I had my eyes open for this record for some time before picking it out of a bin at Georgetown Records in Seattle, while I was there for Beyonce and Jay Z’s 2014 On The Run tour. Yeah, it was an unforgettable weekend. Anyway, I was looking for this album because, although it’s not Stevie Wonder’s first recording, it was the one that gave start to his unending success.
At the time this was recorded in 1962, the 12 year old genius had been signed by Motown for over a year and had released two studio albums, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, and Tribute to Uncle Ray. Neither of these albums really took off, but this live album gives us a taste of both Stevie’s “jazz soul,” and his love and respect for “Uncle Ray”. The energy of this live Chicago show exudes from the recording, making me feel like it’s my own memory of being there… if it weren’t for the knowledge the “little Stevie Wonder” went on to win 14 Grammy awards before I was even born (and then another 11 since 1982)! A quick note from Berry Gordy on the record sleeve says that the title is not “given to Little Stevie Wonder by Motown… for publicity,” just in case you were wondering. 54 years later, and I highly doubt they’ve been accused of misusing the word genius.
Side One begins with the album’s biggest single, “Fingertips,” which gives the listener a pretty good example of Stevie’s charisma and charm, not to mention his proficiency on the bongos and the harmonica. Also, just as a bit of trivia, that’s none other than Marvin Gaye playing drums on this track. And speaking of Gaye, that’s exactly who wrote the next song on this album, “Soul Bongo,” which continues to features Stevie on the bongos. Side A of The 12 Year Old Genius finishes with “La La La La La,” which pretty much sums up the lyrical content of the album so far. On this song we get another dose of young Wonder’s stage presence as he teases the audience, from the drum set this time. Even if this kid wasn’t blind, 12 years old, and about to grow up to be The Stevie Wonder, I would be impressed with the solid and fun first half of an album.
I’ll admit that sometimes this is where I stop listening. Not because Side B is bad at all, but Stevie turns his attention and energy to his vocals in order to give us a bit of a tribute to his mentor and idol, Ray Charles. The album begins with one of four songs that are all lyrically beyond his maturity and comprehension. Two out of three songs that were made popular by Ray Charles were also written by him, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough different versions of “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” even if it is weird hearing a boy sing about a lady bringing him coffee every morning. Still, “Drown in My Own Tears,” is even more awkward. There is a certain charm in a child singing about heartbreak, but I also find it a little creepy. That being said, for a 12 year old, he can sing.
I mean, the kid sounds just like a young Stevie Wonder.
Considering that I call this blog “On Records,” I’ve decided to take that rather literally, and attempt to write about albums that I have in my own vinyl collection. I will also use this as an opportunity/excuse to take ridiculous pictures of my bonding experience with their cardboard sleeves, like the one below. Of course, in one short month we will take a break to participate in some very fun March Madness brackets, but in the meantime we can take a look at some records that I love, and some that I am a little embarrassed by.
Foreigner’s appropriately titled fourth album is neither of these. This album is one of a handful that I inherited from my brothers when they traded their vinyl for shiny, digitally formatted, compact discs. So, because it is one of my first, it holds some nostalgic value for me, but not in the way that, say, MJ’s Thriller does. 4 is not a record I spin often, which made it perfect for this new project of listening through my collection in order of album title, regardless of artist or genre (which are the two ways I currently have my records organized).
I probably kept this album because I liked the two upbeat singles, “Jukebox Hero” and “Urgent,” and with this listen they are still the two moments I was most excited for. The album kicks off with Nightlife, and I begin to question whether I really want to spend so much time listening to all this White Dude Rock n’ Roll. That is what this is, especially in 1981. Album Oriented Rock is what the genre was (think Alternative of the 90’s, or Indie of the early 00’s), and until Michael Jackson collaborated with Eddie Van Halen for “Beat It,” radio stations wouldn’t play music made by any non-white musicians. I know this isn’t Lou Gramm or Mick Jones’ fault, but generally Foreigner isn’t representative of my go-to music. That being said, the first side of the record has been really growing on me. The tasteful use of synth from pre-solo-career Thomas Dolby highlights Foreigner’s catchy licks and riffs, and their well-used, emotionally manipulative chord progressions. Plus, they had Mutt Lange producing, which is like 1981’s version of Max Martin – he knew exactly how to clean something up and make it sell like an Apple product.
Anyway, back to the beginning. “Nightlife” is at least a good reminder of the era we’re in, and I don’t have to wait long for my favourite (that I share with most 80’s stadium crowds), “Juke Box Hero”. This song is everything that was hopeful about 80’s rock and roll. “Juke Box Hero” is the American Dream. As the song builds in energy, rhythm, and volume, we hear of an everykid, inspired (by a show he can’t even get into!) to purchase a secondhand guitar, who grows up to be a self-taught and self-made rockstar, or “juke box hero.” This is probably one of the most underrated rock anthems of the 80’s, or maybe ever. What I wouldn’t give to go back and see them perform this in the early 80’s with the massive, inflatable wurlitzer that they would blow up at the end of every concert.
But as I said, the rest of this side is pretty solid as well. “Break It Up”, although so dramatic, is exactly the kind of song I would love to lip sync to. “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” is the big ballad of the album that in part sets the tone of the decade, giving permission to other AOR bands to get in touch with their sensitive, romantic sides. “Luanne” is kind of a mix, and mostly I think it’s such an interesting choice to include here. I mean, there are a lot of feminine names that have two syllables, and I don’t know that Luanne was ever that popular a name. Who knows if this song would be more popular today if it was instead titled, “Ashley,” or “Colleen”?
Unfortunately, the best thing about the second side/half of this album is the hit single, “Urgent”. This song alone keeps me flipping the record over, if only because of Junior Walker’s guest appearance. I tried so hard to find a performance of this song with Jr., but it seems that like the video below (around 2:38), they mostly had another guy sax-sync to Walker’s brilliant solo.
I get rather bored with the two Jones’ penned, ego-centric songs, “I’m Gonna Win,” and trope-filled, “Woman in Black,” although the latter one has some great guitar riffs that remind me of Huey Lewis and the News.
The last two songs on the album return to the kind of pop I enjoy from Foreigner. Both “Girl on the Moon,” and “Don’t Let Go,” are fun, and I nod my head to them, but I can’t say that either of them are going to be the reason I decide to give this album a listen. I am not entirely sure whether this is the only Foreigner record I have, but I am quite certain that it’s the last one chronologically that’s any good. I would even venture to say that although some of their other albums have some more solid singles, 4 is arguably their best to listen to in album context.