This was the first live recording to hit #1 in the US, and it has quite a story behind it. Stevie Wonder, just 12 years old, was part of a Motown package tour called "The Motortown Revue," and was thrilling crowds with his high-energy performances. On March 10, 1963, the Revue came to the Regal Theatre in Chicago, where Wonder's performance was recorded. On this night, he played a highly improvised version of his song "Fingertips," which went on for about 10 minutes as the crowd went absolutely nuts and the stage manager, concerned because the show was running late, tried to get him off so the next act could perform. Wonder fed off the crowd and kept going, even doing a little bit of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on his harmonica. When Wonder ends the song (about 2:05 in), the band starts to clear the stage, and the band for the next act, The Marvelettes, hustles on. At this point, Wonder starts playing again, at which point you can hear the Marvelettes bass player Joe Swift ask "What key?" and the performance picks up again with a little encore played by at least some members of the new band.
Motown released the last three minutes of this performance as "Fingertips (Part 2)," as the B-side of a different performance of the first part of "Fingertips." Part 2 became the hit, and the single was quickly reissued with Part 2 as the A-side. The song spent three weeks at #1 in the summer of 1963 and launched Wonder to stardom.
An instrumental studio version of "Fingertips" was included on Wonder's first album, The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie, in September 1962. The song was written by the Motown writers Hank Cosby and Clarence Paul. This version of the song is much more mellow, jazzier and flute-heavy than the famous live version, which plays up the horns and harmonica.
Wonder's first two albums were The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie and Tribute to Uncle Ray, both released in 1962 and intended to frame Stevie as a young Ray Charles. They didn't catch on, but in 1963 Motown released The 12 Year Old Genius (Recorded Live), with two sides of the "Fingertips" single (from different performances) edited together to make one song. The album hit #1 while the single was still topping the Hot 100, making Stevie Wonder the first artist with a #1 album and single at the same time. The song was also a #1 R&B hit at the time.
The words on this song were stuff Stevie Wonder came up with to engage the crowd - Part 1 of the song and the studio version are both instrumental.
This was only the second #1 hit for Motown Records. Their first was "Please Mr. Postman
" by The Marvelettes in 1961.
A young Marvin Gaye played drums on this live recording. Gaye had already been a Motown session drummer for a couple of years, and amongst the hits he'd previously drummed on was The Marvelletes #1 song "Please Mr. Postman
Berry Gordy gave Wonder the name "Little Stevie Wonder" (his real name is Steveland Morris) and marketed him with Motown Records as a "Genius." His talent was obvious, but it didn't translate to record, and his first three singles tanked. It took a while for Wonder to develop a studio hit, but he quickly became a top live performer, thanks in part to his time in the youth choir at Whitestone Baptist Church in Detroit. "Fingertips (Part 2)" captured that live energy and established Wonder as a top vocalist and harmonica player, but as he grew up, he developed into a brilliant songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist. He dropped the "little" from his stage name in 1964.
Wonder got a lot of attention in the aftermath of this song, but he went though a long dry spell before he had another big hit. By 1965, Motown producers were passing up opportunities to work with him because they couldn't figure out how to translate his talent into a hit recording. The breakthrough came when he began working with Sylvia Moy, who worked with him on the song "Uptight (Everything's Alright)
," which made #3 in 1966.