Younger Than Yesterday: Fulfillingness’ First Finale
Words: Dave Harding, Illustration: Craig Carry
Growing up in a small Michigan town in the 1970’s and early 80’s, one could feel a million miles away from the Real World. You know, the world of Johnny Carson, CHiPS, and Donny and Marie. This was before MTV and then the internet made the world a whole lot smaller.
The only real local star we had back then was Terrible Ted Nugent. It seemed like everybody I met while growing up had a Nuge story: an uncle who had played in the Amboy Dukes, a friend’s dad who had hunted endangered caribou with Ted, or a young female cousin who had been inappropriately ‘squggled’ by ol’ Uncle Ted.
But Nugent’s music never appealed much to me. I could try to sound hip and say that we were cranking out Motown, Stooges and MC5 tunes at high school keggers. But in reality it was Van Halen, Rush, Judas Priest and AC/DC, with the occasional appearance of another local boy done good, Bob Seger, aka The Seeg.
Of course, during my high school years a local girl was making it real big. Very local, as one Louise Ciccone was born some 30 miles away from me in Bay City. But sadly, Louise and I never crossed paths. By the time Louise, or as you know her, Madge, was singing “Like a Virgin” I was desperately seeking to become unlike a virgin, without much success.
Madonna made a great impression on Ciccone Youth, who in 1988 released the Madonna-inspired record The Whitey Album. You may know Ciccone Youth by their other name, Sonic Youth. Their drummer Steve Shelley is from the same town as me. To my knowledge, Shelley is the most famous musician ever to emerge from Midland.
Several years ago I ran into Shelley at the small airport outside of Midland. It was a Sunday afternoon and the airport was nearly empty as I stood in the car rental line. I turned around and immediately recognized Shelley. He was easy to pick out: he looked way too cool to be in the Midland airport. We had a pleasant talk. He was a real nice guy, as you might expect.
But the biggest musical force, by far, to emerge from my neck of the woods is one Steveland Hardaway Judkins, born in 1950 in Saginaw, some 35 miles from my hometown.
By the time I came into this world, Steveland was making hit records for Motown and touring the country on Motown Package Tours, thrilling audiences as Little Stevie Wonder.
Saturday mornings at my house in the 1970’s revolved around the Four C’s: Cap’n Crunch Cereal and Cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Hong Kong Phooey, Land of the Lost and a hundred other cartoons filled our sugar-drenched television screen.
But my favorite Saturday morning show by far was Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Bill Cosby brought Fat Albert, Mushmouth, Weird Harold and his version of inner city life into my suburban home. I loved the characters, the visuals, the music and the stories. There was always a great moral message as well, a lesson about how we could live our lives better and treat others better as well. And the gang always played a song at the end of the show.
I will always associate The Fat Albert Show with my first exposure to Stevie Wonder.
Maybe it was a sunny summer Saturday morning in June. After my sister and I turned off the t.v. when Fat Albert was over, a radio was playing somewhere. Maybe in our house, or maybe at a neighbor’s house. All I know is, I heard a song that caught my ear and captured a moment of time in my life that I will never forget.
I heard a song that started with a catchy horn introduction and took off from there, with a funky, jazzy beat and the singer proclaiming “You can feel it all over!”. I knew what he meant: I felt the music of this song all over my body, from my toes all the way up to the top of my head. It was like drinking a large cherry and coke Slurpee and eating two Snickers bars. I didn’t know what exactly “Sir Duke” meant, but I knew it made me feel good all over.
Shortly afterward I bought the 45 single at Woolworth’s for 79 cents. I went home and listened to “Sir Duke” and the masterful B-Side “He’s Misstra Know It All” over and over.
But there were a lot of other things to keep a 10 year old’s interest: baseball, football, playing army, Star Wars. Music was just background stuff at this point. But over the next couple of years music would slowly gain more and more importance in my life.
I passed through Bee Gees disco 45s, then lps by Foreigner, Aerosmith, ELO, etc. before I became obsessed with Paul McCartney and then The Beatles in 7th grade. Back then I thought that McCartney was the main guy in The Beatles, as I knew only of Wings and his solo work. But that would change soon enough. John Lennon would release Double Fantasy later that year, and that record and the events that followed it would lead me to a love of Lennon as well.
But that summer my favorite record was McCartney’s new one, McCartney II. Then I heard that the local radio station was going to be playing Abbey Road in it’s entirety that night. I did not have that record, but had heard it was a good one. So I stayed up until 11 pm and set up my little hand held Realistic tape recorder in front of the speakers on our Realistic stereo.
I taped all of Abbey Road and was blown away by the music. Then the dj said that he was going to play Stevie Wonders Fullfillingness’ First Finale next. I was excited. The only Stevie Wonder record I owned was still that “Sir Duke” 45, which had become kind of forgotten about in my love for everything Beatles. So I figured I would stay up (past Midnight!) and record the Stevie Wonder record as well.
The record started and I was immediately captivated by it. It seemed to be a continuation of Abbey Road, and to share a common world with McCartney II as well. Probably because of the time of night, but it seemed like it was made for late night listening, with hushed vocals and mellow vibes.
The only problem was that I only had a 60 minute tape, and I had used most of it to tape Abbey Road. So while I listened to the whole record that night on the radio, I was only able to tape Side 1 of the record.
The next morning I played golf with my friend Tim Rice. I gushed to him about the great music I had heard and taped the night before. None of my other friends would likely have cared about hearing about The Beatles and Stevie Wonder, but Tim had a love for good music.
I listened to that tape quite a lot. I loved Abbey Road, and I always let the tape play out side 1 of Fullfillingness’ First Finale. It seemed that Wonder’s record was linked to the playful songs of the ‘pop opera’ suite of side 2 of Abbey Road.
The record opens with the sly, teasing, somewhat downbeat “Smile Please”, promising that ‘there’s brighter days ahead’. A mix of congas, jazzy guitar and a multitude of voices undulate under the song, capped by Wonder’s catchy, child-like ‘bum de ti bum bum’ which always puts me in a good mood.
Next up is one of my favorites, “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away”. A yearning, almost classical sounding keyboard sets up Wonder’s impassioned plea for salvation. This song has always seemed to me to be a mix of space age music and gospel. A keyboard that sounds like a processed harpsichord, clavinet, handclaps, gospel-styled backup singing, and a burbling Moog bassline drive the song.
“Too Shy To Say” is a quiet, thoughtful ballad featuring Wonder’s piano, James Jamerson’s upright bass and “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow’s shimmering pedal steel guitar. A somewhat understated song, it is reminiscent of some of McCartney’s ballads.
It is hard to believe that Wonder plays all the instruments (save for Rocky Dzidzornu on congas) on the ultra-funky “Boogie On Reggae Woman”. Wonder was well known for his instrumental prowess, and often played many of the instruments on his recordings. Wonder caps off the song with a sizzling harmonica solo.
Side one of the record ends with the jazzy and smoky “Creepin’”. The song delivers on it’s title, as it quietly creeps into the listener’s consciousness. Minnie Riperton adds a sultry harmony vocal to the song.
And sadly, that’s where my original tape of the album ended. But it is a tantalizing mix of songs, each one very different from the other. The late night vibe seemed to perfectly compliment the goodnight lullabies of Side 2 of Abbey Road.
It would be another year or two before I heard Side 2 of Fullfillingness’ First Finale, when I bought the album on vinyl. In the meantime I made a tape recording of Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants, which I found at my local library. Though some of this record sailed right over my head, I found some of the songs on it very beautiful, and I am always puzzled that this record hasn’t received more attention. I also picked up a copy of Stevie’s two record ‘best-of’ Original Musiquarium.
By the time I purchased Fullfillingness’ First Finale, my musical tastes were elsewhere, and I didn’t really absorb Side 2 of the record like I had Side 1. Unfortunately, this has made me think of the second half of the album as not as high caliber as the first half. Whether this is true or not is up to each listener to decide.
That said, Side 2 gets off to a killer start with the stomping, vitriolic “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”, featuring the Jackson 5 on backup vocals. The song always seemed to me a slighter version of “Higher Ground”, but even a second-level “Higher Ground” is still pretty damn good!
“It Ain’t No Use” is a nice mid-tempo song about breaking up with your lover. The “Bye Bye Bye Bye Bye” chorus makes it’s intentions fairly obvious.
“They Won’t Go When I Go” is a gorgeous ballad, featuring primarily just Wonder’s vocal and piano. The song seems to call out Wonder’s fellow man, who are not following as clear a path as he is. Wonder performed this song 36 years later at Michael Jackson’s Memorial Service.
The bossa nova groove of “Bird of Beauty” sets up a really catchy mid-tempo number, again calling on others to lead a more pure, drug-free life: “There is so much in life for you to feel, Unfound in white, red, or yellow pills.” Wonder sings one of the verses in Portuguese, perhaps a tip of the hat to Brazil, the birthplace of the bossa nova.
The record ends with the groovin’ “Please Don’t Go”. This song sounds like it could have been written earlier in his career. Though it is a catchy number, it never really goes anywhere or hits a peak. I’ve always thought that Fullfillingness’ First Finale needed one more strong song to really push it to the next level. All of his other ‘classic’ albums from the 70’s all ended with very strong numbers. “Please Don’t Go”, to my ears, sends the listener off with a feeling of ‘ho hum’ instead of ‘Holy Shit’!
That said, there is enough good stuff on this record to keep a listener coming back time and time again. Listening on headphones really brings out all the magical touches that Wonder brings to his music. The instrumental interplay and the arrangements are truly breathtaking. I am always hearing new things, especially in the background vocals. Wonder has a way of talking in the background of his songs. Humorous little asides and comments on the music. It really adds to the overall good feeling in the music.
The record has a mellower vibe than his other records created around this time. Save for “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”, the record could almost be considered easy listening. Like I have mentioned, it has a great late night, relaxed feeling to it.
Fullfillingness’ First Finale was originally released on July 22, 1974. The album peaked at number 1 in the U.S., and both “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman” were top 5 singles. Wonder won 3 Grammy awards for the album, including Album of the Year.
Fullfillingness’ First Finale oftentimes gets overlooked when people talk about Stevie Wonder’s classic albums. I would admit that it is a notch below the genius of Talking Book, Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. But any other musician would give their hind teeth to make a record as good, and any music listener should have the record in his collection.
The next six or seven years of my life were primarily devoted to listening to rock music, from Elvis Presley to the Velvet Underground to Husker Du. Except for time spent grooving to Bob Marley or Thelonious Monk, I pretty much kept soul music out of my life.
But in my early 20’s the groove crept back in, through George Clinton and P-Funk, Sly Stone, The Neville Brothers and others. And then there was Stevie, with all of his great music waiting to be listened to for the first time or rediscovered. His music has been close by ever since, and has continued to inspire and enrich me. I never tire of it. And whenever I hear “Sir Duke” I still get shivers down my spine like I did that Saturday afternoon in Michigan when I first heard it back in 1977.
Dave Harding is bass player in Portland, Oregon’s Richmond Fontaine. Their current album, ‘The High Country’ is the band’s tenth studio album and is yet another masterpiece from one of the most essential music acts today. Previous albums include ‘Post to Wire’ (2004), ‘The Fitzgerald’ (2005), and ‘Thirteen Cities’ (2007). Dave Harding has recorded two solo albums, ‘Across The Road’ (2007) and ‘You Came Through’ (2012).