How many times have you found yourself humming that funky bassline from Stevie Wonder’s hit single ‘Superstition’? If you’re like me, it’s going to be one hell of a high number – that intoxicating riff just refuses to be forgotten. The material is just so neat, so perfectly formed, so incessantly groovy. In fact, I bet you’re humming it right now – you are, aren’t you? Well, just for a moment, I’d like you to forget about the bassline and consider the other instruments at play in that iconic 1972 recording, pretty much all of which were played by Stevie Wonder himself – though not all at the same time. That would be ridiculous. Please calm down.
This wonderful isolated recording of Stevie Wonder’s drum track offers us a rare insight into the sheer dexterity of, yes, his musical talent, but also his skills as an arranger and producer. Wonder’s tight snare sound is, I would argue, just as essential a factor in the overall brilliance of ‘Superstition’ as that iconic bassline. The reason this infectious song has been filling dancefloors for such a long time is that it features a hefty dose of anacrusis, which is basically when a track doesn’t start on a strong pulse, giving it a greater sense of movement.
Stevie’s Moog Bass and keyboard parts, with their syncopated rhythms, are empathised by the snare’s emphasis on the off-beat, heightening the overall groovability of ‘Superstition’ as a result. Indeed, the beat used in this track was one that many Motown, funk and soul artists relied upon in the 1970s and continue to today. Take a listen to The Isley Brother’s ‘Footsteps In The Dark’ or Thundercat’s ‘Them Changes’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Stevie Wonder originally wrote ‘Superstition’ for the guitarist Jeff Beck, who he had asked to contribute to his upcoming record. In return, he would write Beck a hit. Towards the tail end of a recording session, Beck was playing around on the drum kit when he stumbled across the beat you can hear below. “One day I was sitting at the drum kit, which I love to play when nobody’s around, doing this beat,” Beck recalled. “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 playing on Talking Book. I thought, ‘He’s given me the riff of the century.’”
That same day, Wonder and Beck recorded a rough demo of the song, and Beck left the studio and began fleshing out the piece for himself. However, it took him so long to arrive at a finished product that, in the meantime, Wonder released his own version and landed the hit Beck had been banking on. The guitarist was distinctly miffed and made some pretty callous statements, which Wonder didn’t take too kindly too. “Wonder basically wrote it for me, but the story goes that he loved it a bit too much,” Beck told one publication. “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.”
Hard luck, Jeff.