(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
It’s unbelievable to even think it now, but Stevie Wonder – if you believe the stories – was supposedly on his last legs at Motown as the golden year of 1965 drew to a close. As his labelmates racked up big hits and all-time classics, as Motown became the year’s biggest-selling singles label in America, Stevie was an irrelevance; yesterday’s man, musically and artistically, he simply had no place in the new order.
Motown had money tied up in him, and so even though there’d been no hits since his thunderclap live jam Fingertips had unexpectedly shot to the very top back in early ’63 – and even though former stragglers who’d been bottom of the bill that day were now regularly landing in the pop top ten while Stevie struggled to get any traction at all – the label kept on dutifully cutting new singles on him, talking him up as a bona fide new star rather than a one-hit wonder whose light had faded, launching leftfield PR stunt after leftfield PR stunt to try and keep him in the public eye.
But the act was wearing thin. “Little Stevie”, the one-time adorable blind tween with his novelty harmonica dance jams, was gone, and in his place had come… nothing much, really. I’ve said before that Berry Gordy was fiercely loyal to those who’d cut Motown hits before the rise of the Supremes, and that commercial struggles alone wouldn’t necessarily have been enough to drop the struggling Wonder – but the real threat was that Stevie’s whole act was gone, the Little Stevie schtick lost to puberty and changing times.
With no obvious next step – and, thus far, no evidence that Stevie had the ideas or the talent to take that step even if it had been obvious – I’m certain Motown had no idea what they had on their hands, or how to encourage his development. Not for nothing did Nelson George pick out Stevie’s 1963-65 singles as the worst run of material any Motown A-list star was ever saddled with, and rumours began to grow that he was finished. Certainly, if Motown had pulled the trigger and cut their losses, dumping Stevie back on the scrapheap of history, well, it would have been understandable. Boneheaded, in hindsight, but understandable.
Still, Motown, like a sports team carrying a struggling, once-promising draft pick in the fourth year of his contract who suddenly shows up for training rejuvenated and full of fire, had plenty good cause to be grateful they’d not acted impetuously and cut him loose. Here, out of nowhere, Stevie Wonder finally joins the Motown story proper, vaulting in one leap to the front of the pack. This is no novelty act or pity case; this is a Motown single through and through, and it’s thrilling.
The Motown story so far, as told through the company’s 45 RPM catalogue and chronicled here on Motown Junkies, has been the story of how individual artists and individual achievements all interlock into one grander narrative – but there are recurring themes among those individual artists’ stories too. While some acts seem to appear on the Motown stage fully formed, in either artistic or commercial terms – or, in especially lucky cases, both – well, others struggle to find their voice, their identity in the pack.
Arguably the two biggest names we’ve seen to date, the Supremes and the Temptations, arrived on our scene strangely half-formed and then had to wade through three years’ worth of weird curios, non-hits forever destined to be consigned to compilations called things like The Early Years and Before They Were Famous. In both those cases, it’s tempting to consider their respective breakthroughs – Where Did Our Love Go and The Way You Do The Things You Do – as their real Motown début singles, the end of their prefaces, the start of their stories as we understand them.
And so it goes with Stevie Wonder and Uptight; what’s gone before informs this record, for sure, but it feels like we’re meeting this guy for the first time, that everything that’s gone before has been preliminary, a diversion, a prologue. If you were telling the story of Stevie Wonder – the Stevie Wonder we know, that is – through singles, Uptight makes a great starting point, since it’s effectively a rebirth, a new beginning.
JOURNEY THROUGH THE SECRET LIFE
It opens with a battered drumbeat, an insistent 4/4 pounding, tambourine dragged in its wake, and appropriately enough it feels like a door being kicked open; Stevie’s career to this point had been grasping along a darkened corridor, on a straight line course to obscurity, and yet suddenly all kinds of possibilities reveal themselves, a Technicolor future flooding in, blasting away two years’ worth of shoddy novelty records.
One of the best things about Uptight, quite apart from the killer hook (slick and impossibly cool and yet somehow at the same time made for beery dancefloor bellowing) and that irresistible beat, is how it immediately positions Stevie in the Motown story, not just to answer the critics, not just as someone who can keep up, but as someone who – unexpectedly – turns out to be leading the way.
The 4/4 beat harks back to 1964, to the dawn of a Motown Golden Age which had largely passed Stevie by untouched. At the same time, the sheer energy, even violence of that beat, with its metallic echo of tambourine, horns blaring at all angles with no regard to who gets hit on the way, seams beginning to show amid the previously-seamless pop production… all of that will find its fullest expression in 1966, when the Supremes, Temptations and Tops all embrace variations on that theme. And here’s Stevie Wonder, somehow already ahead of the curve.
And even then, even when you’re tempted to talk down the triumph this record represents – yeah, but Stevie didn’t produce this, only copped a co-write credit with Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy, it could have been anyone doing the song… – Stevie proves he can be a star performer too. This is his show from start to finish, Stevie taking the song in the palm of his hand, turning loose his natural boyish charm (nothing to do with his actual youth – he still has that impish spark in his voice even now, in his sixties) and fine-tuning it to create a wholly likeable character, an underdog made good who makes us smile, a guy we’re rooting for even as he (essentially) spends the entire record boasting of his amazing luck. In fact, it’s so well done it makes Stevie’s real-life return to success – and, gratifyingly, the business end of the pop and R&B charts – all the more heartwarming, as if we were always rooting for him to turn this thing around, the whole time.
It’s well-sung, too, something which Stevie’s track record thus far hadn’t exactly guaranteed. The Ray Charles schtick which had seemed so forced on earlier Stevie cuts (not helped by Motown’s cack-handed marketing efforts which tried to posit a link between two entirely unrelated blind African-American R&B performers) is just amazing here, Stevie’s delivery crackling with energy, his asides – Ah ha ha ha ha-ha, YEAH – buzzing out of the speakers.
If he’s not yet strengthened his voice to the technical level he’ll reach in a couple of years’ time, he’s grasped how to use what he’s got – his diction reminds me of Diana Ross, another “underpowered” Motown star vocalist (though it’s a surprise to find the Supremes’ cover of this comes across too stilted and mannered to really connect its punches).
But back to Stevie. From a losing position, a position of almost being written off – or, worse, patronised – by Motown, he’d never be left out of the top-table conversation again. For sure, it ended any question of him being allowed to slip through the label’s fingers; it’s an indelible, barrelling powerhouse of a record, a stew of tension released to vivid and unforgettable effect, channelled in exactly the right direction by its mad scientist of a ringmaster, fifteen years old and already smarter than any of us will ever be.
Back in 1962, Motown had marketed Stevie as “the 12 Year Old Genius”. Uptight marks one of those rare occasions where the marketeers – probably by accident, but still – turned out to have been right all along.
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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“Twinkle Twinkle Little Me”
“Purple Rain Drops”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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