I had been playing a Stevie Wonder CD in the car. For no apparent reason I started to think whether I had ever bought a Stevie Wonder single. You know, an imported 45 with a hole in the middle that was too big for a UK turntable, which needed a strange piece of plastic to make playable. I could not think of one.
Sometime later I heard colleagues at work exchanging a knowing smile about a chant from a football match at St James Park: “There’s only two Ameobis”. This was in recognition of the fact that both Newcastle United players Shola and his brother Sammy Ameobi were on the pitch at the same time.
This chant is normally “There’s only one dad ad ad dad (Insert any players name with four syllables)”. Being a football fan I appreciated the humour.
For whatever tenuous reason, this conversation led me back to thoughts of Stevie Wonder and I made the connection about his absence in my singles collection. There were two Stevie Wonders.
I first saw him live at Sheffield City Hall, in the late 60’s, supported by Martha and the Vandellas. He was Little Stevie Wonder then. He wore a black dinner suit, black bow tie and his trademark shades. He was led onto an empty stage by Martha Reeves and left alone in front of the microphone. The orchestra was in the pit in front of him. The next 45 minutes was electric. He ripped through his back catalogue with an energy I have rarely seen in a live performance. Little Girl I’m Wondering, Fingertips, Uptight, I Was Made to Love Her, For Once In My Life, We Can Work it Out, My Cherie Amour, A Place In The Sun, Signed Sealed and Delivered and more.
Sheffield City Hall was just one mass of people dancing and singing, the atmosphere was amazing. There was no such thing as a bouncer at this concert. The ushers could do little to maintain order other to encourage those of us dancing on the seats to get down. It didn’t work.
The second time I saw him was in much different surroundings of the Fiesta nightclub, again in Sheffield some 4 years later. The Fiesta was a purpose built cabaret club. All the seats were arranged in tiers in a horseshoe shape and faced the stage with a table in front of them. There was a walkway on each tier in front of the tables to allow waitresses to serve drinks or chicken / scampi and chips in a basket. Their usual offering was the likes of Dave Allen, Tommy Cooper, Martin St James and the Barron Knights.
On Sunday nights around 1972-73 things changed. It became soul night. Sam and Dave, Arthur Connolly, Gladys Knight, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Jimmy Ruffin, the Three Degrees, the Detroit Emeralds and Bandwagon all played the Fiesta on a Sunday night around this time, as did Stevie Wonder.
This was a very different Stevie Wonder. Dressed in a white cowboy style jacket (the type worn by Roger Daltry with leather tassels) he sat behind his keyboard with his own band. This was a much harder, grittier performance. He sang his own sings: Superstition, Living for the City, Higher Ground, Misstra Know It All etc. He rounded the performance of with an impromptu version of American Pie. This was powerful music and for the most part – his music.
Stevie Wonder had moved on. So had the Temptations, guided by Norman Whitfield, along with Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. They were reinventing soul as artists in their own right and responding to the social changes in America.
Is this the reason that a true Northern Soul classic by any of these artists did not find its way into my collection? (Marvin comes closest with Can I get A Witness and It Takes Two). I find it strange that by breaking the mould in one part of the world they somehow were bypassed in another – it’s the sort of situation that drives economists mad.
Stevie’s early Motown contemporaries however had their vaults raided and their music became part of Northern Soul. The Four Tops, Jimmy Ruffin, the Velvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Isley Brothers and (of course) R Dean Taylor, all have their place.
Had Stevie become too big for an underground movement which prided itself on finding rare and little known tracks that fitted the niche? Probably so.(Unless his identity is hidden somewhere beneath a white label and an alias).
If I am wrong would someone please tell me?
Now how did that song go? Oh yes “Doodleang Doodleang”.
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