This Career-Defining Stevie Wonder Hit Was Supposed to Be for Jeff Beck

zo Zo is a staff writer at Okayplayer where he covers…
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Though it became the first No. 1 song of Stevie Wonder’s adult life, “Superstition” was initially poised to be a turning point in the career of Jeff Beck, who passed away at the age of 78.

Take a good look at the liners to Talking Book and you’ll probably notice shockingly few musicians credited who were not named Stevie Wonder. Whether you consider it the first, second, or, (arguably) third, entry in what is widely regarded as the musician’s most sublimely untethered era of creative exploration, Talking Book tested the boundaries of funk, R&B, soul, jazz, and even Wonder’s own extraordinary powers of synthesis. A consistent presence on any all-time list worth its wordcount, the 1973 classic was essentially a solo outing for Wonder, who, in the wake of a renegotiated deal with Motown, opted to handle the bulk of the instrumentation across the titles comprising that heroic streak of album releases between 1970 and 1976. With The Funk Brothers effectively replaced by Wonder’s one-man-banding, there was suddenly room for new blood in the studio, which brought about an unexpected set of collaborators with no previous association¬† with the Hitsville banner, including TONTO caretakers, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, and Jeff Beck, a spry and supremely expressive young guitarist from the UK who had been a vocal champion and outward interpreter of Wonder’s for years already.

Beck, who was himself at a turning point after a near-fatal car crush and, generally, was growing increasingly bored of his own music, struck a deal with Wonder, agreeing to play on his album if the Motown star would return the favor and write for his own incoming project. And while the terms of their arrangement were technically fulfilled, only one of these artists gained a career-defining hit from it. As the guitarist tells it in the 2001 biography, Crazy Fingers, he slipped behind the drum kit as Wonder stepped out of the studio during a quick break from recording during the Talking Book sessions. Beck had come up with a fairly simple shuffle, the type of pattern you default to when killing time on a non-primary instrument. But it was sturdy enough of a foundation for Stevie to insist Beck keep playing even upon his return to the studio. Suddenly, there was a very sticky riff (you know the one,) stacked onto Beck’s steady backbeat. Throw in a hall-of-fame hook, north of a dozen layers of wonky clavinet comps, and a wobbling Moog bassline for the ages, and you’ve got “Superstition,” one of three songs Wonder had initially written for inclusion on the next Jeff Beck project.

Beck took the demo and rerecorded it for what would have been the debut album from his newly-formed power trio, Beck, Bogert, Appice. Unfortunately, the group’s debut album suffered delays. And even though Beck and Wonder settled on Beck’s version first, in the time it took to finally bring the trio’s album to market, Motown founder and CEO, Berry Gordy, sniffed out a hit and insisted Stevie reclaim the track and pull the trigger. The rest, as they say, was history. Stevie Wonder’s version of “Superstition” was released as the lead single from Talking Book on October 24, 1972. It went on to become the first No. 1 song of Wonder’s adult life (he was 13 when “Fingertips Pt. 2″ topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963,”) and earned Wonder two of the first three Grammys of his career. Beck’s grittier and twangier take on the song was eventually released the following year on his trio’s self-titled debut but had little room to resonate with Wonder’s version in heavy circulation.

Though it wasn’t nearly as successful as “Superstition” was and went on to be, Beck did secure his Wonder-penned gem a few albums down the line. A pair of Stevie’s compositions, “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” and “Thelonius,” appear in back-to-back slots on the guitarist’s 1975 album, Blow By Blow.¬†The former was initially written for and recorded by Wonder’s then-wife, Syreeta Wright, while the latter never got an official studio treatment from Stevie.

Beck and Wonder eventually got over whatever bitterness may have lingered from their tug-o-war over “Superstition.” They even performed the track together in 2010 at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th-anniversary ceremony (see below.) But as we remember the late guitarist, who died earlier this week at the age of 78 from bacterial meningitis, it’s hard not to consider the variation of our reality in which Jeff Beck’s name instantly comes to mind when that drum shuffle and riff play of each other (you know the one.)

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