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A look back at Stevie Wonder's first hit

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It was May 1963, and the crowd at Chicago’s Regal Theater was in a stone- whacked, hot-wired, ready-Freddy frenzy. This kid, this 12-year-old phenom, was going wild onstage. Finishing a bongo solo on a jazzy bossa nova number called ”Fingertips,” the kid suddenly started improvising — blowing fierce harmonica riffs, shouting, ”Everybody say yeah!” and whipping the crowd and his grown-up band into a madhouse instrumental jam. Things got so chaotic that a confused bass player from Mary Wells’ group, the next act on the Motown Revue bill, rushed in from the wings too early and found himself playing with strang-ers, yelling, ”What key? What key?”

It was a turnaround night for Little Stevie Wonder. Born prematurely, blinded when too much oxygen was pumped into his incubator, Steveland Judkins Morris began his musical career by banging spoons on a table. By the time he turned 8, the Detroit prodigy had graduated to percussion, piano, and harmonica. Signed to Motown Records three years later by founder Berry Gordy Jr., who gave him his stage name, Wonder was having trouble breaking through. His first three singles failed to chart; there was even an odd attempt to link Wonder with Ray Charles by having him sing an album of cover tunes called A Tribute to Uncle Ray. Realizing that Wonder drew the greatest response whenever he performed in front of an audience, Gordy then decided to record a stage show at the Regal Theater.

Capturing the raw energy of Wonder’s performance, ”Fingertips-Pt. 2” hit the charts on June 22, 1963. The song had clocked in at an incredible seven minutes — so long it had to be split in two as a single. Side one (”Fingertips- Pt. 1,” which hardly anyone remembers) includes the brassy melody and extended bongo solo; the second boasts the rousing finale. ”Fingertips-Pt. 2” became the first live recording ever to reach No. 1, and it marked the first time that a single and its album ( The 12-Year-Old Genius) topped the charts at the same time.

”Stevie was one of the high points of Motown’s live tours,” says John Swenson, author of the biography Stevie Wonder. ”With ‘Fingertips,’ they managed to capture the lightning in a bottle.” They also introduced to the world a stunning artist whose musical vision would extend through soul classics, synthesizer rhapsodies, and Third World rhythms to his present work — the soundtrack to Jungle Fever (see review, p. 58), Wonder’s first album in four years. But it all started that night in Chicago, when a 12-year-old kid who wanted to keep playing decided to drive the audience crazy.


Time Capsule June 22, 1963

Frank Sinatra was crooning on the big screen in Come Blow Your Horn, and TV viewers were catching the cornball hit The Beverly Hillbillies. Kyu Sakamoto had the only No. 1 song ever sung in Japanese, ”Sukiyaki,” while gossip queen Hedda Hopper and James Brough’s The Whole Truth and Nothing But was the nonfiction best-seller.

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