Thursday, February 24, 2011
The Truth About Stevie
I've been reading and mostly enjoying Mark Ribowsky's Signed, Sealed and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder, but I'm beginning to wonder about the author's veracity. Last night I came across this passage, concerning the record that gave the book its title, and which contains a whole lotta wrong:
He produced it in classic Motown style, embellished right off the bat by the coiled rhythm of the sitar. While this was not a new feel in rock since the Beatles had Ravi Shankar play it in their late 1960s "Maharishi" period, and the instrument had also been used in the Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby" and B.J. Thomas's "Hooked on a Feeling," it was surely a new application for soul.
* The Beatles first used the sitar on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," which was recorded in October 1965, which no one would confuse for the late 1960s.
* The sitar on that record was not played by Ravi Shankar but rather by one G. Harrison.
* The Beatles' "Maharishi" period arguably starts in February 1968, when the Fab Four decamped for Rishikesh. It certainly starts no earlier than August 1967, when they went up to Wales to hear the Maharishi speak for the first time (they were up there when they got the news that Brian Epstein had died). This would have not only been after "Norwegian Wood," but after Harrison's India-palooza "Within You, Without You" had been cut and released on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely album.
* I'm not 100 percent sure about this, but I don't think Ravi Shankar ever played on a Beatles record. There are uncredited Indian musicians on "Within You, Without You," "Love You To," and "The Inner Light," but I have to believe that Shankar would have been well-known enough to get a mention in any of these credits had he actually played on them.
* We've discussed the Box Tops and B.J. Thomas records at great length on this site; they both employ an electric sitar, which has quite a different sound from the original sitar. Until very recently, I had no idea that those songs had any variety of sitar at all, although it's possible that I'm just dense. The instrument on "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" sounds to my ears like a classic acoustic sitar.
That's an awful lot to get wrong in a single sentence, isn't it? You might think, well, the book's about Stevie Wonder, so the Beatles aren't really Ribowsky's area of expertise - but if you're going to be writing about any pop music of the 1960s, dontcha hafta always know what the Beatles are up to?
I did say I was mostly enjoying the book: There's a lot of good stuff in there, although I now wonder how much of it is true. For instance, in the original studio version of "Fingertips," Stevie didn't play the harmonica at all - just the bongos. (It never even occurred to me that there was an original studio version of "Fingertips.") Also, Stevie's mother gets off the quote of the decade when a girl calls her up, claiming to be pregnant with Stevie's baby: "Honey, if it comes out black, blind and playing the harmonica, then I'll believe you."