(Written by Robert Higginbotham)
b/w Music Talk
(Second pressing with different B-side)
b/w Music Talk
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal but more likely on the balance of probabilities to be true, that as the summer of 1965 dragged on, Motown had finally lost patience with the stuttering career of Stevie Wonder. Three years of singles and albums had given the label no real handle on where his career was heading; he’d scored an entirely unexpected but extremely welcome surprise Number One hit back in May 1963 with Fingertips, which had bought Stevie some time and plenty of goodwill – but as that time ticked away, he’d yielded no further substantial hits, no rave reviews.
But this wasn’t what was going to prematurely end Stevie’s time at Hitsville, if the story is to be believed. Ruthless though Motown head honcho Berry Gordy could be, he was loyal to those who’d been loyal to him, and a Top 40 drought from an artist who’d scored a big hit back in the rats-and-roaches era, the early days when the going was really tough (like, say, the Marvelettes) wasn’t grounds to dump them just because those big hits had now dried up.
Nor was the problem that Stevie was somehow stuck in a rut. Sure, his early/mid-Sixties output is decidedly short on classics, but if anything, he was adopting too scattershot an approach; there’s a maturing musical sensibility on show in places, but it’s mixed up with endless attempts to recapture the spirit of his kiddie novelty oeuvre; if anything, given Motown’s choices of singles in the wake of Fingertips, any blame for his work giving the impression of a series of stale retreads should probably be laid at the feet of the label.
No, the problem was that Stevie’s breakthroughs – not just Fingertips, but the accompanying chart-topping live LP, The 12 Year Old Genius – were by their very nature never going to be repeated. Stevie was 15 now, his voice broken, the demented energy and harmonica skill still there but given a much harder edge by his wickedly sharp wit and newfound blue sense of teenage humour. The cutesy curiosity angle was gone forever; little old ladies weren’t queueing up to coo and applaud his safe kiddie precociousness. It left Stevie in a strange no-man’s-land, and it’s a land that’s been occupied since by any number of child stars who failed to transition to adult stars. It’s not that Stevie was washed up, it’s not even that Motown would necessarily have had a problem with him being washed up; it’s that, as far as “Little Stevie Wonder” was concerned, he was quite literally finished.
Motown, of course, lucked out when it came to talent-spotting kids with bright futures who went on to become legendary grown-ups. Twice they gambled on a precocious performer, twice they managed to (probably inadvertently) identify a great artist ten years hence. Stevie was going places. Not that you’d know it from High Heel Sneakers, which is a record that puts all its eggs in the same basket that had worked so well for Fingertips: a crackling live rendition of a more sedate blues original, in this case Tommy Tucker’s recent 12-bar hit Hi-Heel Sneakers, the record living or dying solely with the sheer energy brought to it by Stevie and his manic stage presence.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to this; much as I like Fingertips, it’s very much one of a kind, resplendent in its lunkheaded glory, and the attempt to re-do it all two years later didn’t fill me with hope. Recorded live at a Motortown Revue multi-artist show at the Paris Olympia back in April (several songs from which were compiled on a live album, pictured left), this starts out in distinctly unpromising fashion; the French MC makes his introduction, the French crowd claps politely, and we’re transported back to 1963 just as Stevie gets up on stage – his voice a little huskier, his exhortations a little throatier – and asks us all to clap our hands before he picks up his harmonica. Come on, Stevie.
But this turns out to be more fun than initially suggested, the organ-led blues (benefitting from the rare live presence of Motown studio mainstay Earl Van Dyke on keys) carrying strong echoes of the Headliners’ Tonight’s The Night; that record had been underwhelming, positively calling out for a ballsier approach and a more dynamic singer, and that’s borne out here. They don’t come much more dynamic than Stevie Wonder; just as he had two years ago, he wins the audience over quickly, gets them eating out of the palm of his hand and then never lets them go. (It’s not something I noticed right away, but it’s actually the tambourine that leads this, raising the BPM with Stevie following along in its wake.)
He’s still giving the impression of being stuck in a rut, undeniably – this is everything that was both right and wrong about Stevie’s career in mid-’65 all in one record – and the cheesy 40s horns don’t help matters, but this turns out to be perfectly acceptable, divering, even entertaining fare.
I couldn’t in good conscience give it a high mark, given that it shares so much of the DNA of Fingertips without ever scaling the same heights, given that it appeared in the middle of the most glorious golden summer ever enjoyed by any record label in America so far, given that it’s so self-limiting in its dopey ambitions to get your booty shaking and no more. But it’s not embarrassing, and it’s pretty good fun, in its own way; it sets its sights low and hits its mark well enough.
Was it the record to re-establish Stevie as a star? Absolutely not – but that would never come with a throwback like this anyway. Stevie’s future lay in another direction, almost entirely divorced from these beginnings, with Fingertips destined to remain a bizarre outlying anomaly to baffle future discographers. That future was so bright, it’s almost impossible to think it might never have happened; but as enjoyable as High Heel Sneakers ends up being, Motown weren’t going to keep greenlighting these things forever.
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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