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"'Superstition' didn't merely spread the gospel of funk, it remodeled it," wrote Stevie Wonder biographer Mark Ribowsky (Signed, Sealed, Delivered, 223). Although Stevie Wonder has made all kinds of music spanning jazz, R&B, soul, and blues, "Superstition" was a defining record that became a #1 pop hit just as funk was gaining momentum with mainstream audiences.
"Superstition" follows a relatively typical funk formula. It layers drums, bass, and electronic instruments in a single chord vamp through most of the song—a vamp that builds until it makes you want to get up and dance. A horn section comes in to build the excitement, and a brief bridge at the line "When you believe in things…." moves through a quick chord progression accented by the cheerful horns.
The main thing that makes this song unique is Wonder's surprising use of the clavinet (a type of electrophonic keyboard). To this day, "Superstition" pretty much defines the use of the clavinet in funk music. Wonder lovingly called the clavinet "a funky, dirty, stinky, nasty instrument" (Werner, Higher Ground). After coming in with that unforgettable opening riff, he plays not just one, but several intertwining clavinet parts. Analyzing the song using Protools, this guy counts six clavinet parts in the opening sequence, and a total of eight clavinet parts at the song's climax. The clavinets in the final mix are made even more complex by echos and delays in some of the parts. Wonder is not solely, or even primarily, a funk musician, but the thick, thrilling use of electronics in "Superstition" makes it a classic and inimitable funk track.
"I didn't have a very normal childhood," said Stevie Wonder in an interview for the TV show Biography. The multi-talented and enthusiastic child, who was not born blind but became blind just after birth, started performing professionally at age 11. He had a hit single before he even became a teenager. When he was first on the performance circuit he was known as "Little Stevie Wonder"—because he was so ridiculously amazing onstage.
"The name Stevie Wonder came about because people were saying here was a guy playing the drums, the bongos, the harmonica, and all this stuff, and he was a little wonder," said Motown founder Berry Gordy enthusiastically in an interview. "People were calling him a little wonder, and the name just stuck."
Stevie Wonder is a colorful character, known for kindness, generosity, and openheartedness both in his lyrics and in his personal interactions. He is also known for staying awake all night, and sometimes even for days on end. Maybe that's part of why he has been so prolific throughout his career, mastering many instruments and creating hit songs in nearly every decade since the 1960s.
"Superstition" was his second #1 pop hit (his first came at 12 years old), but it was the first hit he created under his own musical control. This moment defined his career, and the song and the album, Talking Book, defined the music and mood of the 1970s. In "Superstition," as in all Stevie Wonder songs, the feeling that he takes pleasure in his musical genius is visceral. When his latest album, A Time To Love, came out in 2005, it charted at #5 in the U.S. and won Stevie yet another Grammy award (his 22nd to date), this time for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance on "From the Bottom of My Heart."
He's still doing it, and he's still reveling in it: "I'm a lover of music, constantly curious about the sounds I hear," he told Oprah in 2004. "I'm always thinking about how I can take my music to the next level. It isn't about selling millions of CDs or making millions of dollars. God has given me an incredible gift—the gift of music—and it's a blessing that's self-contained. I can go anywhere in the world with absolutely nothing and I can still find a keyboard and play."