November 22: Stevie Wonder releases “Uptight”

The school for the blind told Stevie Wonder that all he’d be able to do in life was make potholders, but he got signed at Motown for his harmonica playing even though owner Berry Gordy wasn’t too sold on him. The live No. 1 “Fingertips (Part 1 and II)” had him touring nonstop for two years. “How are we supposed to follow him?” everyone else on the Motown Revue would curse. The young Wonder was the mascot at the Motown house, fooling people with his perfect imitation of Gordy over the intercom, getting away with pinching butts, joking he was going to take a car out for a drive. He was a permanent fixture in the Snake Pit where the Funk Brothers recorded. Sometimes he’d burst in while they were taping because he couldn’t see that the red “recording” light was on, but they wouldn’t have the heart to tell him. He picked up everything he could learn from them, and gave drummer Benny Benjamin the nickname Papa Zita.

But now 15, Wonder’s voice had begun to change, and Gordy was thinking it might be time to let him go. He hadn’t had a hit since “Fingertips” two and a half years ago.

Wonder had an idea for a song, something with a beat like “Satisfaction.” (In which Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts imitated Benjamin.) Maybe he got the phrase “Uptight” from the line in Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Writer/producers Sylvia Moy and Henry Cosby helped Wonder with the lyrics, about a poor kid who is “Uptight” because his girlfriend was rich — but “Everything’s Alright” because she loves him anyway. When they recorded it, they didn’t have the lyrics in Braille so Moy whispered each line into Wonder’s ear a beat before he sang it.

James Jamerson plucked with his right index finger, a.k.a. the Hook, infusing the bass with the same attitude he had when a mugger tried to rob him — Jamerson yanked out his gun from his waistband, pistol-whipped the thief and took his money. Benjamin brought it home for the kid like he was beating “on a bloody tree,” as John Lennon put it. “Uptight” made it to No. 3 and Gordy stopped thinking about letting Wonder go.

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