B-side of Hey Harmonica Man
B-side of Hey Harmonica Man
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Rather a different proposition to the A-side in some respects, dishearteningly similar in others, it’s hard to know just what to make of this.
Motown were starting to distance Wonder from the earlier “Little Stevie” child prodigy novelty phase of his career – a wise move given he was now 14 and much less marketable as an adorable blind tween – and yet Stevie remained inextricably linked to one exhilarating, freeform live hit that had been aggressively marketed on the basis of his age. If the public still wanted more of the same, more variations on the Fingertips theme, then Motown had to oblige them – even if it meant dusting off an old recording and stuffing Stevie right back into the pigeonhole marked The 12 Year Old Genius.
If This Little Girl sounds like a step backwards in many ways, it’s because it had been sitting in the can for six months, recorded in Detroit before Stevie had gone out to Los Angeles to cut his Stevie at the Beach LP (from which the A-side here was drawn). As such, it’s of interest for Motown musical historians; the pace of development at Hitsville in the winter of ’63 meant that every act benefitted from every other act’s forward progress, the Funk Brothers learning new things on one record and then incorporating them into the next one. Whoever happened to be in the studio next got the benefit of whoever happened to be in the studio last, and Stevie was no exception.
But this was a double-edged sword. The world of pop music was moving very fast, nowhere more so than in Detroit, and so yesterday’s big studio advance became tomorrow’s old news; if your recording stayed on the shelf too long, it ended up out of date.This one starts out in fascinating fashion, sounding more like Marvin Gaye than Stevie Wonder; the atmosphere and production of Can I Get A Witness or You’re A Wonderful One brought to the session, a stark, pounded piano riff echoing in the silence before slowly being joined by drums, handclaps, finger-clicks, a choir of backing vocals, strummed guitars. Little Stevie was growing up alright – or so it appears to begin with.
But then the groove that producers Norman Whitfield and Hank Cosby have worked so meticulously to build, piece by piece, is suddenly shoved right back in the mix, and out of nowhere the record becomes a straight clone of Fingertips, somehow acquiring a fake “live” atmosphere (mostly achieved through a weird mic effect that distorts Stevie’s lead vocal) and a jam-like ad-libbed feel; a freewheeling aura over which Stevie can freestyle.
This is by far the closest attempt on Motown’s part to recreate Fingertips so far. It’s so similar, in fact, that the feeling is less one of exhilaration and more one of exasperation, or at least a vague sinking feeling in your heart. A year has elapsed, and yet This Little Girl – random tempo changes and all – could easily have come from the same concert set at which Fingertips was recorded; after that great intro, it’s just back to service as usual, nobody’s made any progress whatsoever. Stevie sounds the same (both his vocal, where the months of growing-up he’d done between this and the A-side Hey Harmonica Man are especially noticeable, and his wailing on the harp), the band sound the same (the bass on this is very cool, but it’s not really any kind of improvement on the jazz-inflected live jam from the big hit)… if Motown had thought they could get away with a few shouts of Everybody say yeah! scattered through this, you can bet they’d have shoved a couple of those in too.
For all of that, though, this is still a cut above the likes of the “soundalike sequel” efforts we’ve seen from the Contours, say, or Mary Wells – attempts to retread moments of past glory by trying to recapture lightning in a bottle under sterile laboratory conditions, missing the point of whatever gave those earlier records their magic in the first place. The magic in Fingertips was Stevie’s manic gusto, a Tasmanian devil with heavy shades and a harmonica bouncing around the stage, and those things are still here in spades; Wonder’s irrepressible enthusiasm and youthful exuberance don’t do any favours for the exercise to rebrand him as a serious, maturing artiste, but they carry this record along.
Which is just as well, as the record is clearly meant to sound as ad-libbed as its illustrious ancestor, and rather relies on Stevie’s creativity to deliver something useable out of what might otherwise be a shapeless mess. Accordingly, they wind him up with that Marvin Gaye intro and then set him loose on the track.
That it ends up being so engaging and highly danceable, despite the blatant cribbing from the earlier hit (I physically winced the first time I heard Stevie’s exhortation to “Clap your hands!”), is all down to Wonder’s demented energy, completely unwilling to acknowledge the inferiority of the material, throwing himself wholeheartedly into nonsense chants of Loy-loy-loy-lordy-loy-loy and an out-of-control vocal full of shouts and barks.
Simultaneously great fun and greatly annoying, it’s difficult to know what to think about this one; it moves the story of Stevie Wonder forward not one jot, and it’s at least six months past its sell-by date, but you can definitely dance to it and it’ll get stuck in your head given half a chance. A record of contrasts and contradictions; Motown would keep on picking at this particular scab before Wonder really shook off that “Little Stevie” tag, but this is far from being as bad as you might fear.
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6 / 10
(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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“Hey Harmonica Man”
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