b/w Sad Boy
(Written by Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner)
Even Stevie’s biggest fans have traditionally found it hard to get enthusiastic about his early teenage output, the stuff that comes between mid-1963 and late 1965 – or between Fingertips and Uptight, if you prefer. There are some decent sides in there, but most of it is pretty unimpressive or forgettable fare. On the one hand, you have a record label that didn’t really know what to do with its most precocious talent; on the other hand, you have an artist going through puberty in the public eye and struggling for direction. The “Little Stevie” years were over – Wonder was now a gangly 14-year-old, and his voice was mid-break – but nobody could predict where he was going.
This single is a great example of that. Much as with Marvin Gaye’s supper-club cover of Mr Sandman, a similarly-embarrassing early popularity-courting scrawl from another artist who’d later be lauded for his serious, considered, mature work, it’s almost impossible to work out how Stevie got to there from here, because if there’s any single that seems to discount any possibility of its creator becoming one of the greatest artists and writers of all time, it’s Happy Street.
That’s not to say Happy Street is the worst of Stevie’s “awkward years”. It’s soulless and artificial, but it’s not irredeemably awful. It’s just that it’s completely lacking in ambition (and it’s not high on effort, either, which is really surprising.) This is a painstaking recreation of Fingertips, and it’s not surprising to discover it was a product of Hollywood.
Stevie was featured “singing” the song – twice – in the AIP teen vehicle Muscle Beach Party, firstly tearing it up in front of Dick Dale, then dancing, drumming and beating the bongos over the end credits. Everyone in both scenes is miming (observe Dick’s movements!), but they’re not miming to the studio version either time – these are two fresh recordings, made specially for the movie:-
Previous Motown attempts to recapture lightning in a bottle had been dismal failures – compare the Contours’ increasingly poor efforts to recreate the success of Do You Love Me with a series of forced-fun knockoffs, each missing the point more than the last – and so there was little reason to expect anything different here.
Although it is different, obviously. This is another West Coast recording for Stevie; the LA-based writers Hemric and Styner have one previous appearance here on Motown Junkies, penning Joanne and the Triangles’ alarmingly drippy After The Showers Come Flowers; they’d later supply the Supremes with the title track to another AIP vehicle, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (which I’ve already decided must get a review when the time comes!). It’s unlikely, then, that this was Motown making a concerted effort to recreate the success and atmosphere of Stevie’s big breakthrough; far more plausible that this was all done at AIP’s request, that if they were going to have a teenaged Stevie Wonder in their movie, he’d better do something new along the lines of the big hit everyone knew him for.
Its inclusion on the LP Stevie at the Beach (left) makes perfect sense, and if that’s where it had stayed, fair enough. The album had been in stores for ages by now, and with two singles already pulled from it – Castles In The Sand and Hey Harmonica Man – it was close to being mined out for material. Baffling, then, that Motown somehow decided the time was ripe for a throwback to the frantic days of Little Stevie (as he’s billed in the movie) and chose to sling this out as a single.
The effect of this re-contextualisation is pretty jarring, turning Happy Street from a throwaway piece of beach party film soundtrack filler into the next single from one of Motown’s major artists. Just like on those Contours tracks – Don’t Let Her Be Your Baby is the most egregious example, but there are plenty of others – the magic just isn’t there, and the energy from the original track is gone.
In its place is a perfunctory and slightly embarrassing exercise in reliving the past, and it doesn’t do anyone any favours – not least Stevie, whose voice is several tones deeper than on Fingertips, but with the added squeaky awkwardness of puberty lurking round every corner. Not only is it the weakest single Stevie Wonder had released since his big breakthrough, it’s also a dead end, giving the public the impression this guy was still the novelty kiddie turn of years past, the tap-dancing, harmonica-blowing blind kid who could whip an audience into a frenzy doing mindless R&B freakouts.
Hard to overestimate what that kind of typecasting might potentially have done to Stevie – less of a pigeonhole, and more of a black hole whose sucking gravitational pull he’d find it hard to escape. Nobody at Motown could have known the impressionable 14-year-old would go on to beat the odds and make Talking Book or Innervisions, and – more starkly – the release of this as a single suggests that nobody really believed it either.
Why am I not giving it a worse mark, then? Because it’s still not terrible. Lunkheaded, yes; nakedly, cynically commercial, sure (and wrongly so, too, as this failed to chart); but the harmonica rocks, the writers knew how to get the kids dancing in those movies, and I find myself drumming along to it, every single time. So, even though it’s both stupid and tacky, a pointless step in the wrong direction, I can’t bring myself to hate it, not even a little bit.
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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