Ah, that harmonica. Who else but Stevie Wonder?
I had been thinking about Stevie and the harmonica lately -- something I heard on the grocery store musak, although I couldn't swear it was a Stevie tune. But that sweet, swinging harmonica made me suddenly hunger to listen to Stevie Wonder.
And then, by serendipity, in an email thread I learned this morning that some dear buddies from my first New York City job were all also having Stevie Wonder marathons to combat the cabin fever of being snowbound.
But of course!
It's early, granted -- 1967, when Stevie was just sixteen years old, before he really took the reins of his own career. Though he co-wrote this song, his mother, Motown songwriting headmistress Sylvia Moy, and his producer Henry Cosby had a hand in it as well. (Moy was from Arkansas, which is why it begins with the baffling line "I was born in Little Rock," whereas Stevie originally hailed from Saginaw, Michigan.)
But he claims it was autobiographical, about the first girl he ever fell in love with, and the pure joy of first-time love runs through it like a shot of adrenaline. He's already trying out his own version of talking-blues-soul -- "You know my papa disapproved it / My mama boohooed it" (can't you just imagine Bob Dylan crooning that?).
On the invaluable website Song Facts, I read that Henry Cosby took Stevie to a Baptist church in Detroit to show him how a gospel preacher might sing this. He also dragged people off the street into the studio so that Stevie could sing it to an audience -- Stevie always sang better with an audience. Now there's a brilliant producer for you. Whatever he did to coax the magic into being, it worked.
Maybe it was the older songwriters who pushed this song into a celebration of long-standing love ("That's why we made it through the years"). Stevie had probably been with that girl for weeks, months if he was lucky, not "years." But he sells it with such confidence, I never questioned it.
What really sticks with me, though, is the images of those kids -- "I was high-top shoes and shirt tails / Suzy was in pigtails," and in the last verse, "I was knee-high to a chicken when that love bug hit me." Seven years later, Stevie would start out "I Wish" (on his masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life) "Looking back on when I / Was a little nappy-headed boy." What a journey he'd traveled between this song and that one.
But it was a huge, I mean HUGE hit in 1967, preventing from hitting Number 1 on the charts only by the massive megahit "Light My Fire" by the Doors. (Think of those two songs emerging at the same moment in time.) That commanding bass (James Jamerson?), that sassy guitar line, crisp horns held back in the mix, and above all the soaring exuberance of Stevie's harmonica. An instant classic, it was. And it sounds as fresh today as it did 48 years ago.