little feel good in your life, you’re gonna want to be with us in Laughlin,” Starks said.