Squirm factor: 3
One thing you could always count on from Motown: lousy album covers. Almost every one of the “Greatest Hits” records they issued in the 1960’s featured the exact same cover design. Stevie Wonder’s record was no different, but at least his had liner notes on the back, with one of the most prescient statements in the history of hype: “Greatness is his destiny.”
With all of his accomplishments as a songwriter, synthesizer pioneer and Grammy hog in the 70’s, it’s easy to overlook Wonder’s 60’s output, but it’s well worth a listen. Several of his hits are classic Motown soul, but your appreciation of others will depend on your tolerance for harmonica novelty songs.
Now, the harmonica is not called “the devil’s organ” for nothing: in the wrong hands (e.g., Bob Dylan) it’s a cat-in-heat-like torture device. But in the hands of a harmonicist with a flair for melody and a swinging style, the instrument provides a rainbow of musical color with its pleasant overtones and charmingly wheezy timbre. Stevie’s first big hit was “Fingertips, Part II” in which he takes the basic melody and scats and improvises to the audible delight of the audience, even fooling his band with the big false ending. To capitalize on that fluke success, Motown threw together a couple more harmonica-based hits: “Hey Harmonica Man” is ultra-cheesy, with a chorus chanting a lopey country-based melody to which the star can respond with some lovely solo turns, and “Workout, Stevie, Workout” is a gospel-flavored chant without much in the way of lyrics but a frantic harmonica line.
As Stevie got a little older, he moved away from novelty numbers and tapped into the vein of pop-soul that was making Motown the most successful record label of the decade. “I’m Wondering” has (as do all of his hits of this era) a beautiful bass line underpinning an urgent chorus of brief phrases at major-fifth intervals, climbing the scale, while glide nicely into a much busier verse melody. “Uptight” runs at a mile-a-minute, with barely decipherable lyrics but an irresistible groove, and “I Was Made to Love Her” ties both periods together with a harmonica solo that flirts with the melody but gives some grit to the proceedings.
Stevie Wonder has always been kind of sappy, so it’s no surprise that he turns in a few ballads, but “Castles in the Sand” has a lovely descending refrain, and “A Place in the Sun” is certainly inspirational.
Although some of later 60’s hits (“My Cherie Amour”, “For Once in My Life”) aren’t present on this 1968 release, it’s still a great place to get familiar with the youthful exploits of one of the soul music’s greatest stars.
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