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Music

Why the first Stevie Wonder number one was a jam

When Little Stevie Wonder took the stage during the Motown Revue live concerts of the early 1960s, he had a routine: play a few songs, show off his multi-instrumental skills, and end with a big crowd singalong. That singalong was the call-and-response track ‘Fingertips’, a jazz instrumental that Wonder recorded on his first album. By the time it hit the live stage, however, ‘Fingertips’ had transformed into a rave-up dependent on audience participation. 

Every night, Wonder would go on stage and improve the lyrics and structure of ‘Fingertips’ depending on the response he got from his audience. Although he was just 12 years old at the time, Wonder could dictate to the house band where to go and what to do. That house band included a young Marvin Gaye on drums, who took the gig at a time when he was placed in the proverbial Motown doghouse for his lack of hits as a singer. 

The structure of the performance is so loose that it’s even possible to hear bassist Joe Swift calling out to his fellow band members to figure out what key the song was in. Wonder had already finished most of ‘Fingertips’ and even received an outro from MC Winehead Willie, but Wonder went back to the microphone for a short stinger to conclude the performance. Some of the band members that played with Wonder’s following act, Mary Wells, had already taken their positions and scrambled to help Wonder finish ‘Fingertips’.

Despite the ramshackle nature of the performance, Wonder was so electric during that particular night that Motown decided to release it as a single. Since it was more haphazard, and because six-minute singles weren’t a thing in 1963, the second part of the song that featured extensive audience interaction was edited onto the B-side of the single and rebranded ‘Fingertips Pt. II’. When the single began to get pop music radio play, DJs preferred to play the electric B-side rather than the more stately A-side.

As a result, ‘Fingertips Pt. II’ became Stevie Wonder’s first number one hit. At just 13, he was the youngest chart-topper in history at the time of the single’s release. Wonder would return to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 numerous times, landing eight number one singles at the top of the charts over the course of three different decades. It all started with an improvised jam on ‘Fingertips’, which Wonder took to new heights through his sheer charisma.

Check out the audio for ‘Fingertips Pt. II’ down below.