Episode 156: "I Was Made to Love Her" by Stevie Wonder
Episode one hundred and fifty-six of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “I Was Made to Love Her”, the early career of Stevie Wonder, and the Detroit riots of 1967. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
As usual, I’ve put together a Mixcloud playlist of all the recordings excerpted in this episode.
The best value way to get all of Stevie Wonder’s early singles is this MP3 collection, which has the original mono single mixes of fifty-five tracks for a very reasonable price. For those who prefer physical media, this is a decent single-CD collection of his early work at a very low price indeed.
And Motown Junkies is an infrequently-updated blog looking at (so far) the first 694 tracks released on Motown singles.
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A quick note before I begin — this episode deals with disability and racism, and also deals from the very beginning with sex work and domestic violence. It also has some discussion of police violence and sexual assault. As always I will try to deal with those subjects as non-judgementally and sensitively as possible, but if you worry that anything about those subjects might disturb you, please check the transcript.
Calvin Judkins was not a good man. Lula Mae Hardaway thought at first he might be, when he took her in, with her infant son whose father had left before the boy was born. He was someone who seemed, when he played the piano, to be deeply sensitive and emotional, and he even did the decent thing and married her when he got her pregnant.
She thought she could save him, even though he was a street hustler and not even very good at it, and thirty years older than her — she was only nineteen, he was nearly fifty. But she soon discovered that he wasn’t interested in being saved, and instead he was interested in hurting her. He became physically and financially abusive, and started pimping her out.
Lula would eventually realise that Calvin Judkins was no good, but not until she got pregnant again, shortly after the birth of her second son. Her third son was born premature — different sources give different numbers for how premature, with some saying four months and others six weeks — and while he apparently went by Stevland Judkins throughout his early childhood, the name on his birth certificate was apparently Stevland Morris, Lula having decided not to give another child the surname of her abuser, though nobody has ever properly explained where she got the surname “Morris” from.
Little Stevland was put in an incubator with an oxygen mask, which saved the tiny child’s life but destroyed his sight, giving him a condition called retinopathy of prematurity — a condition which nowadays can be prevented and cured, but in 1951 was just an unavoidable consequence for some portion of premature babies.
Shortly after the family moved from Saginaw to Detroit, Lula kicked Calvin out, and he would remain only a peripheral figure in his children’s lives, but one thing he did do was notice young Stevland’s interest in music, and on his increasingly infrequent visits to his wife and kids — visits that usually ended with violence — he would bring along toy instruments for the young child to play, like a harmonica and a set of bongos.
Stevie was a real prodigy, and by the time he was nine he had a collection of real musical instruments, because everyone could see that the kid was something special. A neighbour who owned a piano gave it to Stevie when she moved out and couldn’t take it with her. A local Lions Club gave him a drum kit at a party they organised for local blind children, and a barber gave him a chromatic harmonica after seeing him play his toy one.
Stevie gave his first professional performance when he was eight. His mother had taken him to a picnic in the park, and there was a band playing, and the little boy got as close to the stage as he could and started dancing wildly. The MC of the show asked the child who he was, and he said “My name is Stevie, and I can sing and play drums”, so of course they got the cute kid up on stage behind the drum kit while the band played Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love”:
[Excerpt: Johnny Ace, “Pledging My Love”]
He did well enough that they paid him seventy-five cents — an enormous amount for a small child at that time — though he was disappointed afterwards that they hadn’t played something faster that would really allow him to show off his drumming skills. After that he would perform semi-regularly at small events, and always ask to be paid in quarters rather than paper money, because he liked the sound of the coins — one of his party tricks was to be able to tell one coin from another by the sound of them hitting a table.
Soon he formed a duo with a neighbourhood friend, John Glover, who was a couple of years older and could play guitar while Stevie sang and played harmonica and bongos. The two were friends, and both accomplished musicians for their age, but that wasn’t the only reason Stevie latched on to Glover. Even as young as he was, he knew that Motown was soon going to be the place to be in Detroit if you were a musician, and Glover had an in — his cousin was Ronnie White of the Miracles.
Stevie and John performed as a duo everywhere they could and honed their act, performing particularly at the talent shows which were such an incubator of Black musical talent at the time, and they also at this point seem to have got the attention of Clarence Paul, but it was White who brought the duo to Motown. Stevie and John first played for White and Bobby Rodgers, another of the Miracles, then when they were impressed they took them through the several layers of Motown people who would have to sign off on signing a new act. First they were taken to see Brian Holland, who was a rising star within Motown as “Please Mr. Postman” was just entering the charts. They impressed him with a performance of the Miracles song “Bad Girl”:
[Excerpt: The Miracles, “Bad Girl”]
After that, Stevie and John went to see Mickey Stevenson, who was at first sceptical, thinking that a kid so young — Stevie was only eleven at the time — must be some kind of novelty act rather than a serious musician. He said later “It was like, what’s next, the singing mouse?”
But Stevenson was won over by the child’s talent. Normally, Stevenson had the power to sign whoever he liked to the label, but given the extra legal complications involved in signing someone under-age, he had to get Berry Gordy’s permission. Gordy didn’t even like signing teenagers because of all the extra paperwork that would be involved, and he certainly wasn’t interested in signing pre-teens. But he came down to the studio to see what Stevie could do, and was amazed, not by his singing — Gordy didn’t think much of that — but by his instrumental ability. First Stevie played harmonica and bongos as proficiently as an adult professional, and then he made his way around the studio playing on every other instrument in the place — often only a few notes, but competent on them all.
Gordy decided to sign the duo — and the initial contract was for an act named “Steve and John” — but it was soon decided to separate them. Glover would be allowed to hang around Motown while he was finishing school, and there would be a place for him when he finished — he later became a staff songwriter, working on tracks for the Four Tops and the Miracles among others, and he would even later write a number one hit, “You Don’t Have to be a Star (to be in My Show)” for Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr — but they were going to make Stevie a star right now.
The man put in charge of that was Clarence Paul.
Paul, under his birth name of Clarence Pauling, had started his career in the “5” Royales, a vocal group he formed with his brother Lowman Pauling that had been signed to Apollo Records by Ralph Bass, and later to King Records.
Paul seems to have been on at least some of the earliest recordings by the group, so is likely on their first single, “Give Me One More Chance”:
[Excerpt: The “5” Royales, “Give Me One More Chance”]
But Paul was drafted to go and fight in the Korean War, and so wasn’t part of the group’s string of hit singles, mostly written by his brother Lowman, like “Think”, which later became better known in James Brown’s cover version, or “Dedicated to the One I Love”, later covered by the Shirelles, but in its original version dominated by Lowman’s stinging guitar playing:
[Excerpt: The “5” Royales, “Dedicated to the One I Love”]
After being discharged, Clarence had shortened his name to Clarence Paul, and had started recording for all the usual R&B labels like Roulette and Federal, with little success:
[Excerpt: Clarence Paul, “I’m Gonna Love You, Love You Til I Die”]
He’d also co-written “I Need Your Lovin'”, which had been an R&B hit for Roy Hamilton:
[Excerpt: Roy Hamilton, “I Need Your Lovin'”]
Paul had recently come to work for Motown – one of the things Berry Gordy did to try to make his label more attractive was to hire the relatives of R&B stars on other labels, in the hopes of getting them to switch to Motown – and he was the new man on the team, not given any of the important work to do. He was working with acts like Henry Lumpkin and the Valladiers, and had also been the producer of “Mind Over Matter”, the single the Temptations had released as The Pirates in a desperate attempt to get a hit:
[Excerpt: The Pirates, “Mind Over Matter”]
Paul was the person you turned to when no-one else was interested, and who would come up with bizarre ideas. A year or so after the time period we’re talking about, it was him who produced an album of country music for the Supremes, before they’d had a hit, and came up with “The Man With the Rock and Roll Banjo Band” for them:
[Excerpt: The Supremes, “The Man With The Rock and Roll Banjo Band”]
So, Paul was the perfect person to give a child — by this time twelve years old — who had the triple novelties of being a multi-instrumentalist, a child, and blind.
Stevie started spending all his time around the Motown studios, partly because he was eager to learn everything about making records and partly because his home life wasn’t particularly great and he wanted to be somewhere else. He earned the affection and irritation, in equal measure, of people at Motown both for his habit of wandering into the middle of sessions because he couldn’t see the light that showed that the studio was in use, and for his practical joking. He was a great mimic, and would do things like phoning one of the engineers and imitating Berry Gordy’s voice, telling the engineer that Stevie would be coming down, and to give him studio equipment to take home. He’d also astonish women by complimenting them, in detail, on their dresses, having been told in advance what they looked like by an accomplice.
But other “jokes” were less welcome — he would regularly sexually assault women working at Motown, grabbing their breasts or buttocks and then claiming it was an accident because he couldn’t see what he was doing. Most of the women he molested still speak of him fondly, and say everybody loved him, and this may even be the case — and certainly I don’t think any of us should be judged too harshly for what we did when we were twelve — but this kind of thing led to a certain amount of pressure to make Stevie’s career worth the extra effort he was causing everyone at Motown.
Because Berry Gordy was not impressed with Stevie’s vocals, the decision was made to promote him as a jazz instrumentalist, and so Clarence Paul insisted that his first release be an album, rather than doing what everyone would normally do and only put out an album after a hit single. Paul reasoned that there was no way on Earth they were going to be able to get a hit single with a jazz instrumental by a twelve-year-old kid, and eventually persuaded Gordy of the wisdom of this idea.
So they started work on The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, released under his new stagename of Little Stevie Wonder, supposedly a name given to him after Berry Gordy said “That kid’s a wonder!”, though Mickey Stevenson always said that the name came from a brainstorming session between him and Clarence Paul. The album featured Stevie on harmonica, piano, and organ on different tracks, but on the opening track, “Fingertips”, he’s playing the bongos that give the track its name:
[Excerpt: Little Stevie Wonder, “Fingertips (studio version)”]
The composition of that track is credited to Paul and the arranger Hank Cosby, but Beans Bowles, who played flute on the track, always claimed that he came up with the melody, and it seems quite likely to me that most of the tracks on the album were created more or less as jam sessions — though Wonder’s contributions were all overdubbed later.
The album sat in the can for several months — Berry Gordy was not at all sure of its commercial potential. Instead, he told Paul to go in another direction — focusing on Wonder’s blindness, he decided that what they needed to do was create an association in listeners’ minds with Ray Charles, who at this point was at the peak of his commercial power. So back into the studio went Wonder and Paul, to record an album made up almost entirely of Ray Charles covers, titled Tribute to Uncle Ray.
(Some sources have the Ray Charles tribute album recorded first — and given Motown’s lax record-keeping at this time it may be impossible to know for sure — but this is the way round that Mark Ribowsky’s biography of Wonder has it).
But at Motown’s regular quality control meeting it was decided that there wasn’t a single on the album, and you didn’t release an album like that without having a hit single first. By this point, Clarence Paul was convinced that Berry Gordy was just looking for excuses not to do anything with Wonder — and there may have been a grain of truth to that. There’s some evidence that Gordy was worried that the kid wouldn’t be able to sing once his voice broke, and was scared of having another Frankie Lymon on his hands.
But the decision was made that rather than put out either of those albums, they would put out a single. The A-side was a song called “I Call it Pretty Music But the Old People Call it the Blues, Part 1”, which very much played on Wonder’s image as a loveable naive kid:
[Excerpt: Little Stevie Wonder, “I Call it Pretty Music But the Old People Call it the Blues, Part 1”]
The B-side, meanwhile, was part two — a slowed-down, near instrumental, version of the song, reframed as an actual blues, and as a showcase for Wonder’s harmonica playing rather than his vocals.
The single wasn’t a hit, but it made number 101 on the Billboard charts, just missing the Hot One Hundred, which for the debut single of a new artist wasn’t too bad, especially for Motown at this point in time, when most of its releases were flopping. That was good enough that Gordy authorised the release of the two albums that they had in the can.
The next single, “Little Water Boy”, was a rather baffling duet with Clarence Paul, which did nothing at all on the charts.
[Excerpt: Clarence Paul and Little Stevie Wonder, “Little Water Boy”]
After this came another flop single, written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Janie Bradford, before the record that finally broke Little Stevie Wonder out into the mainstream in a big way.
While Wonder hadn’t had a hit yet, he was sent out on the first Motortown Revue tour, along with almost every other act on the label. Because he hadn’t had a hit, he was supposed to only play one song per show, but nobody had told him how long that song should be. He had quickly become a great live performer, and the audiences were excited to watch him, so when he went into extended harmonica solos rather than quickly finishing the song, the audience would be with him. Clarence Paul, who came along on the tour, would have to motion to the onstage bandleader to stop the music, but the bandleader would know that the audiences were with Stevie, and so would just keep the song going as long as Stevie was playing.
Often Paul would have to go on to the stage and shout in Wonder’s ear to stop playing — and often Wonder would ignore him, and have to be physically dragged off stage by Paul, still playing, causing the audience to boo Paul for stopping him from playing. Wonder would complain off-stage that the audience had been enjoying it, and didn’t seem to get it into his head that he wasn’t the star of the show, that the audiences *were* enjoying him, but were *there* to see the Miracles and Mary Wells and the Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye.
This made all the acts who had to go on after him, and who were running late as a result, furious at him — especially since one aspect of Wonder’s blindness was that his circadian rhythms weren’t regulated by sunlight in the same way that the sighted members of the tour’s were. He would often wake up the entire tour bus by playing his harmonica at two or three in the morning, while they were all trying to sleep.
Soon Berry Gordy insisted that Clarence Paul be on stage with Wonder throughout his performance, ready to drag him off stage, so that he wouldn’t have to come out onto the stage to do it.
But one of the first times he had done this had been on one of the very first Motortown Revue shows, before any of his records had come out. There he’d done a performance of “Fingertips”, playing the flute part on harmonica rather than only playing bongos throughout as he had on the studio version — leaving the percussion to Marvin Gaye, who was playing drums for Wonder’s set:
[Excerpt: Little Stevie Wonder, “Fingertips (Parts 1 & 2)”]
But he’d extended the song with a little bit of call-and-response vocalising:
[Excerpt: Little Stevie Wonder, “Fingertips (Parts 1 & 2)”]
After the long performance ended, Clarence Paul dragged Wonder off-stage and the MC asked the audience to give him a round of applause — but then Stevie came running back on and carried on playing:
[Excerpt: Little Stevie Wonder, “Fingertips (Parts 1 & 2)”]
By this point, though, the musicians had started to change over — Mary Wells, who was on after Wonder, was using different musicians from his, and some of her players were already on stage. You can hear Joe Swift, who was playing bass for Wells, asking what key he was meant to be playing in:
[Excerpt: Little Stevie Wonder, “Fingertips (Parts 1 & 2)”]
Eventually, after six and a half minutes, they got Wonder off stage, but that performance became the two sides of Wonder’s next single, with “Fingertips Part 2”, the part with the ad lib singing and the false ending, rather than the instrumental part one, being labelled as the side the DJs should play.
When it was released, the song started a slow climb up the charts, and by August 1963, three months after it came out, it was at number one — only the second ever Motown number one, and the first ever live single to get there. Not only that, but Motown released a live album — Recorded Live, the Twelve-Year-Old Genius (though as many people point out he was thirteen when it was released — he was twelve when it was recorded though) and that made number one on the albums chart, becoming the first Motown album ever to do so.
They followed up “Fingertips” with a similar sounding track, “Workout, Stevie, Workout”, which made number thirty-three. After that, his albums — though not yet his singles — started to be released as by “Stevie Wonder” with no “Little” — he’d had a bit of a growth spurt and his voice was breaking, and so marketing him as a child prodigy was not going to work much longer and they needed to transition him into a star with adult potential.
In the Motown of 1963 that meant cutting an album of standards, because the belief at the time in Motown was that the future for their entertainers was doing show tunes at the Copacabana. But for some reason the audience who had wanted an R&B harmonica instrumental with call-and-response improvised gospel-influenced yelling was not in the mood for a thirteen year old singing “Put on a Happy Face” and “When You Wish Upon a Star”, and especially not when the instrumental tracks were recorded in a key that suited him at age twelve but not thirteen, so he was clearly straining.
“Fingertips” being a massive hit also meant Stevie was now near the top of the bill on the Motortown Revue when it went on its second tour. But this actually put him in a precarious position. When he had been down at the bottom of the bill and unknown, nobody expected anything from him, and he was following other minor acts, so when he was surprisingly good the audiences went wild. Now, near the top of the bill, he had to go on after Marvin Gaye, and he was not nearly so impressive in that context. The audiences were polite enough, but not in the raptures he was used to.
Although Stevie could still beat Gaye in some circumstances. At Motown staff parties, Berry Gordy would always have a contest where he’d pit two artists against each other to see who could win the crowd over, something he thought instilled a fun and useful competitive spirit in his artists. They’d alternate songs, two songs each, and Gordy would decide on the winner based on audience response. For the 1963 Motown Christmas party, it was Stevie versus Marvin. Wonder went first, with “Workout, Stevie, Workout”, and was apparently impressive, but then Gaye topped him with a version of “Hitch-Hike”. So Stevie had to top that, and apparently did, with a hugely extended version of “I Call it Pretty Music”, reworked in the Ray Charles style he’d used for “Fingertips”.
So Marvin Gaye had to top that with the final song of the contest, and he did, performing “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”:
[Excerpt: Marvin Gaye, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”]
And he was great. So great, it turned the crowd against him. They started booing, and someone in the audience shouted “Marvin, you should be ashamed of yourself, taking advantage of a little blind kid!”
The crowd got so hostile Berry Gordy had to stop the performance and end the party early. He never had another contest like that again.
There were other problems, as well. Wonder had been assigned a tutor, a young man named Ted Hull, who began to take serious control over his life. Hull was legally blind, so could teach Wonder using Braille, but unlike Wonder had some sight — enough that he was even able to get a drivers’ license and a co-pilot license for planes.
Hull was put in loco parentis on most of Stevie’s tours, and soon became basically inseparable from him, but this caused a lot of problems, not least because Hull was a conservative white man, while almost everyone else at Motown was Black, and Stevie was socially liberal and on the side of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements.
Hull started to collaborate on songwriting with Wonder, which most people at Motown were OK with but which now seems like a serious conflict of interest, and he also started calling himself Stevie’s “manager” — which did *not* impress the people at Motown, who had their own conflict of interest because with Stevie, like with all their artists, they were his management company and agents as well as his record label and publishers.
Motown grudgingly tolerated Hull, though, mostly because he was someone they could pass Lula Mae Hardaway to to deal with her complaints. Stevie’s mother was not very impressed with the way that Motown were handling her son, and would make her opinion known to anyone who would listen. Hull and Hardaway did not get on at all, but he could be relied on to save the Gordy family members from having to deal with her.
Wonder was sent over to Europe for Christmas 1963, to perform shows at the Paris Olympia and do some British media appearances. But both his mother and Hull had come along, and their clear dislike for each other was making him stressed. He started to get pains in his throat whenever he sang — pains which everyone assumed were a stress reaction to the unhealthy atmosphere that happened whenever Hull and his mother were in the same room together, but which later turned out to be throat nodules that required surgery.
Because of this, his singing was generally not up to standard, which meant he was moved to a less prominent place on the bill, which in turn led to his mother accusing the Gordy family of being against him and trying to stop him becoming a star. Wonder started to take her side and believe that Motown were conspiring against him, and at one point he even “accidentally” dropped a bottle of wine on Ted Hull’s foot, breaking one of his toes, because he saw Hull as part of the enemy that was Motown.
Before leaving for those shows, he had recorded the album he later considered the worst of his career. While he was now just plain Stevie on albums, he wasn’t for his single releases, or in his first film appearance, where he was still Little Stevie Wonder. Berry Gordy was already trying to get a foot in the door in Hollywood — by the end of the decade Motown would be moving from Detroit to LA — and his first real connections there were with American International Pictures, the low-budget film-makers who have come up a lot in connection with the LA scene.
AIP were the producers of the successful low-budget series of beach party films, which combined appearances by teen heartthrobs Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in swimsuits with cameo appearances by old film stars fallen on hard times, and with musical performances by bands like the Bobby Fuller Four. There would be a couple of Motown connections to these films — most notably, the Supremes would do the theme tune for Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine — but Muscle Beach Party was to be the first.
Most of the music for Muscle Beach Party was written by Brian Wilson, Roger Christian, and Gary Usher, as one might expect for a film about surfing, and was performed by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, the film’s major musical guests, with Annette, Frankie, and Donna Loren [pron Lorren] adding vocals, on songs like “Muscle Bustle”:
[Excerpt: Donna Loren with Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, “Muscle Bustle”]
The film followed the formula in every way — it also had a cameo appearance by Peter Lorre, his last film appearance before his death, and it featured Little Stevie Wonder playing one of the few songs not written by the surf and car writers, a piece of nothing called “Happy Street”. Stevie also featured in the follow-up, Bikini Beach, which came out a little under four months later, again doing a single number, “Happy Feelin'”.
To cash in on his appearances in these films, and having tried releasing albums of Little Stevie as jazz multi-instrumentalist, Ray Charles tribute act, live soulman and Andy Williams-style crooner, they now decided to see if they could sell him as a surf singer. Or at least, as Motown’s idea of a surf singer, which meant a lot of songs about the beach and the sea — mostly old standards like “Red Sails in the Sunset” and “Ebb Tide” — backed by rather schlocky Wrecking Crew arrangements.
And this is as good a place as any to take on one of the bits of disinformation that goes around about Motown. I’ve addressed this before, but it’s worth repeating here in slightly more detail. Carol Kaye, one of the go-to Wrecking Crew bass players, is a known credit thief, and claims to have played on hundreds of records she didn’t — claims which too many people take seriously because she is a genuine pioneer and was for a long time undercredited on many records she *did* play on.
In particular, she claims to have played on almost all the classic Motown hits that James Jamerson of the Funk Brothers played on, like the title track for this episode, and she claims this despite evidence including notarised statements from everyone involved in the records, the release of session recordings that show producers talking to the Funk Brothers, and most importantly the evidence of the recordings themselves, which have all the characteristics of the Detroit studio and sound like the Funk Brothers playing, and have absolutely nothing in common, sonically, with the records the Wrecking Crew played on at Gold Star, Western, and other LA studios.
The Wrecking Crew *did* play on a lot of Motown records, but with a handful of exceptions, mostly by Brenda Holloway, the records they played on were quickie knock-off album tracks and potboiler albums made to tie in with film or TV work — soundtracks to TV specials the acts did, and that kind of thing.
And in this case, the Wrecking Crew played on the entire Stevie at the Beach album, including the last single to be released as by “Little Stevie Wonder”, “Castles in the Sand”, which was arranged by Jack Nitzsche:
[Excerpt: Little Stevie Wonder, “Castles in the Sand”]
Apparently the idea of surfin’ Stevie didn’t catch on any more than that of swingin’ Stevie had earlier. Indeed, throughout 1964 and 65 Motown seem to have had less than no idea what they were doing with Stevie Wonder, and he himself refers to all his recordings from this period as an embarrassment, saving particular scorn for the second single from Stevie at the Beach, “Hey Harmonica Man”, possibly because that, unlike most of his other singles around this point, was a minor hit, reaching number twenty-nine on the charts.
Motown were still pushing Wonder hard — he even got an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in May 1964, only the second Motown act to appear on it after the Marvelettes — but Wonder was getting more and more unhappy with the decisions they were making. He loathed the Stevie at the Beach album — the records he’d made earlier, while patchy and not things he’d chosen, were at least in some way related to his musical interests. He *did* love jazz, and he *did* love Ray Charles, and he *did* love old standards, and the records were made by his friend Clarence Paul and with the studio musicians he’d grown to know in Detroit.
But Stevie at the Beach was something that was imposed on Clarence Paul from above, it was cut with unfamiliar musicians, Stevie thought the films he was appearing in were embarrassing, and he wasn’t even having much commercial success, which was the whole point of these compromises. He started to get more rebellious against Paul in the studio, though many of these decisions weren’t made by Paul, and he would complain to anyone who would listen that if he was just allowed to do the music he wanted to sing, the way he wanted to sing it, he would have more hits.
But for nine months he did basically no singing other than that Ed Sullivan Show appearance — he had to recover from the operation to remove the throat nodules. When he did return to the studio, the first single he cut remained unreleased, and while some stuff from the archives was released between the start of 1964 and March 1965, the first single he recorded and released after the throat nodules, “Kiss Me Baby”, which came out in March, was a complete flop.
That single was released to coincide with the first Motown tour of Europe, which we looked at in the episode on “Stop! In the Name of Love”, and which was mostly set up to promote the Supremes, but which also featured Martha and the Vandellas, the Miracles, and the Temptations. Even though Stevie had not had a major hit in eighteen months by this point, he was still brought along on the tour, the only solo artist to be included — at this point Gordy thought that solo artists looked outdated compared to vocal groups, in a world dominated by bands, and so other solo artists like Marvin Gaye weren’t invited.
This was a sign that Gordy was happier with Stevie than his recent lack of chart success might suggest. One of the main reasons that Gordy had been in two minds about him was that he’d had no idea if Wonder would still be able to sing well after his voice broke. But now, as he was about to turn fifteen, his adult voice had more or less stabilised, and Gordy knew that he was capable of having a long career, if they just gave him the proper material.
But for now his job on the tour was to do his couple of hits, smile, and be on the lower rungs of the ladder. But even that was still a prominent place to be given the scaled-down nature of this bill compared to the Motortown Revues. While the tour was in England, for example, Dusty Springfield presented a TV special focusing on all the acts on the tour, and while the Supremes were the main stars, Stevie got to do two songs, and also took part in the finale, a version of “Mickey’s Monkey” led by Smokey Robinson but with all the performers joining in, with Wonder getting a harmonica solo:
[Excerpt: Smokey Robinson and the Motown acts, “Mickey’s Monkey”]
Sadly, there was one aspect of the trip to the UK that was extremely upsetting for Wonder. Almost all the media attention he got — which was relatively little, as he wasn’t a Supreme — was about his blindness, and one reporter in particular convinced him that there was an operation he could have to restore his sight, but that Motown were preventing him from finding out about it in order to keep his gimmick going. He was devastated about this, and then further devastated when Ted Hull finally convinced him that it wasn’t true, and that he’d been lied to. Meanwhile other newspapers were reporting that he *could* see, and that he was just feigning blindness to boost his record sales.
After the tour, a live recording of Wonder singing the blues standard “High Heeled Sneakers” was released as a single, and barely made the R&B top thirty, and didn’t hit the top forty on the pop charts. Stevie’s initial contract with Motown was going to expire in the middle of 1966, so there was a year to get him back to a point where he was having the kind of hits that other Motown acts were regularly getting at this point. Otherwise, it looked like his career might end by the time he was sixteen.
The B-side to “High Heeled Sneakers” was another duet with Clarence Paul, who dominates the vocal sound for much of it — a version of Willie Nelson’s country classic “Funny How Time Slips Away”:
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul, “Funny How Time Slips Away”]
There are a few of these duet records scattered through Wonder’s early career — we’ll hear another one a little later — and they’re mostly dismissed as Paul trying to muscle his way into a revival of his own recording career as an artist, and there may be some truth in that. But they’re also a natural extension of the way the two of them worked in the studio. Motown didn’t have the facilities to give Wonder Braille lyric sheets, and Paul didn’t trust him to be able to remember the lyrics, so often when they made a record, Paul would be just off-mic, reciting the lyrics to Wonder fractionally ahead of him singing them.
So it was more or less natural that this dynamic would leak out onto records, but not everyone saw it that way. But at the same time, there has been some suggestion that Paul was among those manoeuvring to get rid of Wonder from Motown as soon as his contract was finished — despite the fact that Wonder was the only act Paul had worked on any big hits for.
Either way, Paul and Wonder were starting to chafe at working with each other in the studio, and while Paul remained his on-stage musical director, the opportunity to work on Wonder’s singles for what would surely be his last few months at Motown was given to Hank Cosby and Sylvia Moy.
Cosby was a saxophone player and staff songwriter who had been working with Wonder and Paul for years — he’d co-written “Fingertips” and several other tracks — while Moy was a staff songwriter who was working as an apprentice to Cosby. Basically, at this point, nobody else wanted the job of writing for Wonder, and as Moy was having no luck getting songs cut by any other artists and her career was looking about as dead as Wonder’s, they started working together.
Wonder was, at this point, full of musical ideas but with absolutely no discipline. He’s said in interviews that at this point he was writing a hundred and fifty songs a month, but these were often not full songs — they were fragments, hooks, or a single verse, or a few lines, which he would pass on to Moy, who would turn his ideas into structured songs that fit the Motown hit template, usually with the assistance of Cosby. Then Cosby would come up with an arrangement, and would co-produce with Mickey Stevenson.
The first song they came up with in this manner was a sign of how Wonder was looking outside the world of Motown to the rock music that was starting to dominate the US charts — but which was itself inspired by Motown music. We heard in the last episode on the Rolling Stones how “Nowhere to Run” by the Vandellas:
[Excerpt: Martha and the Vandellas, “Nowhere to Run”]
had inspired the Stones’ “Satisfaction”:
[Excerpt: The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”]
And Wonder in turn was inspired by “Satisfaction” to come up with his own song — though again, much of the work making it into an actual finished song was done by Sylvia Moy. They took the four-on-the-floor beat and basic melody of “Satisfaction” and brought it back to Motown, where those things had originated — though they hadn’t originated with Stevie, and this was his first record to sound like a Motown record in the way we think of those things.
As a sign of how, despite the way these stories are usually told, the histories of rock and soul were completely and complexly intertwined, that four-on-the-floor beat itself was a conscious attempt by Holland, Dozier, and Holland to appeal to white listeners — on the grounds that while Black people generally clapped on the backbeat, white people didn’t, and so having a four-on-the-floor beat wouldn’t throw them off.
So Cosby, Moy, and Wonder, in trying to come up with a “Satisfaction” soundalike were Black Motown writers trying to copy a white rock band trying to copy Black Motown writers trying to appeal to a white rock audience.
Wonder came up with the basic chorus hook, which was based around a lot of current slang terms he was fond of:
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder, “Uptight”]
Then Moy, with some assistance from Cosby, filled it out into a full song. Lyrically, it was as close to social comment as Motown had come at this point — Wonder was, like many of his peers in soul music, interested in the power of popular music to make political statements, and he would become a much more political artist in the next few years, but at this point it’s still couched in the acceptable boy-meets-girl romantic love song that Motown specialised in. But in 1965 a story about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks dating a rich girl inevitably raised the idea that the boy and girl might be of different races — a subject that was very, very, controversial in the mid-sixties.
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder, “Uptight”]
“Uptight” made number three on the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts, and saved Stevie Wonder’s career. And this is where, for all that I’ve criticised Motown in this episode, their strategy paid off. Mickey Stevenson talked a lot about how in the early sixties Motown didn’t give up on artists — if someone had potential but was not yet having hits or finding the right approach, they would keep putting out singles in a holding pattern, trying different things and seeing what would work, rather than toss them aside.
It had already worked for the Temptations and the Supremes, and now it had worked for Stevie Wonder. He would be the last beneficiary of this policy — soon things would change, and Motown would become increasingly focused on trying to get the maximum returns out of a small number of stars, rather than building careers for a range of artists — but it paid off brilliantly for Wonder.
“Uptight” was such a reinvention of Wonder’s career, sound, and image that many of his fans consider it the real start of his career — everything before it only counting as prologue.
The follow-up, “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby”, was an “Uptight” soundalike, and as with Motown soundalike follow-ups in general, it didn’t do quite as well, but it still made the top twenty on the pop chart and got to number four on the R&B chart.
Stevie Wonder was now safe at Motown, and so he was going to do something no other Motown act had ever done before — he was going to record a protest song and release it as a single.
For about a year he’d been ending his shows with a version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, sung as a duet with Clarence Paul, who was still his on stage bandleader even though the two weren’t working together in the studio as much. Wonder brought that into the studio, and recorded it with Paul back as the producer, and as his duet partner. Berry Gordy wasn’t happy with the choice of single, but Wonder pushed, and Gordy knew that Wonder was on a winning streak and gave in, and so “Blowin’ in the Wind” became Stevie Wonder’s next single:
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul, “Blowin’ in the Wind”]
“Blowin’ in the Wind” made the top ten, and number one on the R&B charts, and convinced Gordy that there was some commercial potential in going after the socially aware market, and over the next few years Motown would start putting out more and more political records.
Because Motown convention was to have the producer of a hit record produce the next hit for that artist, and keep doing so until they had a flop, Paul was given the opportunity to produce the next single. “A Place in the Sun” was another ambiguously socially-aware song, co-written by the only white writer on Motown staff, Ron Miller, who happened to live in the same building as Stevie’s tutor-cum-manager Ted Hull. “A Place in the Sun” was a pleasant enough song, inspired by “A Change is Gonna Come”, but with a more watered-down, generic, message of hope, but the record was lifted by Stevie’s voice, and again made the top ten. This meant that Paul and Miller, and Miller’s writing partner Bryan Mills, got to work on his next two singles — his 1966 Christmas song “Someday at Christmas”, which made number twenty-four, and the ballad “Travellin’ Man” which made thirty-two.
The downward trajectory with Paul meant that Wonder was soon working with other producers again. Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol cut another Miller and Mills song with him, “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”:
But that was left in the can, as not good enough to release, and Stevie was soon back working with Cosby. The two of them had come up with an instrumental together in late 1966, but had not been able to come up with any words for it, so they played it for Smokey Robinson, who said their instrumental sounded like circus music, and wrote lyrics about a clown:
[Excerpt: The Miracles, “The Tears of a Clown”]
The Miracles cut that as album filler, but it was released three years later as a single and became the Miracles’ only number one hit with Smokey Robinson as lead singer.
So Wonder and Cosby definitely still had their commercial touch, even if their renewed collaboration with Moy, who they started working with again, took a while to find a hit. To start with, Wonder returned to the idea of taking inspiration from a hit by a white British group, as he had with “Uptight”. This time it was the Beatles, and the track “Michelle”, from the Rubber Soul album:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Michelle”]
Wonder took the idea of a song with some French lyrics, and a melody with some similarities to the Beatles song, and came up with “My Cherie Amour”, which Cosby and Moy finished off.
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder, “My Cherie Amour”]
Gordy wouldn’t allow that to be released, saying it was too close to “Michelle” and people would think it was a rip-off, and it stayed in the vaults for several years. Cosby also produced a version of a song Ron Miller had written with Orlando Murden, “For Once in My Life”, which pretty much every other Motown act was recording versions of — the Four Tops, the Temptations, Billy Eckstine, Martha and the Vandellas and Barbra McNair all cut versions of it in 1967, and Gordy wouldn’t let Wonder’s version be put out either.
So they had to return to the drawing board.
But in truth, Stevie Wonder was not the biggest thing worrying Berry Gordy at this point. He was dealing with problems in the Supremes, which we’ll look at in a future episode — they were about to get rid of Florence Ballard, and thus possibly destroy one of the biggest acts in the world, but Gordy thought that if they *didn’t* get rid of her they would be destroying themselves even more certainly. Not only that, but Gordy was in the midst of a secret affair with Diana Ross, Holland, Dozier, and Holland were getting restless about their contracts, and his producers kept bringing him unlistenable garbage that would never be a hit. Like Norman Whitfield, insisting that this track he’d cut with Marvin Gaye, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, should be a single. Gordy had put his foot down about that one too, just like he had about “My Cherie Amour”, and wouldn’t allow it to be released.
Meanwhile, many of the smaller acts on the label were starting to feel like they were being ignored by Gordy, and had formed what amounted to a union, having regular meetings at Clarence Paul’s house to discuss how they could pressure the label to put the same effort into their careers as into those of the big stars. And the Funk Brothers, the musicians who played on all of Motown’s hits, were also getting restless — they contributed to the arrangements, and they did more for the sound of the records than half the credited producers; why weren’t they getting production credits and royalties?
Harvey Fuqua had divorced Gordy’s sister Gwen, and so became persona non grata at the label and was in the process of leaving Motown, and so was Mickey Stevenson, Gordy’s second in command, because Gordy wouldn’t give him any stock in the company.
And Detroit itself was on edge. The crime rate in the city had started to go up, but even worse, the *perception* of crime was going up. The Detroit News had been running a campaign to whip up fear, which it called its Secret Witness campaign, and running constant headlines about rapes, murders, and muggings. These in turn had led to increased calls for more funds for the police, calls which inevitably contained a strong racial element and at least implicitly linked the perceived rise in crime to the ongoing Civil Rights movement. At this point the police in Detroit were ninety-three percent white, even though Detroit’s population was over thirty percent Black.
The Mayor and Police Commissioner were trying to bring in some modest reforms, but they weren’t going anywhere near fast enough for the Black population who felt harassed and attacked by the police, but were still going too fast for the white people who were being whipped up into a state of terror about supposedly soft-on-crime policies, and for the police who felt under siege and betrayed by the politicians.
And this wasn’t the only problem affecting the city, and especially affecting Black people. Redlining and underfunded housing projects meant that the large Black population was being crammed into smaller and smaller spaces with fewer local amenities. A few Black people who were lucky enough to become rich — many of them associated with Motown — were able to move into majority-white areas, but that was just leading to white flight, and to an increase in racial tensions.
The police were on edge after the murder of George Overman Jr, the son of a policeman, and though they arrested the killers that was just another sign that they weren’t being shown enough respect. They started organising “blu flu”s — the police weren’t allowed to strike, so they’d claim en masse that they were off sick, as a protest against the supposed soft-on-crime administration.
Meanwhile John Sinclair was organising “love-ins”, gatherings of hippies at which new bands like the MC5 played, which were being invaded by gangs of bikers who were there to beat up the hippies. And the Detroit auto industry was on its knees — working conditions had got bad enough that the mostly Black workforce organised a series of wildcat strikes.
All in all, Detroit was looking less and less like somewhere that Berry Gordy wanted to stay, and the small LA subsidiary of Motown was rapidly becoming, in his head if nowhere else, the more important part of the company, and its future. He was starting to think that maybe he should leave all these ungrateful people behind in their dangerous city, and move the parts of the operation that actually mattered out to Hollywood.
Stevie Wonder was, of course, one of the parts that mattered, but the pressure was on in 1967 to come up with a hit as big as his records from 1965 and early 66, before he’d been sidetracked down the ballad route.
The song that was eventually released was one on which Stevie’s mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, had a co-writing credit:
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder, “I Was Made to Love Her”]
“I Was Made to Love Her” was inspired by Wonder’s first love, a girl from the same housing projects as him, and he talked about the song being special to him because it was true, saying it “kind of speaks of my first love to a girl named Angie, who was a very beautiful woman… Actually, she was my third girlfriend but my first love. I used to call Angie up and, like, we would talk and say, ‘I love you, I love you,’ and we’d talk and we’d both go to sleep on the phone. And this was like from Detroit to California, right? You know, mother said, ‘Boy, what you doing – get off the phone!’ Boy, I tell you, it was ridiculous.”
But while it was inspired by her, like with many of the songs from this period, much of the lyric came from Moy — her mother grew up in Arkansas, and that’s why the lyric started “I was born in Little Rock”, as *her* inspiration came from stories told by her parents. But truth be told, the lyrics weren’t particularly detailed or impressive, just a standard story of young love. Rather what mattered in the record was the music.
The song was structured differently from many Motown records, including most of Wonder’s earlier ones. Most Motown records had a huge amount of dynamic variation, and a clear demarcation between verse and chorus. Even a record like “Dancing in the Street”, which took most of its power from the tension and release caused by spending most of the track on one chord, had the release that came with the line “All we need is music”, and could be clearly subdivided into different sections.
“I Was Made to Love Her” wasn’t like that. There was a tiny section which functioned as a middle eight — and which cover versions like the one by the Beach Boys later that year tend to cut out, because it disrupts the song’s flow:
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder, “I Was Made to Love Her”]
But other than that, the song has no verse or chorus, no distinct sections, it’s just a series of lyrical couplets over the same four chords, repeating over and over, an incessant groove that could really go on indefinitely:
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder, “I Was Made to Love Her”]
This is as close as Motown had come at this point to the new genre of funk, of records that were just staying with one groove throughout. It wasn’t a funk record, not yet — it was still a pop-soul record, But what made it extraordinary was the bass line, and this is why I had to emphasise earlier that this was a record by the Funk Brothers, not the Wrecking Crew, no matter how much some Crew members may claim otherwise. As on most of Cosby’s sessions, James Jamerson was given free reign to come up with his own part with little guidance, and what he came up with is extraordinary.
This was at a time when rock and pop basslines were becoming a little more mobile, thanks to the influence of Jamerson in Detroit, Brian Wilson in LA, and Paul McCartney in London. But for the most part, even those bass parts had been fairly straightforward technically — often inventive, but usually just crotchets and quavers, still keeping rhythm along with the drums rather than in dialogue with them, roaming free rhythmically.
Jamerson had started to change his approach, inspired by the change in studio equipment. Motown had upgraded to eight-track recording in 1965, and once he’d become aware of the possibilities, and of the greater prominence that his bass parts could have if they were recorded on their own track, Jamerson had become a much busier player. Jamerson was a jazz musician by inclination, and so would have been very aware of John Coltrane’s legendary “sheets of sound”, in which Coltrane would play fast arpeggios and scales, in clusters of five and seven notes, usually in semiquaver runs (though sometimes in even smaller fractions — his solo in Miles Davis’ “Straight, No Chaser” is mostly semiquavers but has a short passage in hemidemisemiquavers):
[Excerpt: Miles Davis, “Straight, No Chaser”]
Jamerson started to adapt the “sheets of sound” style to bass playing, treating the bass almost as a jazz solo instrument — though unlike Coltrane he was also very, very concerned with creating something that people could tap their feet to. Much like James Brown, Jamerson was taking jazz techniques and repurposing them for dance music. The most notable example of that up to this point had been in the Four Tops’ “Bernadette”, where there are a few scuffling semiquaver runs thrown in, and which is a much more fluid part than most of his playing previously:
[Excerpt: The Four Tops, “Bernadette”]
But on “Bernadette”, Jamerson had been limited by Holland, Dozier, and Holland, who liked him to improvise but around a framework they created. Cosby, on the other hand, because he had been a Funk Brother himself, was much more aware of the musicians’ improvisational abilities, and would largely give them a free hand.
This led to a truly remarkable bass part on “I Was Made to Love Her”, which is somewhat buried in the single mix, but Marcus Miller did an isolated recreation of the part for the accompanying CD to a book on Jamerson, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and listening to that you can hear just how inventive it is:
[Excerpt: Marcus Miller, “I Was Made to Love Her”]
This was exciting stuff — though much less so for the touring musicians who went on the road with the Motown revues while Jamerson largely stayed in Detroit recording. Jamerson’s family would later talk about him coming home grumbling because complaints from the touring musicians had been brought to him, and he’d been asked to play less difficult parts so they’d find it easier to replicate them on stage.
“I Was Made to Love Her” wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder, Hank Cosby, Sylvia Moy, or Lula Mae Hardaway, but it’s James Jamerson’s record through and through:
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder, “I Was Made to Love Her”]
It went to number two on the charts, sat between “Light My Fire” at number one, and “All You Need is Love” at number three, with the Beatles song soon to overtake it and make number one itself.
But within a few weeks of “I Was Made to Love Her” reaching its chart peak, things in Detroit would change irrevocably.
On the 23rd of July, the police busted an illegal drinking den. They thought they were only going to get about twenty-five people there, but there turned out to be a big party on. They tried to arrest seventy-four people, but their wagon wouldn’t fit them all in so they had to call reinforcements and make the arrestees wait around til more wagons arrived. A crowd of hundreds gathered while they were waiting. Someone threw a brick at a squad car window, a rumour went round that the police had bayonetted someone, and soon the city was in flames.
Riots lasted for days, with people burning down and looting businesses, but what really made the situation bad was the police’s overreaction. They basically started shooting at young Black men, using them as target practice, and later claiming they were snipers, arsonists, and looters — but there were cases like the Algiers Motel incident, where the police raided a motel where several Black men, including the members of the soul group The Dramatics, were hiding out along with a few white women. The police sexually assaulted the women, and then killed three of the men for associating with white women, in what was described as a “lynching with bullets”. The policemen in question were later acquitted of all charges.
The National Guard were called in, as were Federal troops — the 82nd Airborne Division, and the 101st Airborne from Clarksville, the division in which Jimi Hendrix had recently served. After four days of rioting, one of the bloodiest riots in US history was at an end, with forty-three people dead (of whom thirty-three were Black and only one was a policeman). Official counts had 1,189 people injured, and over 7,200 arrests, almost all of them of Black people.
A lot of the histories written later say that Black-owned businesses were spared during the riots, but that wasn’t really the case. For example, Joe’s Record Shop, owned by Joe Von Battle, who had put out the first records by C.L. Franklin and his daughter Aretha, was burned down, destroying not only the stock of records for sale but the master tapes of hundreds of recordings of Black artists, many of them unreleased and so now lost forever.
John Lee Hooker, one of the artists whose music Von Battle had released, soon put out a song, “The Motor City is Burning”, about the events:
[Excerpt: John Lee Hooker, “The Motor City is Burning”]
But one business that did remain unburned was Motown, with the Hitsville studio going untouched by flames and unlooted. Motown legend has this being down to the rioters showing respect for the studio that had done so much for Detroit, but it seems likely to have just been luck. Although Motown wasn’t completely unscathed — a National Guard tank fired a shell through the building, leaving a gigantic hole, which Berry Gordy saw as soon as he got back from a business trip he’d been on during the rioting.
That was what made Berry Gordy decide once and for all that things needed to change. Motown owned a whole row of houses near the studio, which they used as additional office space and for everything other than the core business of making records. Gordy immediately started to sell them, and move the admin work into temporary rented space. He hadn’t announced it yet, and it would be a few years before the move was complete, but from that moment on, the die was cast. Motown was going to leave Detroit and move to Hollywood.