B-side of Fingertips (Part 2)
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
“Little” Stevie’s fourth single for Motown was this striking oddity, continuing the scattergun approach the label brass had taken with Wonder’s career to date. This is a live recording – Motown’s first live single – intended to showcase some of Stevie’s energetic, infectious stage presence which so entranced live audiences but which had hitherto failed to come across on vinyl.
This record, along with its original B-side Fingertips (Part 2), turned out – rather against the run of play, it must be said – to be Stevie’s commercial breakthrough, becoming more successful than Motown could have hoped. On initial release – with Part 1 listed as the A-side – Fingertips continued Stevie’s dismal chart fortunes and failed to make an impact; once the record was pressed up with a new mix, and with Part 2 now highlighted (of which more tomorrow), the single suddenly took off, rocketing to Number One on both the R&B and pop charts, Motown’s first #1 Pop since the Marvelettes’ Please Mr Postman over a year ago.
It’s strange for me, as I sit here writing this, to split the two parts of Fingertips into two separate entries; like the Twistin’ Kings’ Congo (Part 1) and Congo (Part 2), the two halves of Fingertips are really just excerpts from one longer performance. Unlike Congo, we sadly don’t have the full length original version to refer back to, meaning we have to make do with a heavily truncated piece, a savage cut right in the middle editing out goodness knows how much of the transition between the two halves, forming a heavy caesura that was never intended by the performers.
By way of background, Stevie had been building his live reputation more and more since signing with Motown; he couldn’t join all the package tours or do club appearances, but once the state authorities allowed him to take time out from his studies at the Michigan School for the Blind (provided he was accompanied at all times by his tutor Ted Hull), he started to appear on Motortown Revue bills, doing a brief mini-set of a few songs as part of a multi-artist roadshow line-up. Breaking out from the “kiddie novelty” corner Motown had roped him into, live engagements allowed him to win over crowds with his enthusiasm and stagecraft; his sheer presence quickly won over fans who were there to see other acts, as well as any patrons who’d turned up for a freak show, to gawk at the blind tween multi-instrumentalist.
The closing song of his stage set in the spring of 1963 was a radical reworking of the opening song from his début LP, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. The album version of Fingertips had been a Latinate jazz jam, wandering into bossa nova in places, showcasing not Stevie at all (who only played bongos on the track) but rather drawing most attention to the flute of Funk Brother Beans Bowles. It’s nice enough, as jazz flute jams go, but the feeling one gets from the LP version is something laid-back, cool, not raucous; the horn breaks, which slightly alter the tempo, detract from that in briefly nudging the song towards more of a big band feel.
This seems to have given Clarence Paul, by now a leading Motown producer as well as Stevie’s general “handler”, an idea. When Stevie headed out on the package tour nights, his set closer would be a rearranged version of Fingertips, dropping the flute, bringing in more muscular drums, and letting the horns loose while Stevie wailed on his harmonica. The results brought the house down.
Berry Gordy, never slow to notice that sort of thing, reasoned that what worked for live audiences might catch on with radio too, and arranged for a remote recording truck to attend one of the package nights at the Regal in Chicago during March of 1963. It’s unclear whether the plan was to record a live album on Stevie – a few other Motown acts were having Recorded Live: INSERT NAME HERE sets lined up – or whether Gordy just wanted Fingertips, but in the event it’s only Fingertips that seems to have ended up in the can.
And here’s where it gets difficult to just write about Part 1, because Part 1 is more like the LP version than Part 2, but it’s clearly part of a lengthy wind-up before delivering the killer pitch, working the crowd into a state where they’re ready to be pushed over the edge into a frenzy. Yet without Part 2, which in itself is divided into two distinct sections (of which, again, more tomorrow), Part 1 is incomplete. By itself, it doesn’t quite work, and yet it should perhaps only be considered as the lengthy scene-setting intro to Part 2.
It’s entertaining enough in its own right, but it’s not quite there; the real meat is towards the end of the piece, not the start, once the band and the audience have loosened up. Both Stevie and the band seem to know it, transmitting that “wait for it… wait for it” feeling of anticipation to the audience. Without the ending (or, indeed, the middle) of the performance, this is wholly incomplete.
Oh, it is quite good fun, don’t get me wrong. Stevie starting things out with some patter as the band start their groove – The name of the song is called, uh, Fingertips. Now I want you to clap your hands. Come on, come on. Yeah. Stomp your feet, jump up and down, and do anything that you WANNA DO!! – the whole thing starting out with a minute-long drum solo, all anchored by a three-note bass riff from touring bassist Larry Moses (of which – you guessed it – more tomorrow).
But, with Stevie having got the crowd “up” in double-quick time before treating them to a crazed harmonica solo in place of the LP’s airy Beans Bowles jazz flute, before that riff kicks in at 1:06 – still quite restrained from the horn players compared to what we know, with hindsight, is coming – the momentum then audibly slips away when the tempo changes at 1:20 and the big band bit breaks up the party; the effect is even worse at 1:50, when despite the audience’s rhythmic applause, they’re clapping for Stevie and his mouth organ, not the song’s apparent lack of direction in these segments. (Part 2, for reference, doesn’t use that bit at all.)
Things are faded down rather abruptly, just as Stevie and the band are really getting into it, and just as the performance is about to deviate very noticeably from the more mannered stylings of the LP version. Right towards the end of Part 1, at 2:52, the horns stop again, giving us a drums-bass-harmonica reprise of the ominous, exciting intro, before there’s a piano gliss and everyone suddenly cuts loose, and… and then it’s suddenly gone. Radio DJs across the land sigh in disappointment. Man, we were listening to that!
Now, it’s artificial to give Part 1 a low mark reflecting this disappointment, as I know what happens if you turn the record over – in Part 2, we rejoin the performance in full flow, perhaps a whole minute or more further along, and Stevie’s got them eating out of the palm of his hand. But for a lot of radio jocks, and record store listeners who went to the A-side first, that wasn’t a given, and the way this ends is, well, disappointing. I’d love to hear what was chopped out in the middle – Part 1.5, if you like – as it doesn’t appear on Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, the live LP that was rushed out in the wake of this single’s staggering success. (That album was cobbled together with a bunch of other live performances from different dates, with a dubbed-on MC intro implying Fingertips was the set opener for the rest of the LP, and featuring the two parts of the song clumsily spliced together (at 3:30) to give the impression of an uninterrupted performance.)
This is the weaker of the two sides, and when the single was reissued in the US (and on its first release in all other countries) Part 1 found itself relegated to the B-side, but it’s unfair to judge it too harshly when it’s really just being taken out of context. The real fun, though, is to be had tomorrow with Part 2.
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!)
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