On 22 June 1963, the name of Stevie Wonder appeared on a mainstream pop chart for the first time. After three unsuccessful singles, he entered the Billboard Hot 100 with the famous live recording of ‘Fingertips (Part 2)’, recorded at the Regal Theatre in Chicago and released as a single by Motown, starting a chart history that extended through the next five decades.
Of all the oddities about the recording that started Stevie’s chart life, perhaps the most surprising is that ‘Fingertips’ was a live version, from one of the early Motown Revue shows, of an album track that hadn’t featured him at all. He’d recorded the song, written by Hank Cosby and Clarence Paul, for his debut album The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie, released in September 1962 when he was 12 years old. ‘Fingertips’ led off the album, but although Stevie played bongos, the featured instrument was not harmonica at all, but the flute playing of ‘Funk Brothers’ member ‘Beans’ Bowles.
By the time the Motown Revue hit the road, ‘Fingertips’ had turned into a showcase for the frenetic harmonica playing of the 12-year-old genius, and an exciting finale to his live set. In March 1963, Berry Gordy arranged for a recording truck to capture the date in Chicago, and at the end of his set, with Mary Wells waiting to hit the stage as the next featured artist, Stevie told the crowd: “The name of the song is called, uh, ‘Fingertips.’ Now I want you to clap your hands. Come on, come on. Yeah, stomp your feet, jump up and down, and do anything that you wanna do.” The track kicked in with a drum figure played by a young Motown house musician by the name of Marvin Gaye.
The performance was so long that when it was released, it had to be split into two sections, famously separated by Stevie’s momentary departure from the stage. When he returned unexpectedly, the house band was already changing for Wells’ performance, leading to the celebrated moment on the live recording in which incoming bass player Larry Moses, suddenly thrust into action, shouts, “What key? What key?”
Somewhat clumsily divided into two, the recording was issued as a US single in May, with the second section on the b-side. But with the improvised, call-and-response electricity between Stevie and the Chicago crowd, that was the version that radio stations picked up on, taking ‘Fingertips Pt. 2’ into the charts the first time on the chart dated published June 22, 1963.
“All of this was recorded by accident, I never thought it would be a single,” Stevie said later. Reminiscing about his early years as a performing artist, he reflected: “You wouldn’t really call it performing. Doorsteps, porches, back yards, alleys. I did a lot of work in church. My mother told me that even before I was born, she had a dream that she had a child who was a musician.”
By August, ‘Fingertips Pt. 2’ was No. 1 both pop and R&B, and the album ‘Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius’ (by a genius who’d actually now turned 13) hit the top of the charts as well. Here’s the full live version of the anniversary hit, plus by way of interesting comparison, the original studio recording.