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Friday, November 29, 2002

Take a bow, Stevie

Whew. For a minute there, I thought I was going to miss it.

The new documentary about the Motown sidemen was in town, but it was scheduled to run for only a week at the local art house. And it was the busiest week of the year for me, so I couldn't make it. Now word is out that it's moving over to a bigger place downtown, so some friends and we are talking about catching it over the weekend.

I've been thinking about my own personal Motown history quite a bit lately. It started when I was in grammar school. I remember being at Seaside Heights on the Jersey Shore with my family, and winning a little Japanese transistor radio at one of the wheels of chance on the boardwalk. It had not just one transistor, but two! And a little earplug for private listening. I never liked the earplug much, but I did put that radio underneath my pillow when going to sleep at night. Scott Muni and Cousin Brucie were the New York DJs who spun the hits. Don't forget Saturday night is Party Night on the Cousin Brucie Show!

Anyway, one of those summers, the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go?" was No. 1, and it was the perfect beach song. Motown wasn't a dynasty then, just one of many labels jousting for attention on the airwaves. Diana, Mary and Flo had such a wonderful sound, and they looked so nice on Ed Sullivan.

But then, all of a sudden, they got bumped off the top of my chart by the voice of this little blind kid who blasted forth with the happiest sound I had ever heard up until that point.

What he told us all to do was: "Everybody say 'Yeahhh!'"

And we did.

I'll never forget going to another one of those boardwalk wheels -- the one where you could win records -- and scoring the single "Fingertips" on the yellow Tamla label. Part 1 was on Side One and Part 2 was on Side Two. Part 2 got played to death on the radio, but I dug Part 1 almost as much. It was closer to pure jazz, and Stevie played that harmonica like crazy over there. Plus, you got hear him exhort you to "Stomp your feet, jump up and down, do anything that you want to do! Yeah!"

The highlight of the whole song, recorded live, was the ending. Stevie had just knocked everybody out, and the audience, which had a lot of kids in it, was screaming. The announcer was trying to drag Stevie off the stage, but he stayed out there and insisted on doing just a little bit more of his song. Apparently even the next band that was coming on wanted to play a few bars with him. "What key? What key?" one of them asks the piano player in the background. And that keyboard man plays them the three notes that identify the key, and off they all go together.

By now the announcer is screaming at the top of his voice: "Stevie Wonder!" It just made you want to turn it over and start all over again on Side One.

That 45 got lost somewhere along the line during my law school days, and I didn't hear Part 1 for many years, until a couple of years ago when I stumbled across a Stevie box set called "At the End of a Century." Right at the beginning, there are Parts 1 and 2, together in their full glory, with more of the announcer than you got on the single. When I heard it again in my grownup house, I nearly cried.

From there on, Motown went on a major roll for me and my friends, and although the new additions have long since stopped, that music is still my favorite. Fast forward a couple of years from the Shore days and you find The Four Tops Greatest Hits, the Temptations Greatest Hits and the Supremes Greatest Hits in heavy rotation. Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, Marvin and Tammi, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Junior Walker, and Not-So-Little Stevie. "Function at the Junction" � Shorty Long, wasn't it? Edwin Starr's "25 Miles." Greatness at every turn.

So I can't wait to see this flick about the orchestra. I want to learn some more about the guys who knew "What key? What key?"

UPDATE: Fred elaborates: The band coming on behind Little Stevie was Mary Wells' band. The guy doing the "what key, what key?" thing was the bass man. Stevie says that the guy (Larry Moses) said a few other things that they didn't put into the final version, 'cuz they weren't repeatable. The song, contrary to most people's beliefs, was recorded at the Regal Theater in Chicago, not the Apollo. The song was Motown's second #1 record. (Do you remember what was the first?)

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