Little Stevie Grows Older
Back in the summer of 1963, when his first number-one record was on the radio, it was easy enough to dismiss (Little) Stevie Wonder as a one-shot. "Fingertips" was a freak hit on an independent label by a blind twelve-year-old. It did not promise durability. Even if Motown Records prevailed as no black-owned label ever had, there was no reason to expect even its most solid artists to prevail along with it. Rock and rollers just didn't prevail--except for Elvis Presley, every one of the original geniuses had already passed into oblivion, or so it seemed. No one would have predicted that in 1973 Motown would be the hottest entertainment complex in the country, with Smokey Robinson, the singer-songwriter of the Miracles, its vice-president, and Diana Ross, the anonymous lead singer of the unknown Supremes, née Primettes, on her way to an Oscar nomination for portraying Billie Holiday. As for Little Stevie, he was destined for the reject pile as surely as Frankie Lymon and Annette Funicello.
But Stevie kept coming on: just like everyone else at Motown, he was tenacious. "Fingertips" was basically a novelty instrumental--as any record featuring a prepubescent harmonica player and a live audience had to be--and its follow-ups were also novelties. In the usual pattern, the follow-ups didn't do anywhere near as well as the original. In the fall of 1965 there was a surprising vocal version of "High Heel Sneakers," but it went nowhere. And then, that winter, came "Uptight."
In a way, "Uptight" was a novelty, too, predicated on the ghetto catch-phrase it immortalized, but it was also a great record in a more conventional way than "Fingertips" because it established a vocal identity. Wonder's strength, unlike that of most Motown performers, turned out to be freedom from discipline--the wild innocence of his harmonica carried over into his singing. Like the other Motown wild man, Levi Stubbs, of the Four Tops, Stevie was held partly in check by the rigorous Motown production machine, but whereas in the Tops' music the resulting tension often grated, in Stevie it only increased the excitement. He never wallowed in emotion. Instead, he soared above it.
There were no major successors to "Uptight" until the following year, when Stevie turned to ballads, to this day the most dubious aspect of his musicianship. Even his version of "Blowin' in the Wind"--a major departure for Motown, which was still in the dance business but acceded to the protests of their own irrepressible sixteen-year-old--was a little soupy, and the equally successful follow-up, "A Place in the Sun," was downright fatuous. Then, just when he appeared to have drifted into soul limbo, he came up with "I Was Made to Love Her."
"I Was Made to Love Her" is not much of a song, which makes it the perfect vehicle for Stevie's classic performance. Against the smooth, fast-flowing Motown arrangement he grunts and gasps and growls and gulps, not in the usual melodrama but more or less at random, by surprise, as the spirit moves him. He never stops singing the lyric, never pauses for a moment of what other singers would classify as interpretation, and yet the lyric is obviously not what is happening--it's just a track to run his voice down.
"I Was Made to Love Her" should have established Stevie as a source of potential excitement into the indefinite future, yet somehow it didn't. No one anticipated minor pleasures like "Shoo-be-oo-be-oo-be-oo-ba-day" or "My Cherie Amour." The best soul album of 1970, Signed, Sealed and Delivered, went almost unnoticed, even though it contained three hit singles. The next album, Where I'm Coming From, received even less attention despite its radical departure from precedent. The album sounded more like some smart-ass white kid than a disgruntled black entertainer, and mixed in with the bad poetry and the over-extended message songs was music so peculiar that it's hard to imagine how it survived Motown supervision. Stevie played both parts of a five-minute nondialogue between a black man and The Man and trotted through an absurd silver-lining lyric with its own hoofer's beat, exploiting his vocal quirks for new kinds of meaning both times. He showed off not only on drums, piano, and harmonica--the old standbys--but also on various electronic instruments. He even performed credibly on a soppy ballad.
Around the beginning of 1971 Wonder's Motown contract ran out. Again no one noticed--no one but Stevie and Motown. Like any overprotective parent, Motown can be nasty when the kids get ideas of their own. The great Holland-Dozier-Holland production team had to fight years of lawsuits before establishing its own company, and neither David Ruffin nor Eddie Kendricks has survived the benign neglect with which Motown permitted them to leave the Temptations. But in the end Wonder returned to Motown with Music of My Mind, an album he had not only produced but also financed himself. There were minor hits on it. Then he and his integrated band, Wonderlove, did a well-reviewed tour with the Rolling Stones. Still he was half-ignored by everyone, including Motown. That stopped when "Superstition" became a number-one single, his second, after almost a decade. The vice-president of Motown presented him with a platinum record for "Superstition" and a gold record for the album Talking Book at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall.
Because he is blind, Wonder has always been compared to Ray Charles. Although both singers flaunt an unembarrassed relish for aural fancy that may relate to their sightlessness, the comparison has always seemed a little inept. Ray Charles did create soul music, after all. Stevie Wonder is just a talented kid. Yet now Wonder is in a position to synthesize something equally far-reaching: He is young enough and rich enough to put five years of brotherhood and black-beauty and youth-culture and believe-in-music rhetoric into practice. At twenty-two, he plays countless instruments, excelling on the ARP synthesizer. He has been a great singer for at least five years. His music is more than modernized blues/soul/jazz/gospel, borrowing from disparate white sources as well. Unlike Jimi Hendrix, he doesn't have to win over the black audience, and unlike Hendrix and Sly Stone, he doesn't seem likely to destroy himself. He is blessed with an unpretentious natural optimism that proceeds from his experience, for after all, he had all the odds against him and never lost a round. Potentially, Stevie Wonder could be the center of a whole new kind of rock and roll.
Since Wonder approaches his career with the same freewheeling instinct that shapes his music, he may not achieve popular supersuccess--that requires real cunning. But he does say that if he could set an arena dancing the way Sly does, he would never be late for a concert in his life. It's probably true, too. If this is top be a decade of upbeat performers, I'd just as soon they have as much right to the upbeat as Stevie Wonder does.
Newsday, Feb. 1973