b/w La La La La La
(Written by Clarence Paul)
“Little” Stevie Wonder, “Little” Water Boy: this record sure puts all its eggs in one basket, a basket with CUTE written on it in adorably sloppy lettering, perhaps with a backwards E.
Having signed a clearly-talented, smart, highly charismatic multi-instrumentalist and harmonica virtuoso, who also happened to be an eleven-year-old blind kid, Motown clearly hadn’t the faintest clue what to do with Stevland Morris now that he was on the books. His first single, the snappily-titled I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues (Part 1), had tanked; for the follow-up, Motown took a different tack, opting for this baffling “comedy” duet between Stevie and his producer, songwriter and general day-to-day handler at Motown, Clarence Paul.
I don’t think it’s very good at all, and my reasons are threefold.
Firstly, it sounds crap. Sure, the band have a blast, indulging themsleves in an uptempo jazz-R&B jam session – tinkly piano, twangy upright bass, soft drums and horns all trade blows, complete with some throaty backing vocal “Huh!”s – but it sounds more like warmup music than a proper song or anything. Meanwhile, the two lead vocal performances are both flat, weak and charmless, as well as technically inept, both of them reciting their lyrics in an indistinct mumble that causes the listener to miss key words – fatal in a “story” song like this – and the boy Wonder isn’t allowed to pick up his harmonica at all, which might have redeemed proceedings. It’s got “throwaway novelty” written all over it.
Secondly (and I appreciate this one is more to do with me personally), I just don’t get what the song itself is meant to be about. As far as I can tell, it runs like so: an older man (Clarence) calls out to a young boy lying under a tree (Stevie), offering him a quarter to “be (his) water boy”. Stevie says he’ll do it for fifty cents. Clarence laughs at this, saying he can “go down to the corner and get (himself) a dozen water boys”. Stevie advises him to do just that, if he’s not willing to pay Stevie the going rate. Clarence makes a final offer of 40 cents. Stevie notes this isn’t what he asked for, but reasons that it’s close enough, and agrees to be Clarence’s water boy. For some reason, that last bit then gets repeated a second time, despite Stevie already having agreed to the deal. And then both parties celebrate their newfound arrangement. The end.
I have numerous problems with this. Most importantly, I don’t actually know what a “water boy” is in this context – I only know the term from sports, and that doesn’t seem to be the case here, so whilst I’m guessing Clarence simply wants Stevie to go back and forth all day fetching him and his mates some drinking water, I’m not entirely sure, and in any case that seems both epically lazy on Clarence’s part and not really a job necessitating the hire of a small boy – surely just shouting “bring me some water” as and when one needed more water would do the trick? Is Stevie now on some sort of retainer? Was this a common situation in the Detroit of 1962, or is this some sort of historical piece? What was Clarence doing that was so fucking important he couldn’t get his own water? Why did Motown feel that a song essentially re-enacting two characters we don’t know haggling over contract terms would make for riveting listening? (Because, well, it doesn’t.)
Staying on the lyrics, it’s also obviously a product of a more innocent age – can you imagine anyone today releasing a duet featuring a 12-year-old boy, minding his own business, suddenly being called over by an older man, a complete stranger, asking him to do some menial labour “out in the hot sun” to earn a bit of pocket money? (Unless it was being released as some sort of awareness campaign encouraging kids to run and call for the police, of course.) I mean, it’s all obviously innocent enough, but because of the cultural connotations that add a subtext which simply wasn’t there in 1962, the whole thing just comes across as being faintly creepy to the modern listener.
My third beef with this song, though, is that it’s a complete waste of Stevie Wonder. Despite the failure of I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues (Part 1), Motown were still trying to market the child prodigy as some sort of ghastly kiddie novelty act, ignoring the fact he was already starting to push those boundaries, cutting his own material, turning in a largely improvised harmonica solo jam for his début single’s B-side (naturally titled I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues (Part 2)), giving every indication that he had a creative future in his own right. But no, Motown saw fit to package him up as Little Stevie Wonder, cutesy sideshow; marketed with the tagline “the 12-Year-Old Genius”, but given precious little opportunity to show off any “genius” Motown truly believed he possessed, to the extent that “The 12-Year-Old Who Is Surprisingly Competent And Does As He’s Told” might have been a more appropriate slogan.
Certainly it’s the impression reinforced (inadvertently, I’m sure) by the role the song casts him in: a cute kid doing menial jobs for hire – and doing them for a Motown producer, too, no less! – a commodity, and in a position of weakness to the extent that Clarence needs to tell him what 15 and 25 add up to (“Fifteen cents and a quarter, that’s all I’m gonna offer, that will make you have forty”).
Whilst with hindsight there’s some amusement to be had in hearing Stevie haggling over money with a Motown representative, knowing as we do what happened when he turned 21 in real life, it’s pretty much the only enjoyment to be had here. Anyone could have been brought in to sing this rubbish.
Unfunny, meandering, pointless, slightly unsettling, badly performed pap.
(A footnote: This would end up being Clarence Paul’s only headline credit as an artist on a Motown single, though he did cut some other solo material; check out You Stay On My Mind from A Cellarful of Motown Volume 3).
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“I’ll Love You Till I Die”
|Little Stevie Wonder
“La La La La La”