Tomorrow, the 13th, is the birthday of Stevie Wonder, who I can remember when he was “Little Stevie Wonder”—dude signed with Motown at age 11—and who is now 64 years old. Wonder had a major run of albums into the mid Seventies, in what is called his “classic period.” Today’s song is the radio song I remember inaugurating that, though the first song I really liked by him was his cover of The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”—for a period there, c. 1970, I liked his version better than theirs.
Talking Book, the album on which “Superstition” opens the second side and was the #1 single from, is a mix of velvety sounds—borderline Easy Listening—and funky tracks like this one. The song is noted for its use of the percolating riff on the Hohner clavinet and, to me, for the trumpet and saxophone parts and that grooving drum track. I remember the song on the charts and then the song returned to my awareness when Kajsa got enamored of a Disney cartoon collection that set toons to tunes—for Halloween. One of them featured this song (and Donald Duck) because of the lines “When you believe in things that you don’t understand / Then you suffer / Superstition’s not the way.” Fitting enough for Friday the 13th, and the ghoulies and devils and gods in the video for kids. (Wonder also performed the song on Sesame Street.)
But that’s not really what Wonder is talking about—sure, he mentions superstitions about thirteen and broken mirrors—but his more general point seems to be that people believe in things they want to believe in, even to the detriment of their own welfare. Sometimes it goes so far as blaming one’s lack of welfare on such things. Bad luck, sure, but what does that really mean?
Wonder became blind not long after birth and also became one of the most famous, successful, and amazingly gifted recording artists of his generation. Certainly one could go on about how one thing is somehow relevant to the other, but that, to my mind, is exactly what it means to think in terms of superstitions. As if there is some way to relate the disparate fortunes that befall us all. The song, to my mind, strikes a blow against all that, but in a friendly, joshing way. The singer isn’t contemptuous, and in fact he seems to find a lot of spirit in denouncing superstition, in part, we expect, because he sees around him many people suffering from it.
Wonder’s voice is most compelling to me when he has something to get worked up about. Like the delivery of the second chorus, when he starts to drag out notes and gives that husky bellow, then works-in high pitched background sounds. The mellower songs of his output tend to leave me a bit wanting, though even something like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”—the lead song on this album—works its magic when you're in the right mood. What all these “classic period” albums have in common is great studio work, with fully worked up arrangements that just apply layers and layers of crisp and interesting sounds. My favorite is probably Fullfillingness’ First Finale (1974), which is a bit more subdued.
It was my friend Brian who put me onto these albums after I began buying both new and used vinyl again this decade. His championing of this period of Stevie Wonder put me on a search for at least some of them, and it has inspired a different sort of return to the Seventies. Wonder’s music was always around—friends in Philly played a good bit of it back in the early Eighties—and hearing the familiar jump out on albums with unfamiliar tracks—many of which I like better than the hits—attests to the sense of what makes discovering albums as integrated collections of songs so stimulating. Though, on this particular album, there’s no way I can pick something other than “Superstition” which is, for me, the quintessential Stevie Wonder song, released when he was only twenty-two and just beginning to work into his full powers.