When it comes to an artist like Stevie Wonder, who has written, produced and released so much amazing music throughout a 50-year-plus career, it’s hard to decide which album to highlight. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons I picked Talking Book is Superstition, one of my all-time favorite tunes.
Various things amaze me about Wonder’s 15th studio album, which was released in Oct 1972. Even though he was only 22 years when he recorded it, Wonder already had a 10-year recording career under his belt. He also took the bold step to abandon the Motown template of radio-friendly songs that had brought him fame. As reported in this excellent NPR segment from 2000, Wonder called Talking Book a turning point, “his first real growth as a boy becoming a man…making all of the artistic decisions himself and relying less on Motown head Berry Gordy for direction.”
But Gordy did convince Wonder to record one song himself, instead of giving it to his friend Jeff Beck: Superstition. And when you hear the tune’s intro, it’s not hard to see why Wonder had Beck in mind – it sounds very much like a guitar riff. In fact, I initially thought it was an electric guitar altered with some sound effect. Instead, Wonder used a Clavinet, an electrically amplified clavichord, and created a cool sound nobody had ever heard before.
Superstition came to Wonder while touring with The Rolling Stones. “The first thing that I put down were the drums and then after that I put the Clavinet down, and really, I just starting singing the melody,” he told NPR. “I think that the reason that I talked about being superstitious is because I really didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe in the different things that people say about breaking glasses or the number 13 is bad luck, and all those various things. And to those, I said, ‘When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer.'”
Wonder’s drums and the Clavinet, together with the tenor saxophone and trumpet parts played by Trevor Laurence and Steve Madaio, respectively, give Superstition a killer funk groove that immediately invites you to move. The tune, which became the album’s lead single, hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973, and climbed to no. 11 in the UK in Feb that year. In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked it 73 in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Another standout on the album is the opener, You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Wonder’s Fender Rhoades electric piano and the congas played by Daniel Ben Zebulon give this beautiful mid-tempo ballad a very relaxed feel. Wonder gets some support on vocals from singers Jim Gilstrap, Lani Groves and Gloria Barley. The tune became the second single from the album and Wonder’s third no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. In March 1974, it also won Wonder the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
For the most part, the lyrics on Talking Book deal with love and heartbreak. A notable exception is Big Brother, where Wonder follows contemporary artists like Marvin Gave, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown with socially conscious lyrics – an approach he would further embrace on his next studio album Innervisions with songs like Too High and Living For the City. An excerpt: Your name is big brother/You say that you’re watching me on the tele/Seeing me go nowhere/Your name is big brother/You say that you’re tired of me protesting/Children die everyday/My name is nobody/But I can’t wait to see your face inside my door ooh…The song is also notable for Wonder’s use of a Moog bass synthesizer and a drum from West Africa – another testament to his fascination with new sounds.
“I felt that the Moog synthesizer enabled me to reshape the oscillator, having control of the ataxias and sustained release,” Wonder explained to NPR. “I was able to really create various sounds, bass sounds and was able to bend notes the way that I heard them being bent, create different sounds of horns, string sounds and string lines and really arrange them in the way that I felt I wanted them to sound.”
Talking Book was produced by Wonder with some help from Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, with whom he had also worked on his preceding album Music of My Mind. A multi-instrumentalist, Wonder played most of the instruments himself, including drums, Fender Rhoades, Clavinet, Moog bass synthesizer, TONTO synthesizer and harmonica. Notable guest musicians included Beck (electric guitar), Buzz Feiten (electric guitar), Ray Parker Jr. (electric guitar) and David Sanborn (alto saxophone).
The album has been well received by music critics. A Rolling Stone review by Vince Aletti called it, “an exceptional, exciting album, the work of a now quite matured genius and, with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (an answer album?) and Wonder’s own Music of My Mind, one of the most impressive recent records from a black popular performer.” AllMusic’s John Bush characterized the album as “a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances.”
Here is a clip of a fantastic live performance of Superstition.
Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, Rolling Stone, AllMusic, YouTube