(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
When people think of Fingertips, this, Part 2, is what they usually mean. It’s the more direct, visceral, and thoroughly enjoyable of the two parts, but it wasn’t originally even intended as an A-side, never mind the million-selling number one pop hit it became – a success which must have exceeded Motown’s wildest dreams, however much Berry Gordy would later claim to have had faith in the boy Wonder’s chart future.
I’m unsure if there’s ever been such a weird number one pop hit as this. A live recording (and an incomplete one, at that, covering the last three minutes of the performance started on Part 1, but not picking up where Part 1 left off) by a blind multi-instrumentalist and harmonica virtuoso nobody in America had previously heard of (Stevie’s first three singles prior to this breakthrough had failed to chart), which comes to a complete halt with a glaring mistake and a few seconds of “dead air” right smack in the middle of it. Yet in the summer of 1963, the American record buying public couldn’t get enough of it.
There’s a simple enough explanation, of course. It’s fantastic.
Let me start off by explaining what the heck this record is, because although it seems obvious to me just from listening to it, much of the Internet seems to have got it wrong, so some background might help. This is a live recording from a multi-artist Motown show at the Regal Theater in Chicago, in March of 1963. Crucially, these were so tightly managed that the same group of backing musicians didn’t do the whole night (since there wasn’t really enough time for all those rehearsals) – so different artists would be assigned different backing players.
Fingertips, as featured on both sides of this single, was the lengthy set-closer for Stevie’s segment of one of these shows, and here he’s already way over his time slot. (The full length performance – not featured on the tie-in album, Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, as the version of Fingertips included as the opening track there is just the two sides of this single clumsily bodged together – apparently ran for something like nine or ten minutes.)
However, the new arrangement of Fingertips Stevie was using to close his live appearances – now built around the band belting out an absolutely killer horn riff and smashing on the drums while Wonder set about whaling on his harmonica and thrashing around the stage like a crazy person – is absolutely tearing up the crowd, so much that the increasingly-impatient stage manager (waiting ever more anxiously to introduce the next act, usually stated to be the Marvelettes) is reluctant to haul him off the stage, Oscars-style.
Stevie knows this, and starts taking liberties, dragging the song out to an absurd length, seeing how far he can take it – even interpolating a bit of Mary Had A Little Lamb to the amusement of the audience – while the band, clearly loving it, back him up and egg him on. You get the feeling they’d have happily kept playing for twenty minutes, while Stevie gets ever more energetic and the crowd gets ever wilder.
When he breaks out an apparent ending at 1:25 (enough to fool the stage manager, not listening to what Stevie’s singing – he explicitly says he’s “gonna sing this song one more time when I come back” – beyond the fact he ends with “…so goodbye!”) and walks off stage, Stevie’s musicians are quickly hustled off the stage. The MC signals to the orchestra to strike up the transition music, and ushers the next band on, ready for the Marvelettes’ set, already running late. No footage of this particular performance exists (it would be invaluable), but video for other Motortown Revue shows available on YouTube illustrate this process, showing the artists and a few musicians rushing off stage and the next lot arriving and setting up while this exact same music is played to cover the transition, all taking place within about 30 seconds.
Here, everyone’s in the middle of doing this, when Stevie suddenly appears again stage left, causing the orchestra to abruptly stop as the house lights focus back on Stevie again, as he starts up solo on his harmonica. Some of Stevie’s band are able to hurry back out and resume their positions (some of them probably didn’t leave in the first place, having paid attention to what Stevie was planning to do), but at least one of Stevie’s guys, bassist Larry Moses, has already been replaced by Joe Swift of the Marvelettes’ band – who, remember, haven’t rehearsed Fingertips – and who doesn’t have time to swap places again. The result is a bewildered Swift shouting “What key, what key?”, and mumbling some other comments the mic doesn’t quite pick up (supposedly some of them are cuss words, but I’ve never been able to pick anything distinct out of what he’s saying), trying to keep up with what’s happening.
And then he gets his answer – C minor – and slots in to the performance as the band strikes up again with that riff, and Stevie starts blasting away on his harmonica, and the crowd goes absolutely bananas.
On original release, Part 2 was the B-side, Berry Gordy supposedly trying to bury the false ending – but it’s easy to see why DJs started flipping the record over, and it’s got very little to do with any kind of novelty value. It’s positively electric, this. Stevie’s got the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. When he makes his reappearance, someone screams “Yeahh! Get down!”; I think this is one of the crowd, unable to contain her excitement, rather than anyone on stage reacting to Wonder’s ad-libbed encore. I totally know what she means, too. This is a record made for playing the loudest it will go; get up and dance.
The sheer energy buzzing out of the speakers here comes from two sources. The central horn riff, only really hinted at on the jazz flute-heavy original LP version from Stevie’s début album The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie, was brought to the forefront by the new arrangement used for the live performance (coined by Johnny Allen, according to the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3), but it hadn’t really been allowed room to breathe during the lengthy intro section of the performance as featured on Part 1, getting bogged down with the slower tempo-change bits from the original which suck the momentum back out of the crowd whenever it threatens to cut loose. Here, though, we’ve moved past that – Stevie lets the band use it to full effect, none of that messing around with the tempo, nothing fancy, just a full-on, repetitive, blood-and-guts attack – an endlessly rising, kick-ass tower of noise. On the new mix of the song, as featured on the second pressing of this single which placed Part 2 on top and sold more than a million copies, there’s tons more echo and fizz than on the first pressing, giving the whole thing a rougher, more in-your-face feel that means you can’t sit still while listening to it; a masterstroke.
The other great thing about Part 2 as compared to Part 1 are Stevie’s vocals. The original LP version and Part 1 were both instrumental, but this one has lyrics (basic ones that sound as though they were made up on the spot – and some of them may well have been – but lyrics nonetheless), and Stevie’s consummate stagecraft is on display as he uses them to get the crowd whipped into a frenzied lather. It’s clear right from the off, when Stevie opens Part 2 by shouting EVERYBODY SAY YEAH! and breaks into a masterful call-and-response section that immediately lifts everything up a level. (It certainly seems to have left quite an impression on Chaka Khan).
(Everybody Say Yeah! was actually the working title for this very site, you’ll not be interested to know.)
The best record of Wonder’s “Little Stevie” phase, by a long chalk, this really is remarkable, just a huge amount of fun. Simple and straightforward, sure, but sometimes that’s the best approach, especially if you’ve got Stevie Wonder in your corner; wind him up and watch him go. You might conceivably get tired of listening to Part 1; you’ll never get tired of listening to this.
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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“Fingertips (Part 1)”
“First You’ve Got To Recognize God”
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