Superstition: Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Superstition, a terrific funky R&B song from the early 70s. We will start with the original version by Stevie Wonder, and then discuss covers of that song by Beck, Bogert and Appice and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

What a great lineup we feature this week. Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan – each of them is a legendary rock musician, and each is rated one of the best in the world on his instrument.

Stevie Wonder and Superstition:

Stevland Hardaway Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder, is one of the premier R&B artists of all time. He was born in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Because he was born six weeks premature and was left in an incubator with an oxygen-rich environment, he developed a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, which resulted in his becoming blind very shortly after birth.

Stevie was a true child prodigy. His musical talent became evident very early, and he was signed to a Motown Records contract at the tender age of 11. His first two albums, released when he was 11 and 12, respectively, did not achieve commercial success.

Below is a photo of Stevie Wonder at the keyboards, circa 1972.

However, Stevie’s live performance as part of the Motortown Revue was recorded and released in May, 1963 with the title Recorded Live: the 12-Year Old Genius. That particular album contained the single Fingertips, a song featuring Stevie on harmonica.

Fingertips took off like a rocket. It reached #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B charts, making Stevie at age 13 the youngest artist ever to have a #1 hit.

Given Stevie Wonder’s legendary status, one might assume that he rose to the top and remained there ever after. However, Wonder’s career did not follow that trajectory.

After Fingertips, Stevie experienced a down spell; his voice was changing, and his next couple of albums bombed. Apparently several Motown executives were in favor of dropping Stevie from their label.

But Stevie was given another chance to prove himself, and he had considerable success during the mid and late 60s. In addition, Stevie co-wrote several Motown tunes, including Tears of a Clown with Smokey Robinson, and It’s a Shame which became a big hit for the Spinners.

When he reached his 21st birthday, Stevie Wonder ended his contract with Motown. However, he re-signed with them in 1972, to a new contract that gave him greatly expanded autonomy, in addition to much more favorable royalties.

This began Stevie Wonder’s “classic period.” In 1972 he released the album Talking Book, which contained the single Superstition. That song hit me like a bombshell. In this album, Stevie introduced us to the Hohner Clavinet keyboard, which in his hands produced amazingly funky, novel sounds.

Superstition is a song that warns us of the dangers of leading a life governed by belief in “things that you don’t understand.” The lyrics to the song enumerate a number of common superstitions.

Very superstitious, writings on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladders ‘bout to fall,
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way

Here is the audio of Stevie Wonder’s recording of Superstition.

spotify:track:4dwrL3Z5U2RZ6MZiKE2PgL

What a fantastic song! It starts out with a distinctive drum lick, which is played by Stevie. The tune also features bass lines played on the Moog synthesizer, and a delightfully funky horn section.

The song Superstition was initially a collaborative effort between Stevie and guitar legend Jeff Beck. Apparently Beck came up with the drum lick at the beginning of the song. Then Stevie and Beck worked on the melody, and Stevie wrote the lyrics.

Wonder and Beck had an informal agreement that the song would initially be released by Jeff’s group Beck, Bogert and Appice, and after that Stevie would release a single. However, Beck’s album was delayed, and so Stevie went ahead and released his single first.

Here is a live version of Stevie Wonder performing Superstition.

Stevie is in great form here. He’s backed by a full orchestra with a terrific horn section. His vocals are also extremely impressive, as his voice moves smoothly over a number of rapid transitions. The audience tries their best to ‘boogie down’ to this tune.

Stevie Wonder is a true musical genius. He takes us into new territory, pushing the envelope of rhythm & blues. He is the greatest harmonica player I have ever heard, and has to be among the most creative artists on keyboards as well.

In addition, he has been a social activist. Stevie spent a great deal of energy pushing to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. In 1985, upon winning an Academy Award for his song “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie accepted his award in the name of Nelson Mandela, which resulted in all his songs being banned from South African radio by the apartheid government at that time.

Stevie Wonder has won 25 Grammy Awards, more than any other individual artist, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. You can read his extensive Rock and Roll Hall bio here. Stevie was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2014.

Beck, Bogert and Appice and Superstition:

Jeff Beck is one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. As a youngster, he was inspired by guitarists as diverse as Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins and Steve Cropper. Beck was even enthralled by the sitar music of Ravi Shankar.

After short gigs with a number of bands in the early 1960s, Beck first surfaced as the lead guitarist for the British Invasion blues group The Yardbirds.

Beck was one of the greatest group of guitarists to ever play with a single band. He replaced Eric Clapton after the budding super-star Clapton left the Yardbirds in March, 1965. In June of 1966, Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds as their bass player (!). There was a brief period that fall when Beck and Page shared lead guitar on various of the Yardbirds’ songs; then Page took over as lead guitarist, when Beck and the Yardbirds parted company.

Think of it – between them, the three guitarists for the Yardbirds have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seven times. Each of the three was inducted for his work with the Yardbirds. Clapton was inducted a second time with Cream, and once more for his solo work; Page a second time with Led Zeppelin; and Beck for his solo career. Wow!!

Beck has always been a real perfectionist, and he also has a volatile personality. For obvious reasons, this combination has created friction in some of his bands. At the end of 1966, Beck was fired from the Yardbirds for these issues, in addition to the fact that he occasionally failed to show up for performances by the band.

At this point he formed the Jeff Beck Group, shown in the photo below from 1968. From L: lead vocalist Rod Stewart; lead guitar Jeff Beck; rhythm guitar (and later bass) Ronnie Wood.

The Jeff Beck Group produced two albums; however the commercial success of the second album did not match that of their first album, and that band dissolved in 1969. By this time, Beck was renowned for his technical abilities. Several of the best British Invasion bands contacted him about the possibility of his joining them, including Pink Floyd following Syd Barrett’s departure, and the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones’ death.

A few years later, Beck joined up with Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice to form the group Beck, Bogert and Appice. Below is a photo of that group, from L: bassist Tim Bogert; drummer Carmine Appice (partially obscured); guitarist Jeff Beck. This was a blues-based power trio, reminiscent of Cream.

Their first album contained their ‘cover’ of the song Superstition. I put ‘cover’ in quotes, because as we mentioned earlier that song had initially resulted from a collaboration between Stevie Wonder and Beck. The initial agreement was that Beck, Bogert and Appice would first release their version of the song, followed by a single from Stevie.

However, Stevie’s single came out first; otherwise, we might be talking about Stevie Wonder’s Superstition as being the ‘cover.’

In any case, here are Beck, Bogert and Appice in a live performance of their version of Superstition.

As you can see, in the hands of Beck, Bogert & Appice Superstition becomes a guitar-based hard-rock song. As always, Beck’s guitar work is superb and creative. By the way, I apologize for the truly awful video quality here.

In my opinion, Beck Bogert and Appice never really achieved super-stardom, at least partly because they were perceived as being similar to Cream. The group only issued two albums, and the second album was released after the group had broken up.

After that, Beck has toured with a variety of different lineups. He has been a headliner at several all-star venues and major charity performances, including jams with guitar heroes such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

Jeff Beck’s work continues to be on the cutting edge of guitar technique. In fact, he is often called a “guitarist’s guitarist,” meaning that other guitarists flock to his shows to figure out his latest innovations.

Beck has produced sounds out of his guitar that I would not have thought possible. He has become a legend playing his signature Fender Stratocaster guitar, and he was also a pioneer on various technical accessories such as wah-wah pedals, echo units, and distortion and feedback techniques.

Beck’s acidic personality has not mellowed with age. In 1992 he gave the induction speech for his old band mate Rod Stewart at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Beck described their interactions, “We have a love-hate relationship – he loves me and I hate him.”

And at his own induction with The Yardbirds in that same year, Beck remarked “Someone told me I should be proud tonight … But I’m not, because they kicked me out. … They did … F*** them!”

Well, regardless of his personality, it is undeniably true that Jeff Beck is one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists” has Beck at #5.

Many of the techniques later utilized in heavy-metal music were introduced by Jeff Beck. Even today, he is still living out on the edge, experimenting with new techniques, and stretching the boundaries of his instrument. Ola, Beck!

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Superstition:

Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. He was born in the Dallas area, where his older brother Jimmie taught him how to play guitar. Stevie subsequently dropped out of high school and moved to Austin in 1972 to take part in the vibrant music scene there.

Below is a photo of Stevie Ray Vaughan working on his guitar at a live performance in May, 1987.

From an early age, Stevie was inspired by blues and rock guitarists such as Muddy Waters, Albert King and Jimi Hendrix. However, probably the biggest influence on his style was Lonnie Mack, a Memphis blues guitarist.

Although Mack is not as well known as many other musicians, his guitar technique was highly influential and was emulated by artists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman.

Vaughan spent a decade in Austin, working with a number of different blues bands and perfecting his craft. He gained quite a reputation in Texas, but initially had a hard time gaining national recognition.

However, this all changed dramatically in 1982. Noted producer Jerry Wexler recommended Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble, as performers for ‘blues night’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival on Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

Vaughan and his band were a sensation at Montreux. The night after his performance at the jazz festival, he appeared at the Montreux Casino where Jackson Browne was in the audience.
Browne … offered [Vaughan] free use of his personal recording studio in Los Angeles. … While they were in the studio, Vaughan received a telephone call from David Bowie, who … invited him to participate in a recording session for his next studio album, Let’s Dance.

At this point, Vaughan’s career was really taking off. The following spring his band played at The Bottom Line in New York, where celebrities like Mick Jagger, John McEnroe and Johnny Winter caught his show. New York Post reporter Martin Porter wrote that the venue had been
“rendered to cinders by the most explosively original showmanship to grace the New York stage in some time.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan developed a reputation for his virtuoso guitar work and his incredibly energetic live sets. Before a performance he was known to superglue his fingernails, to ensure that they would not get ripped off while he was playing.

His albums became best-sellers, and SRV and his band were headliners on major tours. Here is Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble performing Superstition in their 1987 appearance at the Volunteer Jam in Nashville.

This event was an annual concert staged by Charlie Daniels and his band in Nashville. Every year this concert would feature a number of southern rock and blues acts, in addition to the Charlie Daniels Band.

You can see why Stevie Ray Vaughan was so popular. He was dressed in his trademark cowboy hat, accessorized with a bolo tie and cowboy boots. You can see the sweat pouring down his face as he performs. At the end of the song, he produces a stunningly fine blues guitar solo, featuring his renowned fast fingering and creative blues riffs.

By the mid-80s Vaughan had really hit the big time, but his issues with alcohol and drugs threatened to derail his career. Reportedly Vaughan had begun drinking at age 6, when he would finish off the half-empty liquor bottles that his alcoholic father would leave around the house.

At the height of his career, Vaughan would drink a quart of whiskey and do a quarter-ounce of cocaine daily. In 1986 during a European tour, Vaughan was taken to the emergency room. After his doctors warned him that he would quite likely die within the year unless he sobered up, Vaughan entered rehab in Austin in October, 1986.

Stevie Ray had worried that sobriety might rob him of his musical talents. However, after leaving rehab and rehearsing with his band, he emerged better than ever.

In August, 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band performed at a concert with Eric Clapton at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin. Following the concert, the bands were loaded onto four helicopters waiting to take them to Chicago.

Vaughan’s helicopter took off, but shortly afterwards the copter veered left and crashed into the top of a nearby ski hill. Vaughan, his three fellow passengers and the helicopter pilot were killed instantly.

What a tragic ending for a great musical talent, his career snuffed out right at its peak. Stevie Ray Vaughan created a blues style that built on the lessons he assimilated from his great blues predecessors. Vaughan also incorporated elements from jazz guitarists such as Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery. He played his signature 1959 Fender Stratocaster guitar with tremendous verve.

Vaughan was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him #7 in their “100 Best Guitarists of All Time.”  We can only wonder what great blues music he might have created in future years.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Superstition (song)
Wikipedia, Stevie Wonder
Wikipedia, Jeff Beck
Wikipedia, Stevie Ray Vaughan

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
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