Motown Monday: Saving Stevie Wonder

Motown Mondays is a regular feature of this blog. By “regular” I mean whenever I feel like it but at least always on a Monday; and always about Motown, duh.

Stevie Wonder’s career may never have gotten off the ground were it not for the efforts of songwriter Sylvia Moy who passed away April 15th. Moy, who was also the first female staff producer at Motown, wrote or co-wrote such hit songs as This Old Heart of Mine for The Isley Brothers[1]It Takes Two for Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston and My Cherie Amour for Stevie Wonder. But her contribution to Uptight (Everything’s Alright) was clearly her most important work.

Little Stevie Wonder burst on the scene at age 12 in 1963 with the surprise hit Fingertips, Pt. 2 which was an in-concert ad-lib Berry Gordy had edited to be released as a single. Subsequent singles failed to chart as high as the demanding Gordy liked and he was not in the habit of carrying non-hit making cargo. Worse yet, Stevie’s voice was changing and when the innocent, pre-pubescent voice was gone, Gordy fretted that Stevie’s dwindling fanbase would go with it. After two years of being stuck nearer the bottom of the Top 40 than the top, Gordy was strongly considering releasing the talented but not hit-making boy genius from his contract.

Enter Sylvia Moy who asked Gordy if she could come up with a hit for Stevie, would he reconsider. As Motown oral history tells it, Stevie had gone through his songbook without her hearing anything that sounded like a surefire hit, meaning they’d have to write something from scratch. Finally, she asked, “Do you have anything else?” At that point, Stevie reluctantly sang a phrase he’d been playing around with, “Everything is alright, uptight.” That was the spark that got them going. Sylvia wrote a story around that phrase, Stevie put together the song structure and Hank Cosby created the bright horn-filled arrangement.

If we are to believe Gordy’s own words about dropping Stevie, then Sylvia Moy’s persistence, hit-hearing ears and songwriting skills saved Stevie’s career. Uptight (Everything’s Alright) went to #1 on the R&B chart and #3 on the pop chart[2] and forever changed the public’s perception of the cute kid with his harmonica – which he did NOT play on that song. He also received the first of his eventual 3,519,437 Grammy nominations with a nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male which would be won by James Brown for Crying Time.

R.I.P Sylvia Moy. We all thank you for not letting us live in a world without Stevie Wonder’s music.

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[1] And covered in 1989 by Rod Stewart with Ronnie Isley.

[2] The pop chart was the only chart that mattered to Gordy whose motto for Motown – The Sound of Young America – signaled his intent to make music for all America and not just for black America.

 

One thought on “Motown Monday: Saving Stevie Wonder

Add yours

  1. I like the synergy of Stevie’s history with Lauren’s current situation. Maybe someday we’ll learn that she had her own Sylvia Moy who made all the difference.

    Liked by 1 person

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