Black and White Musicians Dialogue: the Jeff Beck/Stevie Wonder Collaboration
(a continuing look at the career of Jeff Beck)
Stevie Wonder had long written songs addressing social issues of race and class for his Motown label recordings. In 1971, he began to perform benefits and make public appearances supporting his beliefs. That was the year he turned 21 and was free to make his own contractual arrangements without his mother’s signature. On December 10, 1971, he joined John Lennon in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at a benefit rally for John Sinclair, the jailed leader of the White Panthers.
In May 7, 1972, Jeff Beck and Stevie Wonder along with Free, the supporting third act, played a concert at Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan, one that would lead to their historic meeting and musical collaboration. Max Middleton, Jeff’s keyboard player at the time (Beck, Bogert and Appice) recalled, "The record company told Stevie how much Jeff admired him … a deal was struck for Jeff to play on a couple of tracks of Stevie's LP in exchange for some material for us to record in New York.” The record labels arranged a summit meeting at Electric Ladyland Studios in New York.
Eric Clapton had already sat in on a session for Stevie’s album Talking Book but couldn't break out of the blues idiom. Jeff Beck, on the other hand, showed up at the June 1972 session ready and eager to put a guitar part on a couple of Wonder's tracks (horns and guitars were the only instruments on his records Wonder didn't play himself).
Max said “When we got to the studio, Stevie was already there with engineer Malcolm Cecil. They literally had over 250 of Stevie's compositions on tape and started playing them for us. Jeff just said to Stevie, ‘Play me something funky.’”
The story goes that Beck was sitting at a drum kit just goofing around, pounding out a simple, mundane groove, when out of nowhere Wonder came up with the iconic, monster riff on the clavinet now famously recognized as the song “Superstition.” Wonder scratched out some quick lyrics and Beck left the studio with a dub copy of the track called, at the time, “Very Superstitious.”
The song that made it to the final released master of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book was “Lookin for another Pure Love.” It features a beautiful jazz-nuanced solo from Beck.
Although Jeff tried to record “Superstition” with his group when they returned to England, he ended up firing his entire band because of personnel problems (the bass player took a swing at Beck during the Wonder sessions). He didn't get around to recording the tune for several months.
Meanwhile the album Talking Book came out in October 1972, and Stevie Wonder's version of “Superstition” quickly went to number one on the charts. It’s hard to blame Wonder for using the track; the album gave him his biggest crossover success. But Beck couldn’t resist making some snide comments to the music press.
"But I did promise him the song," Wonder admitted to Rolling Stone later that year, "I'm sorry it happened and that he came out with some of the arrogant statements he came out with. I will get another tune to him that I think is as exciting, and if he wants to do it, cool."
Beck finally recorded Superstition in December 1972, while Stevie’s rendition of the song was topping the Billboard Charts that same month. Beck’s version was released in April 1973 on the Beck, Bogert and Appice album.
Stevie’s promise of “another tune as exciting” was ultimately hollow, although it has to be acknowledged that hits are usually hard to predict. During his career, Beck would record four Stevie Wonder songs altogether. One of them did become a worldwide “hit,” in 1975. His instrumental cover of “'Cause We've Ended Now As Lovers” (cowritten by Syreeta) is featured on the album Blow by Blow, his most commercially successful album. It reached #4 on the charts. Beck still includes the tune in his concert appearances to this day.
Jeff Beck wasn't the only key Wonder used in his attempt to unlock the white rock audience. He hired a New York publicity firm to help him court the rock crowd (they also, oddly enough, booked Wonder for appearances on TV game shows like I've Got A Secret). But the big breakthrough came when he landed the spot as opening act for The Rolling Stones US tour in 1972. The groundswell the Stones tour stirred up for Wonder on the rock scene paid off with airplay success on FM rock stations across the country."That Stones tour crossed him over to a white audience," said his recording engineer Bob Margouleff.
When Stevie spoke about it at the time, it sounded more like a corporate marketing initiative than a civil rights, breaking down the racial barriers, kind of issue. "I hope it will do just that - make more people aware where I'm coming from," Wonder told writer Joel Selvin at the time, between Stones shows in San Francisco. "I think the brothers know me - I just want more people. … Fortunately I did do a lot of my own writing. The character of my tunes did express where I was coming from. Now I've just got to get to more people."
Collaborations between black artists and white rock musicians have continued to be successful for the most part, famous performance partnerships such as Phil Collins and Philip Bailey (Earth, Wind & Fire) on “Easy Lover,” Aerosmith and RUN DMC’s “Walk This Way.” Just like Beck’s and Wonder’s, not all have ended well. The Paul McCartney/Michael Jackson venture, “Ebony and Ivory, living in perfect harmony,” was followed by the demise of their relationship when Michael outbid Paul at the sale of the Beatle’s song catalogue. Music became big business. Arguments over money displaced friendships and left little room for the idealism of the 70s about social issues.
Jeff Beck Bulletin #8 for Max Middleton interview,