Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos and Kieran Vaughn
At the start of the seventies, Stevie Wonder moved from child star to a full-fledged, adult creative artist. His success and musical prowess, along with expansions to Motown’s operations, offered him a creative freedom rarely afforded to Motown artists of the previous decade — and he took full advantage of the changing landscape. He began writing, producing and performing all the instruments for his records and in 1972, released the single which would launch his career into overdrive, kicking off his classic period of some of the seventies most inventive and influential albums. That single, was “Superstition”
In the early sixties, “Little Stevie Wonder” was one of Motown’s youngest and most promising stars. He was signed to Motown Records in 1961, at the age of 11, and had a surprise Number-One hit with “Fingertips Pt 2” two years later. His career slowed a little as his voice changed but, by the end of the decade, he was back in the spotlight with hits like “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “For Once in My Life,” and “My Cherie Amour.” This wave of success also established Stevie Wonder as an emerging songwriter — an uncommon credit for Motown performing artists at the time. This was because the label’s business model was largely centered around its members participating in specialized roles, such as performers, songwriters, producers, and choreographers.
The seventies brought even more creative freedom to Stevie. While Berry Gordy was in California – setting up Motown’s West Coast offices – Stevie was writing, producing, and playing all the instruments for his newest albums. 1972’s Music of My Mind was the first of these albums to show off his triple-threat prowess; but it was the string of sessions for his second album, Talking Book, which would really showcase these talents and – ultimately – give him his first Number One hit since his “Fingertips Pt 2”…”Superstition”
While working on Talking Book, Stevie Wonder collaborated with guitarist Jeff Beck. Beck was a fan of Stevie’s work and, according to the guitarist, an arrangement was made for him to come play for Stevie’s album in return for a song. “Superstition” emerged from an impromptu moment between the two musicians. Although we normally associate guitar with Jeff Beck’s name, the varying accounts of both musicians can agree that it was actually Beck’s drum playing that kicked-off the creative-writing session. Beck recalled: “One day I was sitting at the drum kit, which I love to play when nobody’s around, doing this beat. Stevie came kinda boogieing into the studio: ‘Don’t stop.’ ‘Ah, c’mon, Stevie,’ I can’t play the drums.’ Then the lick came out: ‘Superstition.’ That was my song, in return for Talking Book. I thought, ‘He’s given me the riff of the century.’”
“Superstition” and the rest of the Talking Book album were recorded at Electric Ladyland studios in Greenwich Village. In addition to self-producing, Stevie worked with producers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, inventors of the world’s most advanced synthesizer, TONTO (which stands for “The Original New Timbral Orchestra”). TONTO was an amalgamation of different synthesizers – Moog, ARP, and even some that Cecil had built himself.
According to Margouleff and Cecil, Stevie had full access to TONTO while working on “Superstition.” Margouleff explained: “We set up the instruments in a big circle… We had the drums, Tonto, the Clavinets and the Rhodes keyboards set up in the control room, and there was always an open mic. Stevie could easily move from one instrument to another as he saw fit.”
Given the sound of the multi-tracks, it seems most likely that the Moog bass-synth sound was created on TONTO, since that was how the room was set up. He also played a Hohner clavinet, which was also easily at his disposal. While creative sessions with Stevie Wonder and Jeff Beck on drums resulted in a demo recording with Beck on drums, for the actual studio recording, Stevie got behind the drum kit himself. The brass section featured two members from his band: Trevor Lawrence on a tenor saxophone, and Steve Madaio on trumpet. According to Magouleff, tracks were mixed at a one-room, converted post-office space called Crystal, on Vine Street in Hollywood.
Superstition was released on October 24, 1972 — and by January — it had hit Number One on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Soul Singles charts. The song’s release-and subsequent success-includes some tension, as Stevie had told Beck that he could release the song first. However, when Motown heard the track, they wanted to release it as soon as possible. Stevie told Ben Fong-Torres in 1973: “Motown decided they wanted to release “Superstition.” I said Jeff wanted it, and they told me I needed a strong single in order for the album to be successful. My understanding was that Jeff would be releasing “Superstition” long before I was going to finish my album; I was late giving them Talking Book. Jeff recorded “Superstition” in July, so I thought it would be out. But I did promise him the song, and I’m sorry it happened.”
Jeff Beck’s version was released in March of 1973, on his Beck, Bogert & Appice album. It featured a rhythm section of Tim Bogert on bass and Carmine Appice on drums — and never achieved the popular success of Stevie’s version. Although it was a disappointment that he didn’t get to premiere the song, Beck later reflected on an understanding of the label’s dynamics at work. Beck asserts that Stevie, “basically wrote it for me, but the story goes that he loved it a bit too much. No, he played it to Motown, and they said, ‘No way is Beck getting this song, it’s too good’ and, as they had the right to say what Stevie released at that time, I lost the song as an original.”
As mentioned, “Superstition” was Stevie’s first Number One hit since “Fingertips Pt 2,” but also the first of his adult career. It kicked off what is commonly understood as his “classic” period — which includes iconic works from Innervisions (1973) through Songs in the Key of Life (1976).