And so the second age of Wonder begins.
“I had exclusive production on Stevie,” said the late Clarence Paul, his musical mentor at Motown, “but we were cold. I didn’t have no hits, and I couldn’t think of nothing. He couldn’t think of nothing, so they brought that tune to me. And I told them, ‘If it sounds like a hit, yeah, go with it.’”
“That tune” is 1965’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” the explosive 45 which put the wider world on notice that Stevie Wonder was, firstly, no longer little, and secondly, no one-hit (ahem) wonder. “They” are Sylvia Moy and Hank Cosby, Paul’s fellow songwriters and producers at Motown. (Sylvia was only the second female producer there, after “Miss Ray,” Berry Gordy’s second wife, Raynoma.)
Moy said that she volunteered to work with Stevie when others did not wish to, because his voice – that of a 15-year-old at the time – was changing, and his commercial prospects were uncertain. Nothing since his 1963 No. 1, “Fingertips,” had seriously cracked the charts. In reviewing material with Wonder, Moy picked up a phrase he had (“Everything is alright, uptight”) and suggested that they shape it into a song. Stevie laid down the chords, she worked with the vocal melody, and Cosby charted the arrangement. The intro’s high-voltage guitar may have been inspired by the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” a hit that summer, or it certainly sounds that way.
Released on November 22, 1965, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” was more than a hit single. It became one of the musician’s signature songs, one he would play in concert with glee, even years after creating his most celebrated body of work in the 1970s, a/k/a the third age of Wonder. Its lyric is full of memorable lines, such as “No football hero or smooth Don Juan/Got empty pockets/You see, I’m a poor man’s son,” and its performance is irresistible.
At least four more tracks combine the rhythmic power and sparkle of “Uptight,” pumped in the studio by the Funk Brothers, and accelerated by Stevie’s exuberance. “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby” drives even faster, with Benny Benjamin rolling around his snare and tom-toms like a man aiming for a speeding ticket, while “Ain’t That Asking For Trouble” and “I Want My Baby Back” offer the relentless bass of James Jamerson underneath Stevie’s excitement (“ha-ha-ha-ha-yeah!”).
“Music Talk,” recorded months before “Uptight,” is a tribute to the Funks (“Everybody seems to be playing with a lot of soul”) with shout-outs to high-stepping trumpets, trombones and saxophones. One of the song’s co-writers is Ted Hull, Stevie’s partially-sighted tutor for all the years of his formal education. Hull accompanied the teen on the 1965 Tamla-Motown Revue tour of the U.K., where “Music Talk” was the popular B side of “High Heel Sneakers,” the single before “Uptight.”
Two more Hitsville stompers add weight to the album: “Contract On Love,” recorded when Stevie was 12 (hence, the higher pitch) but no less exciting for that; and “Teach Me Tonight,” a lively duet between Stevie and – uncredited – Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs Jr. that Tin Pan Alley lyricist Sammy Cahn could not have imagined. It’s about an education in love, and the teacher is assumed to be a different gender to the pupil. That it works here as a bromance-in-song is due to the fun that Stevie and Levi, and the other Tops in the back, evidently had in recording it.
“Love A Go Go” and “Pretty Little Angel” are this album’s anomalies. The first is a lightweight but attractive midtempo outing, notable mainly for use of the brass motif from “Dancing In The Street.” It was authored by associates of Clarence Paul and Mickey Stevenson; co-writer Beth Beatty penned material for Mickey’s wife, Kim Weston. “Pretty Little Angel” is a throwback to the Brill Building sound of the early 1960s, with a melody and string arrangement straight from a Bobby Vee hit. Save for Stevie’s distinctive voice, it doesn’t even sound like a typical Motown record. Charming, to be sure, but the gap between it and, for instance, “Music Talk” is as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” is a stand-out here in terms of performance and song choice, a political statement of the kind usually kept at arm’s length by Motown – and not sourced from its in-house writers, either. Stevie cut an unvarnished version as early as 1963, but it stayed in the can at the time. In January 1966, he and Clarence Paul rerecorded the song with the latter adding interjections, as if in church. “We did it on stage a lot,” said Clarence, “and the requests were the reason Stevie went in and cut it [again].” The track lopes underneath them, and closes with a “la-la-la-la” outro that belies the depth of the lyric and its civil-rights overtones. “Too many years have gone by now already, Stevie,” sings Clarence, in a counterpoint of supreme understatement.
As if there were not enough highlights, the album offers one more at closing. “With A Child’s Heart” is yet another “Are you sure this is Motown?” moment, closer to the piano-and-strings melancholy of, say, Billy Stewart’s work at Chess Records. Stevie’s midway harmonica solo is poignant, especially since we, as listeners, know that this maturing musician’s adolescence is slipping forever into the past.
Then again, we also know of Stevie Wonder’s impossibly exciting future, of songs in the key of a remarkable life, and of an honour bestowed by a historic president. From 2648 West Grand Boulevard to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is quite a journey – and everything’s alright.
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