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Narada Michael Walden Lets the Sunshine In

Brace yourself, San Francisco. It's been a long time since our city has seen this many showstoppers together in one room. The lineup for Memorial Day's Let the Sunshine In benefit concert reads like a who’s who of the music industry—Sting, Bob Weir, The Supremes’ Mary Wilson, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. of The Fifth Dimension, Earl Klugh, David Grisman, Shanice Wilson, Tevin Campbell, Lisa Fisher, Jeanie Tracy, Ralphe Armstrong, Dale “Satchmo” Powers, the Narada Michael Walden Band and many more.

A tribute to Christopher Rodriguez (the boy who was paralyzed from the waist down after being hit by a stray bullet while at a piano lesson in Oakland), this special show supporting the SF Conservatory of Music’s scholarship fund and other Bay Area music education programs is all thanks to one very talented man—the legendary producer and musician, Narada Michael Walden.

We sat down with the Grammy and Emmy Award winner after a free preview concert in Justin Herman Plaza to talk about queens, causes and the upcoming concert.

I hear you’re sometimes referred to as “Mozart” Walden. How do you live out this lofty title?
Oh honey, that’s just something a very dear friend of mine once said. We all have a gift and God’s faith … we just pray that we can make our dreams come true.

You’ve worked with some of the hottest names in the industry—from Aretha to Mariah—what made them choose you as their producer?
It started when Clive Davis asked me if I wanted to work with Dionne Warwick. And then he asked me about Aretha. So I called Aretha. And then Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck, Whitney Houston, Mariah. It’s all about the stories. I listen to them talk and we make music out of their stories. All those great divas—they come on strong to you and you really just have to back down and open yourself to them. Give ‘em whatever they need—a massage, flowers, time. All this to get the hit.

Who’s the biggest diva of them all?
There is a queen … Aretha. Queen of soul. She became the best because she broke the mold and walked both sides of soul.

You’ve won multliple Grammys and have been named one of the Top 10 Producers of all time. Now you’re focusing on your own music. What made you move from behind the scenes to the front line?
Since 1976, I’ve made about 11, 12 solo albums, but you know, they weren’t as big as the other people so I just tried to keep a balance between my own music and the work I was producing.

It’s not just about fame for you. Your musical agenda stretches into philanthropy as well. Tell me about your foundation.
I never felt famous. To me, Sting is famous. For me, it’s all about giving back and keeping music alive for generations to come. That’s what the foundation is all about. 

What made you want to do this show for a boy in Oakland?
The story of what happened to Chris just stuck with me. I’m dead set against the violence that we’re allowing in this country. What happened to Chris is so unfortunate. He was doing a good thing and I want to support that.

Tell us what to expect from the show.

A lovefest. That’s why all these great names in music are coming out for this. It’s about the love, trust and favors for friends. They know it will always be classy when we work together. We brought in the SF Conservatory. They’re hurting and I wanted to help and I thought how wonderful it would be to bring in these aspiring musicians and have them play right next to the classics. It’s the chance of a lifetime for them.

What’s next?

Carlos Santana. We have a trio called the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and we’re making a three-cd set. The Father, which is more majestic, the Son, which is more adventurous and the Holy Ghost, which is about the woman—sensual and sexual.

You’re originally from Michigan. What drew you to settle in our fair city?
The rarified air. I heard that there was magic in the air here in San Francisco …