b/w Monkey Talk
b/w Monkey Talk
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Motown had absolutely no idea what to do with Stevie Wonder. Even after “Little” Stevie had scored the label’s first pop number one single in two years (and only the second in their history) with Fingertips, seemingly they still didn’t know what they had on their hands.
It’s not entirely Motown’s fault, of course. Fingertips was such a weird number one record in the first place that even now, almost 50 years after the fact, people still argue over just why America suddenly went crazy for a live recording with a glaring mistake that meant the song came to a dead stop right in the middle, by an unknown 12-year-old blind harmonica virtuoso, a kid who’d never had a solo concert date, nor any significant press. Nobody had shown the slightest bit of interest in Stevie’s three previous singles prior to Fingertips, none of which had charted, and nobody would show any real interest in him again for another two years.
My own theory is that Fingertips is a one-shot deal; built on live energy, adrenaline, stagecraft and showmanship, you didn’t need to have been there watching the original performance in order to bask in the electric party vibe on the record, because listening to Stevie wail away on his harmonica and shout EVERYBODY SAY YEAH!!, you felt like you were there. Don’t think about it, just switch off and go wild. Great while it lasts, but impossible to successfully reproduce. As the Contours were finding out to their cost, following up a frenetic, live-sounding, alive-sounding dance hit with several calculated soundalikes – following the recipe without knowing what made it taste good – would certainly pay the bills, but it wouldn’t result in big hits, and would do nothing for your reputation.
In essence, the anomalous success of Fingertips was a happy windfall for Motown which kept the label on-side through two years of frankly uninspiring records, allowing Stevie to develop both his performing and songwriting skills while the label indulged him, a couple of Top 30 hits here and there enough to keep the momentum going without too many difficult questions being asked in the corridors of Hitsville. Wonder once said some observers “thought (he’d) wind up making potholders” once his music career failed; Fingertips spared him such a fate, effectively buying him time.
Motown filled that time with any number of cack-handed attempts to push Stevie’s career in one direction or another, resulting in some bad records and some increasingly desperate-looking moves. Their opening gambit was to reissue Stevie’s flop début single, I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues (Part 1), in a new pressing slightly remixed to make it sound a bit more like Fingertips. Record buyers weren’t stupid, and for a second time, the single failed to chart.
This must have thrown Motown a little off their stride; people were buying vast quantities of Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, the live album hastily cobbled together around Fingertips (though all the material on it was taken from an entirely different performance), but that enthusiasm didn’t translate into them becoming Little Stevie fans who’d pick up anything with his name on it. Conclusion: they liked the energy and the harmonica, not the novelty act package that was Little Stevie. Result: Workout Stevie, Workout, the planned first single from an entire album of gospel-influenced uptempo semi-instrumental harmonica thrash-outs. Reward: R&B Top Ten and scraping the Top 30, credible enough but well below Motown’s lofty expectations. Effect: LP release summarily cancelled forthwith.
This is basically secular gospel music, if that makes sense. Think of a church with an organ and a full-on gospel choir in full voice. Move the choir into the studio, where there are saxophones and bongos playing alongside the organ. Replace the lead singer with a blind kid playing a harmonica. Replace the religious lyrics with the words Work out, Stevie, work out! Work out, Stevie work out! repeated over and over again. You now have a good idea of what Workout Stevie, Workout sounds like.
According to the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3, this was carefully crafted to follow in the successful steps of Fingertips, which makes no sense at all – this sounds almost nothing like that previous hit. Its raucous pace is led by bongos and handclaps, rather than the pounding, primal drums heard on Fingertips, which provides a different kind of energy – the wrong kind, if recapturing the vibe of Fingertips was what they were going for. It’s a distinction I find easy to draw, but difficult to describe; it all sounds too church, too abstract. Perhaps knowing it wasn’t actually live (the band track was cut long before Stevie ever got near it to dub his voice and harmonica over the top) adds to the mystique-shattering effect. I don’t know.
Even Stevie’s vocal exhortations sound pre-rehearsed, almost forced, in comparison to his big breakthrough (shades again of those post-Do You Love Me Contours exercises), and that includes his melismatic, spooling near-acapella intro (EVERY TIME I feel a little groove comin’ on I just have to moooo-oooove); what spontaneity there is is, once more, “gospel spontaneity” and not “R&B spontaneity”. It’s raucous, and yet it isn’t dangerous; it’s frantic, and yet it isn’t exhilarating.
A strange miscalculation – the first of a great many such miscalculations for Little Stevie over the next two years – it’s difficult to know who would be satisfied by this. It’s not horrible or anything, it’s just Little Stevie Wonder doing a gospel song, something for which it’s hard to imagine there’s ever been a significant market. The only real plus is that the “Little Stevie” aspect is played right down here; despite his obviously pre-pubescent voice during that intro, the blind kiddie novelty schtick seems to have been dropped in favour of playing up his considerable skills as an entertainer.
He would at least be granted plenty more chances to follow up his big hit before his adult career began in earnest; some of those attempts would be better than this rather uninspiring start, but a great many of them would be considerably worse.
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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“What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One”
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