In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
They’re screaming. They don’t stop screaming. They knew, right? They had to know. Usually, when you hear live recordings, the crowd applauds at the end of the song, and maybe they give a little whoop of recognition when it’s starting, too. Maybe they’ll applaud after a big, showy note. Maybe they’ll sing along on the chorus. But in the case of the first live song ever to hit #1, the crowd just doesn’t stop screaming throughout. They know they’re witnessing something special. And maybe they know they’re seeing a genius arrive.
Little Stevie Wonder was a blind musical prodigy from Saginaw, Michigan, and he was 11 years old when he first signed to Motown. His first two records, a full-length Ray Charles tribute and a sophisticated collection called The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie, didn’t really sell. But things changed when a 12-year-old Wonder joined the Motortown Revue, the touring Motown production that showcased a bunch of the label’s artists. When people at those shows got to see what Wonder could do, they quite rightly freaked the fuck out. And that’s what you hear happening on “Fingertips (Pt. II).”
The studio version of “Fingertips” had appeared on The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie, and it’s a lush and funky and chilled-out piece of quasi-jazz, pretty similar to what Quincy Jones was recording around the same time. It’s all flutes and percussion ripples and horn-hits. But when Wonder got onstage, he turned it into something else.
The recording on “Fingertips Pt. II” comes from Chicago’s Regal Theater. That night, Wonder was feeling it, and he played an extended version of “Fingertips.” Without the benefit of studio orchestration, he kept things hard and physical. He played harmonica, playing wild and headlong solos over exciting horn-stabs and sharp, intense drumming from Marvin Gaye, then touring with Wonder’s band.
When “Fingertips (Pt. II)” starts, we’re picking up the song in media res, just as it’s really taking flight. Wonder has already been working the crowd into a froth. And as “Fingertips (Pt. II)” starts, he starts howling call-and-response instructions to the crowd: “Everybody say yeah!” So when people heard that record for the first time, they were automatically right there in it. It must’ve been like walking into an amazing show just as it’s getting ready to end, catching the absolute climax. It must’ve spun people’s heads around.
Those Motown revues were tightly plotted. Wonder had to finish his set and get off the stage so that the Marvelettes, the evening’s next act, could get started. But he wasn’t done. On “Fingertips (Pt. II),” we hear him saying goodbye and leaving the stage. We hear the night’s MC telling the crowd to give him a hand. We hear the interstitial music kick up and the musicians rush to change the stage over. But Wonder’s not done, and then we hear him return to the stage, playing that harmonica, doing a completely unplanned encore. Buried in the mix, we hear Marvelettes bass player Joe Swift, who’s already taken over, struggling to keep up: “What key? What key?” (It’s at the 2:23 mark of the song.) And we hear Wonder bring things home, the crowd freaking out even harder with every passing second. You have to feel for the Marvelettes, forced to follow that.
“Fingertips (Pt. II)” is more of a vamp than a song, but it’s the most exciting vamp you ever heard. Motown was just beginning its ascent at the time, and when it fully took over, it was because the label’s producers and songwriters had managed to turn immaculate pop songs into something like a mathematical equation. The label’s success wasn’t about wild, chaotic live songs. So “Fingertips (Pt. II)” was an anomaly, for Motown and for pop music in general. Wonder could’ve easily ended up a one-hit wonder. He didn’t make another hit for years, and he didn’t get back to #1 for nearly a decade. But with that initial calling card, he made pop music into something stranger, more exciting, less predictable. And he must’ve helped wake people up to Motown, too. Because I can’t imagine hearing “Fingertips (Pt. II)” and not wanting to be there the next time the Motortown Revue was in town.
BONUS BEATS: Chaka Khan’s 1984 Prince cover “I Feel For You,” which made it to #3, featured Wonder on harmonica, and it also included a few quick samples of “Fingertips (Pt. II).” Here’s its video: