(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
And so into 1964, Motown Year Six, the first year in Motown’s history that reality actually began to reflect the delusions of grandeur Berry Gordy had had for his little independent label right from the very start. In the five previous years, Motown had released an ever-increasing number of hit singles and exceptional records. If Gordy had decided to pull the plug at the end of 1963, he would have been proud of what the underdog company had achieved; Motown had done enough that it would have been remembered fondly by music fans as another Vee-Jay or Scepter, a fine and trusted label with a catalogue of superb quality, especially in its last months. Yet Gordy wasn’t satisfied, and things instead went up to a whole next level; it took his stable just twelve months to outstrip those five whole preceding years. By the end of 1964, Motown would be a phenomenon.
The period of transition would see a fundamental re-shuffle of the pecking order within the company, on both sides of the glass. When 1964 was done, there would be hitherto-unknown winners (the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Norman Whitfield), and previous big hitters turned losers (Mary Wells, Berry Gordy himself). Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson consolidated their positions; Andre Williams and Janie Bradford were pushed back in the pack. The rest of the company (both relative newcomers and stars like the Marvelettes, even Martha and the Vandellas) were left jockeying for position, uncertain as to what their futures might hold in the brave new world following the British invasion.
Here at the start of 1964, one of the Motown acts who looked most certain to be a surefire loser in the upcoming game of musical chairs was Little Stevie Wonder, caught at a crossroads in his career as he entered his early teens. As any 14-year-old will tell you, the gap between 12 and 14 might just as well be 20 years, and that “Little Stevie” moniker was becoming increasingly inappropriate as Wonder’s voice deepened and the fuzz started appearing on his face. Accordingly, this is the last record Tamla released before that “Little” sobriquet was dropped; for future releases after this one, he’d just be plain Stevie Wonder.
Stevie was getting more and more involved in the day-to-day activities at Hitsville, progressing from making a nuisance of himself in the studio to seriously studying recording technology and techniques; getting to know absolutely everyone, learning how to work the equipment, playing more and more instruments, ingratiating himself. His unexpected #1 smash hit single Fingertips had secured his immediate safety at the company, and perhaps changed some people’s perceptions of his status, moving him from a novelty kiddie act and vanity project, an indulgence, to a potential cash cow.
Trouble was, Stevie couldn’t seem to follow up that big hit. As already discussed when talking about his last effort, Workout Stevie, Workout, his own personal popularity didn’t seem to match that of Fingertips and its associated live LP. He was that most dreaded of music industry phenomena, the one-hit Wonder.
Motown had a significant investment tied up in Stevie – that and his #1 hit (and the trust fund established for his royalties) meant he was safe for now, but despite his unique status and his tender years, he’d have been as acutely aware of the perils and pressures of the business as any of his older labelmates. He had a grace period, sure, but the ultimate rules of the game were the same: have some more hits, or find yourself (sooner or later) kicked out.
The records Stevie cut over the course of the two years following Fingertips are a mixed bag indeed. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily concur with Nelson George’s assessment that Stevie’s output between the fall of 1963 and that of 1965 was the worst run of material recorded of any Motown artist – after all, someone had to come last at any given time – it’s still difficult to make a real case for the quality of the sequence of records that falls between Fingertips and Uptight (Everything’s Alright).
This was the third single Stevie had released since Fingertips, if we include the remixed version of I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues which Motown mistakenly selected as the first follow-up release, and it’s a fine illustration of both where he’d come from and where he was heading. A West Coast production, just like Patrice Holloway’s Stevie (a tribute to Wonder himself!) released a couple of weeks previously, this is a product of the sessions for Stevie’s fourth LP Stevie At The Beach (left), recorded as a tie-in for the two AIP “beach movies” Stevie was filming at the time, Bikini Beach and Muscle Beach Party.
Although the LP is billed as Stevie’s entry into the “surf sound” scene, it’s really nothing of the sort – it’s just a collection of seaside-themed songs, mostly cover versions. This, its lead single, is probably its best track. The liner notes for the album exclaim breathlessly that Castles In The Sand “…received widespread acceptance from his legions of fans for a performance in a field partially new to him, the surfing sound, done in his own ballad style.” They were half right; the “new field” isn’t the surfing sound, but rather a deeper, more mature vocal, Stevie’s voice developing for everyone to hear. (There’s a great anecdote in the liner notes for The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4 which states that around this time, Stevie had to drop out of a European tour commitment because his voice broke halfway through the run.) Vocally, he’s stuck between two worlds here, not quite as shrill and piping as on his previous Motown singles, but not yet mature either; the sound of gawky, awkward adolescence.
Lyrically, too, the song is a strange hybrid of kiddie novelty, teenage angst and world-weary experience, signifying the change in Stevie’s persona by having him sing a lament about how the tide’s washing away of young couples’ sandcastles mirrors the travails of love and heartbreak. Musically, the tune’s a good one; it’s a wistful uptempo pop ballad of a type Stevie couldn’t quite carry off, leaving him repeatedly reaching for notes just out of his grasp, but he was certainly closer to achieving it than he had been at any previous point, and the LA session group does a fine job. Perhaps most importantly, whilst there are bongos aplenty all over this (as a nod to Stevie’s earlier singles), there’s no harmonica at all – instead we get a full string arrangement and some sound effects (crashing waves, squawking gulls); Motown seem to have consciously decided to start pushing him in a more mature, more upmarket direction, and it shows. This is an entertaining synthesis of radio-friendly white pop with an R&B edge, the exact sort of territory (if not necessarily the exact sort of sound) that Stevie would come to personify in his later teenage years.
His voice is too much all over the place to make the kind of impact the song wants him to make, and if you were to suggest this was a piece of throwaway novelty fluff there’s not much I could say in its defence, but nonetheless I think when it’s over, the good just about outweighs the bad. If it’s not something I come back to listen to over and over again, it’s both a fascinating snapshot of Stevie as he stood on the cusp of maturity, physically and artistically, and an entertaining little pop song in its own right.
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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“(He Is) The Boy Of My Dreams”
|Little Stevie Wonder
“Thank You (For Loving Me All The Way)”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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