On alternate Saturdays, my school bussed a number of sports teams to other schools in the county. Despite fraternal intentions parochial rivalries were played out on the playing fields of Lincolnshire. Sport, as George Orwell wrote, is “war minus the shooting”. The back of the coach was strictly for the big kids, the 16 year olds on the football team. As this was January 29th 1966 they were young Mods, sharp & smart. I was 13 & my mum still bought my clothes. She thought that Ben Sherman was a Scottish mountain. I was there by default , making my first & only appearance for the chess team ! They really could not find anyone else dumb enough to press-ganged into giving up their afternoon. My skirmish for the honour of our alma mater would take place in a musty hut posing as a school library.
Any road up, I got to share oxygen with the cool cats. The song they sang, on the journeys there & back, while they were giving a lesson in how to play the beautiful game to a bunch of young farmers, was brand new, a chartbound sound but not just yet. Back then I still held a song’s chart position in some regard. I had more than a suspicion that “Michelle” by the Overlanders was a piece of opportunistic mush but, hey, it was #1, it was top of the pops. “Uptight” by Stevie Wonder brought into focus the idea that the best records around did not necessarily sell the most. “Baby, ev’rything is alright, uptight, clean out of sight.”
In 1963 the UK was busy with our own Beat Boom & we had missed “Little” Stevie Wonder’s smash US hit “Fingertips”, a live, wild & wonderful harmonica hullabaloo from the Motortown Revue (with Marvin Gaye on the drums). “Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius” was a #1 LP in the USA. It followed “Tribute to Uncle Ray”, an attempt by Tamla Motown to link their artist with another blind African-American musician. The miniature moniker was dropped but a set of lounge singer standards was inappropriate while “Stevie at the Beach” just sounds wrong. “Uptight”, his 5th release, was a big step forward. Stevie contributed to 5 of the songs including the surging, stomping title track. This time around the covers included an assertive, swinging version of Dylan’s “Blowing In the Wind”, a Top 10 hit single.
Stevie, just 15 years old, came to Britain to promote “Uptight” & became a permanent part of the Motown manifesto, a key contributor to the Sixties soul scene. His singles were not the label’s biggest hits but, with the assistance of producer/mentor Clarence Paul & of Hank Cosby, there was a consistency & quality about his releases. With 6 LPs in 3 years there were still a number of syrupy ballads, ill-judged covers & even a 1966 Xmas album (soon be time to dig that one out). 1967’s “I Was Made To Love Her” was as perfect a two and a half minutes of pop-soul rush as you could wish for. The following 45s were classic too. “I Was Made…” was co-written by Stevie’s mother, Lula Hathaway. It’s easier to stand your ground against experienced producers when your mum has got your back.
A 1968 “Greatest Hits” collection marked the end of Stevie’s musical adolescence. Tamla Motown were reluctant to change a winning formula so an instrumental LP was released on a different label, Gordy, under the name Eivets Rednow. “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” is a flexing of his musical muscles, A spare arrangement features the Hohner clavinet keyboard now favoured by our young man. The song builds to a crescendo & Stevie’s soul shouting. I loved this more rugged sound, so did the Jackson 5 who gave it the full Motown makeover while the Rolling Stones recognised a song built around a great rumbling riff. Here the “Hollywood Palace” band are no match for Detroit’s Funk Brothers but Stevie rocks out on prime time TV.
The next year saw Stevie taking on more production duties while still giving Motown what they wanted. The “My Cherie Amour” LP has a fair share of easy listening including the title track & a song from the musical “The King & I”. The 2 live LPs from 1970 have a touch of cabaret about them too. Stevie Wonder turned 20 in that year, of course he was taking notice of the funkification of Soul, of a growing concern with social issues in both lyrics & in a wider context. “Signed, Sealed & Delivered” opens with 4 tracks displaying his growing range & creativity. “Never Had A Dream Come True” develops his ballad style, there would be more like this. “We Can Work It Out” is an electric version, side 1 track 1 of any Beatles cover mixtape worth its soul. The title track is followed by “Heaven Help Us All” written by long-time contributor Ron Miller. “Heaven…” is another song with a slow build & the most conscious of Stevie’s work to date, tougher than “Give Peace A Chance” but still a song of hope. On “The Johnny Cash Show” Stevie’s fro is starting to grow & he has ditched the smart suits for a more pimped look. Pity they didn’t get the sleeves finished for that blue costume.
In 1970 Stevie married fellow Motown artist Syreeta Wright &, as his contract came towards its end, to consider a life beyond Motown.
“Where I’m Coming From” (1971) was handed to Motown as a done deal. If he was going to stay with the label then change was gonna come. All the songs are written by Stevie & Syreeta & it is self-produced. In the same year Motown’s other male solo star, Marvin Gaye, released “What’s Going On”, a mature soul masterpiece. “Where…” is not as focussed as that LP Stevie was not yet 21 & was still experimenting. “Do Yourself A Favor” is a slab of irresistible funk, “If You Really Love Me” a Top 10 hit & “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” a heartbreaker that Wonder sang at Michael Jackson’s funeral. This is some coming-of-age record.
Stevie Wonder was now ready to enter what a good friend calls his “Imperial” phase, a blaze of creativity & fulfilled talent stretching across albums of such quality that match the work of anyone in popular music. I love that music, it’s what I reach for when I need a little Wonder in my life. In the live clips shot around 1972 Stevie is grooving to his inner rhythm, playing with his band & obviously enjoying his new freedom. I do find the period when he was leaving “Little” Stevie behind, trying out new things, breaking free of the commercial constraints of his label, absolutely intriguing. It did not all work but the 3 tracks here are classics which sit comfortably with the music that was to come.
Oh yeah, that chess match. I won it in a canter (then retired undefeated) before mooching over to watch the older guys with the style win their game. I was no grandmaster but I was a little flash !