In the summer of 1963, a strange record by a 12-year-old boy who’d already racked up a string of flops spent three weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. It’s largely a showcase for that 12-year-old’s precocious harmonica playing. “Fingertips” is an unlikely No. 1—a live recording long enough to be split over the two sides of the 45—but one of the oddest things about it is the thin, fluttery tone of the lead instrument. The world first met Little Stevie Wonder in his capacity as a virtuoso of the chromatic harmonica—an instrument played by almost no one else in soul, blues, or rock.
When you think of the harmonica, you’re probably thinking of a diatonic harmonica: 10 holes, locked to a single key. Diatonic harp players—Bob Dylan, Little Walter, the guy from Blues Traveler, the guy from the J. Geils Band, basically every harmonica player you’ve ever heard of—are working with the limitations of the instrument: bending to reach notes that are otherwise unavailable, confining themselves to a restricted scale. Wonder’s instrument, on the other hand, the chromatic harmonica, has a stopper that shifts the pitch up a semitone, giving the player access to a full 12-note scale. Here’s a rough analogy: A diatonic harp has just the white keys on the piano keyboard, whereas on a chromatic, ebony and ivory live together in perfect etc. etc.
Wonder takes advantage of the additional capabilities of his instrument—and of his unparalleled melodic sense and technique—to play harmonica solos that don’t feel like harmonica solos. Blues harp typically sounds earthy and folk harp tinny, but Wonder’s playing is fleet, agile, meticulous. Rather than punch through the arrangement with the thicker sound of the instrument’s low end, he typically flits above it. Listen to him on “For Once in My Life” (the harp starts at 1:30, in case for some absurd reason you don’t want to listen to “For Once in My Life”): He’s playing what’s essentially a saxophone solo, alternating percussive stabs with delicate little trills. Nearly 15 years later, on “That Girl,” the same style fits perfectly into a synthetic backdrop—beginning in note-bending blues mode, as a strategic injection of organic matter, then taking flight on the last line.
From the beginning of his career, Wonder played harmonica on records by other artists. (His first appearance was a Jimmy Reed–style blues solo on Singin’ Sammy Ward’s “Someday Pretty Baby.”) He became a reliable guest, like a beloved actor turning up for cameo appearances and elevating the material. Faced with Minnie Riperton’s kitschy, overblown “Give Me Time,” he comes up with a beautifully elliptical response, alternately swooning and syncopating, injecting a full minute of genuine pathos. And his playing dances delighted little circles around B.J. Thomas and his hired fingerpickers and gospel singers on Thomas’ cover of Wonder’s own “Happier Than the Morning Sun.” Perhaps his most famous guest appearance comes three minutes into the Eurythmics’ silly slab of plastic soul “There Must Be an Angel,” where he helpfully elbows Annie Lennox’s vocal trills and Dave Stewart’s literalistic arpeggios out of the way for a minute.
But no one deploys Stevie Wonder’s harmonica playing more effectively than Stevie Wonder. Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that you are Stevie Wonder, and you are having a good day. Thanks to some combination of sustained effort and fleeting inspiration and divinely ordained talent, you have written a song that successfully captures the joy of childbirth. In the history of world culture, this profound and universal human experience has nowhere been more ecstatically expressed than in the song you have just written. (Please really imagine what this must feel like.) But! The song is short, and you want to give listeners a chance to hang out inside your magnificent construction, to live in it for a while. How can you keep it going? How do you extend joy, modulate it, introduce variations, without diminishing it? When you start from a peak of pure exultation, how do you turn it up?
Fortunately, you are Stevie Wonder, so you do it with minute after minute of dizzyingly inventive harmonica playing, the only sound in the world that could interrupt your own singing voice and be somehow even more majestically human and perfect.