"He's considered the genius of our time ... How 'bout a hand for Little Stevie Wonder!"


The Regal Theatre at 47th Street and South Parkway during the week of April 19-25, 1963. (Getty Images)

From April 19th to April 25th, 1963 – literally 60 years ago this week – the Motortown Revue moved into Chicago’s legendary Regal Theatre at 47th Street and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), where some of the Motown label’s most popular artists had a week-long engagement, doing five shows a day in the 3,000-seat theatre.

Audiences that week got the full Motown experience, with performances from Mary Wells, The Contours, the Marvelettes, Marv Johnson, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, MC Bill Murray (not the actor/comedian!), Choker Campbell and His Orchestra and a 12-year-old wunderkind who the label signed the previous year, Little Stevie Wonder.

The Regal, along with the nearby Tivoli Theatre (at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove), was the last of the Chicago movie palaces to offer stage shows with their movies. And during this week, the so-called "first-run hit" film to go with the live Motortown Revue was a British/Swedish “B” movie made in 1959, but released in the U.S. in 1963:  a thriller titled “No Time To Kill”, which starred veteran Hollywood actor John Ireland.

Audiences got all this entertainment for tickets that ranged from $2.50 to $10, according to various sources.

Sixty years later, this week at the Regal is seen as historic. Because it was during this week that Stevie Wonder’s first number one hit, “Fingertips -- Pt. 2”, was recorded in front of a loud, appreciative audience at one of the Regal shows. It's a fantastic performance -- one that still manages to excite listeners today:

It was Little Stevie’s exit song during the Regal shows. Written and composed by Clarence Paul and Henry Cosby, it was originally a jazz instrumental on Wonder’s first studio album, 1962’s “The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie”. On that excellent album, Wonder didn't sing at all -- he instead was showcased playing harmonica and bongos, supported by Motown's legendary Funk Brothers, playing some first-rate jazz throughout the album. "Fingertips" was arranged by one of the many brilliant jazz musicians who was a part of Motown's house band: Thomas "Beans" Bowles, who also played the flute solo in the studio recording.

But by the time of the Regal appearance, a call-and-response section with Stevie and the audience had been added, along with one of Wonder's first recorded vocals. This is the legendary song that we now know – “Fingertips, Part 2”. And if you’re wondering about “Fingertips – Part 1”, that was the flip side, which resembled the original studio recording. The exception was that the flute solo was excised from the live version of the song -- at the Regal, Little Stevie was front and center, playing an energizing harmonica solo which dominates part 1, before the famous call-and-response in part 2.

It's definitely worth listening to Part 1 and 2 together to get the complete experience, and to also get MC Bill Murray's over-the-top introduction: "Right about now we'd like to introduce you to a 12-year-old ... he's considered the genius of our time. So how about a hand for Little Stevie Wonder!"

Nowadays, “Fingertips – Part 2” is a landmark song. Released the following month, in May of 1963, it was only Motown’s second number one hit on both the Pop and R&B charts, following the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” from 1961, And it was the first-ever live recording to make it to the top of the pop/R&B charts.

But looking back, the whole event was an afterthought in Chicago at the time. Today, it would be monumental to have this number of Motown stars sharing a stage. But in April of 1963, it only warranted a small advertisement in the Chicago Tribune’s movie section. Here's the complete movie listing page of the April 19 edition of the Tribune (note the abundance of good movies in theaters at that time):

And here's a close look at the Regal listing on the same page:

The only other mention of the show, outside of the movie listings, was this short blurb in the Sunday, April 21th Tribune:

It's instructive and interesting to look at other sections of the newspaper during that week, to provide additional context. This was a time of change in Chicago and in the nation. The front page of the April 19th, 1963 Tribune has stories about the Cuban Missile Crisis, along with a local story about activist Florence Scala's continued fight to save the original Little Italy, which was eventually bull-dozed to make way for the University of Illinois-Chicago campus:

The local news was still dominated by the mysterious murder of 24th Ward Ald. Benjamin Lewis, a Black politician in a ward that had recently transitioned from working class Jewish and Italian to working class Black. Lewis was murdered in his North Lawndale ward office right after being re-elected. It's a cold case murder which still hasn't been solved, 60 years later. This story claims that a disgruntled insurance client was responsible for the murder:

Change was also the underlying theme of this story, where an apartment building in the West Englewood neighborhood was fire-bombed, due to rumors that a Black family was moving in. Back then, that neighborhood was white ethnic, but within ten years, it would be predominantly Black:

It was also a time of change for entertainment in the city. As mentioned, by 1963, the Regal and the nearby Tivoli Theatre (at 63rd and Cottage Grove) were the only Chicago movie theatres still offering a combination of films and stage shows. A week after the Motortown Revue, the stage act at the Tivoli was none other than Pearl Bailey, performing with the orchestra of her husband, the brilliant former Duke Ellington drummer, Louis Bellson. This show had a better movie to go with it: the Blake Edwards drama about alcoholism, "Days of Wine and Roses":

Not long after this show, the Tivoli would close its doors for good. It would be demolished the next year.

As for the Regal, it would have five more years after 1963. A teen-aged Stevie Wonder would be the featured performer for one of the last shows at the Regal in 1968. By this time, Wonder had two original hits under his belt: "Uptight" and "I Was Made To Love Her". But for this last Regal appearance, Stevie was the only Motown performer on the bill. Other notables included Archie Bell and the Drells, fresh off their hit, "Tighten Up":

The Regal would close later in 1968, and would languish and deteriorate for five years, before being demolished. It's now astonishing that there was no real attempt made at saving this historic theater, which showcased just about every important Black musical performer for 40 years. If that had happened, perhaps it could have remained as a beacon for Black entertainment, like the Apollo in New York or the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C.

But we're lucky to still have the sounds of the Regal during that spring week in 1963, when the performance of a music legend just starting his career was recorded before a group of exuberant fans.




Popular posts from this blog

Thoughts on the Hotel Sherman and the Thompson Center

"The Queen's Suite"