Stevie and Clarence, Together in the 'Wind'
ASSISTING A MARCH, WHISPERING IN AN EARPHONE
On the Billboard Hot 100 for August 17, 1963, Little Stevie Wonder was king. In the key of C minor, his “Fingertips – Pt. 2” reigned at No. 1, while in its shadow was Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” at No. 2. Three summers later, Wonder was back in the Top 10 with his own workout of “Blowin’ In The Wind.” How come? The answer, my friend is…
“Stevie was always concerned about what’s happening in the world,” Paul once told me, “and he was concerned then. I sung that song to him one day, and he loved it.”
Wonder’s 1966 version of the Bob Dylan song was created at Hitsville in January that year, while “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” was on the charts. Clarence Paul produced “Blowin’ In The Wind,” as he had done with most of the youngster’s work to that point, after Lula Hardaway signed her son to Motown on July 15, 1961.
Clarence Otto Pauling, to use his full name, had joined the company the previous year, as assistant to A&R chief Mickey Stevenson. The two men were well-acquainted, having sung together when both were performers. At Motown, Stevenson gave “CP” the professional responsibility for Wonder’s career in concert as well as in the studio. “I put the whole show together for him for about five years,” Paul recalled.
The teenager had been featuring “Blowin’ In The Wind” in his live show for “maybe a couple of years before he recorded it,” according to Paul. “We did it onstage a lot, and the requests were the reason Stevie went in and cut it.”
So far, so familiar. That was the narrative which Wonder’s mentor-cum-producer shared with me in 1991 – before I learned that Wonder had cut an earlier version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” in December 1963, produced by Paul. When the website Don’t Forget The Motor City began shining a light on the Motown vaults in 2003, it revealed the existence of that previous recording, although another ten years passed before it was widely heard, as part of the Motown Unreleased series of digital compilations.
Stevie’s 1963 take is faster than his ’66 rendering, and – at age 13 – his then-tremulous voice does the song no favours. The decision to shelve the track is understandable – but oh, to have known of its existence when interviewing Clarence Paul, and to have been able to quiz him in more detail…
Was it Peter, Paul & Mary’s version which attracted the producer – or Wonder – to the song? Had either of them heard the Dylan original, released the same month as “Fingertips – Pt. 2”? Were they aware of Sam Cooke’s admiration for the lyric? (Cooke’s manager revealed years later that “Blowin’ In The Wind” inspired “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the singer’s own anthem for the era.)
By the end of ’63, Little Stevie was a star, responsible for Motown’s second No. 1 single on the Billboard pop charts, and its first No. 1 album, The 12 Year Old Genius Recorded Live. Moreover, “Fingertips” – although hardly a civil-rights clarion call – had gained some attention among those in the struggle. Sure, Berry Gordy was focused on his burgeoning music business, but he did send Wonder to New York to take part in an “emancipation” fundraising gala at the Apollo Theatre on August 23, 1963.
That event was under the direction of A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the principal organiser of the civil-rights “March on Washington,” planned for late August. Among the singers, musicians and bandleaders booked for the Apollo show, in addition to Wonder, were Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Thelonius Monk, Carmen McRae, Herbie Mann and Quincy Jones. Its goal was to raise money for the D.C. demonstration during what was the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, America’s first step towards the abolition of slavery.
As David Maraniss noted in his remarkable book about Detroit, Once In A Great City, Wonder’s “readiness to assist the March on Washington started a bond with Martin Luther King that would culminate exactly twenty years later with his prominent role in making King’s birthday a national holiday.”
In this context, it’s perhaps no surprise that Wonder first sang “Blowin’ In The Wind” in 1963. When he and Clarence Paul paid a return visit three years later, the song’s resonance – and Dylan’s stature – was greater than ever. Still, it was relatively unusual for Motown artists to record the songs of others, unless they were Tin Pan Alley standards picked to get the firm’s stars booked into cabaret spots such as the Copacabana.
“I did a lot of things [Motown] didn’t ordinarily do,” Paul asserted. “I was kind of a rebel over there. But that’s why Stevie came out sounding pop a lot: he didn’t have the old four-four beat that they did all the way through all the tunes, all the time.”
“Pop” may have been how “Blowin’ In The Wind” sounded, but Paul did more: his was the other voice heard throughout the 1966 recording, as a counterpoint to Wonder (“Too many years have gone by already now, Stevie”). “The reason I was on it on stage is because of the lyrics. I was leading Stevie in, because he didn’t know the second verse. That’s how it got started, and he said, ‘Man, keep doing that,’ so we put it in the song.”
In the studio, it required a similar approach. “Stevie was fast. The music he’d pick up instantly: you play it down one time and that’s enough. But in order to get him the lyrics – he couldn’t read ’em – we had to figure out a way. I used to sing all the demos, I used to try to sing them real good so he’d have something to beat out. That’s the way he got a lot of songs.” Wonder used to take the demos home, he added.
But if Wonder hadn’t learned all the lyrics, there was an alternative. “I had to give them to him as he sang,” said Paul, who arranged for a microphone to feed through a tape recorder into one of the singer’s earphones. Paul whispered the lyrics a line or two ahead, while in Wonder’s other earphone was the instrumental track to which he sang.
Wonder’s tutor, Ted Hull, elaborated on this in his insightful book, The Wonder Years. “Shortly after I came on the scene, Motown’s brilliant engineer Mike McLean devised a wiring system that allowed Clarence to stay in the control booth and still coach Stevie through his earphones. This significantly improved recording quality and speeded production.”
Paul recalled for me that the musicians on “Blowin’ In The Wind” were “the regular guys at Motown,” that is, James Jamerson on bass, Benny Benjamin on drums, Earl Van Dyke on piano, and Robert White and Joe Messina on guitars. The final result, combining track and vocals, was pressed into Wonder’s sixth album, Up-Tight Everything’s Alright, which was released on May 4, 1966. When his first single of the year, “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby,” burned out faster than expected, radio was drawn to the album’s Dylan song. “I think some disc jockeys started playing it,” said Paul, “and Motown decided to release it as a single.”
The record’s Top 10 success that summer was satisfying enough, but Wonder has kept the song, and its message, in his concert setlist for more than 50 years. It was part of his Copacabana repertoire in 1970, and figured in his Carnegie Hall performance in 1973 alongside the likes of “Superstition.” Also powerful was the version he performed with Glen Campbell on the latter’s TV series in 1969.
During a blue-chip tribute to Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden in 1992, Wonder made an unannounced appearance and contributed “Blowin’ In The Wind,” of course. “From a slightly rocking beat to a gospel dialogue to the singer’s trademark colourings, everything glistened,” wrote one reviewer. And the song’s most recent appearance in his setlist? His September 2018 concert in Springfield, Massachusetts.
For Wonder, it seems the “Wind” still glistens.
Photo notes: pictured above, behind Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul, are (left to right) Motown musicians Larry Veeder, Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson and Mike Terry.
Music notes: both of Stevie’s studio recordings of “Blowin’ In The Wind” can be heard on digital streaming services; so can in-concert versions from as far apart as Tokyo and Detroit. An early Stevie/Clarence combination, “Little Water Boy,” is included in The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 2: 1962, while their previously-unavailable studio duets, “About My Baby” and “Funny (How Time Slips Away),” can be found on Motown Unreleased 1965.