Twelve-Year-Old Genius At Work: Stevie Wonder Debuts By His ‘Fingertips’
His first singles chart appearance captured the improvised, call-and-response electricity between Stevie and a Chicago crowd.
It’s strange to imagine a time before the charts had Stevie Wonder in them, but it was on June 22, 1963 that he appeared on a mainstream pop chart for the first time. Everybody say yeah (yeah!) as we remember “Fingertips Pt. 2.”
After three unsuccessful singles, Stevie entered the Billboard Hot 100 with that famous live recording. It was made at the Regal Theatre in Chicago on one of the early Motown Revue shows, and released as a single by the company. That started a history that has extended through the next five decades.
A sensation in Chicago
The live version of the single featured on the album Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, which was cut at that Chicago date when Wonder had indeed just turned 12. By the time the album was released, he had just become a teenager: Stevie celebrated his 13th birthday on May 13.
But it’s not widely remembered that “Fingertips” was a live version of an instrumental album track on which he only played percussion. Written by Hank Cosby and Clarence Paul, it was recorded for his debut album The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, released in September 1962. The studio “Fingertips” led off the disc, but although Stevie played bongos, the featured instrument was not harmonica at all. It was 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. Then, at the end of his set, with Mary Wells waiting to hit the stage as the next featured artist, Stevie was addressing the crowd.
‘I want you to clap your hands’
“The name of the song is called, uh, ‘Fingertips,’” he told them. “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. They were famously separated by Stevie’s momentary departure from the stage. When he returned unexpectedly, the house band was already changing for Wells’ performance. That led 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. The second section adorned the B-side. But with the improvised, call-and-response electricity between Stevie and the Chicago crowd, that second part was the one that radio stations picked up on. It took ‘Fingertips Pt.2’ into the Hot 100 at No.85. It didn’t hit the R&B chart until a week later, June 29, at No.26.
‘Recorded by accident’
“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.”
Listen to the Best Motown Songs Ever playlist.
By August, “Fingertips Pt.2” was No.1 both pop and R&B, and the album Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius hit the top of the charts as well.
Buy or stream ‘Fingertips Pts 1 & 2’ on the album Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius.
September 19, 2020 at 1:40 pm
Who was the announcer on this record.