The 12 Year Old Genius (Recorded Live ) – Little Stevie Wonder, 1963
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.