“Superstition” and why we all love the Clavinet

“Superstition” may be one of the most universally beloved songs on record – few and far between are the freaks who won’t freely admit Stevie’s mastery of funkiness

Remarkably, Stevie Wonder – strangely inured to his own genius – nearly gave the song away to instrumental rocker Jeff Beck. The well-known guitarist is credited with creating the drum part which opens and propels “Superstition”, although it is of course Stevie who pl

The question is why do we love “Superstition” so much? In a larger sense what is it about Stevie’s seminal 1970-1972 albums (Signed, Sealed & Delivered, Where I’m Coming From, Music of my Mind, and the boy wonder’s magnum opuses Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale)? Believe it or not the answer to our questions is first found in the music of the Baroque period…

Although the clavichord was invented in the fourteenth century, it was during the Baroque period that it achieved it’s greatest popularity, especially in Bohemia, the Iberian Peninsula, and Scandinavia. It’s assumed that many of the leading composers of Baroque music enjoyed performing on the clavichord in their homes, even if little music was specifically composed for the instrument.

Clavichords are too quiet for the concert hall, unfortunately. They are also among the most expressive keyboard instruments because the player has so much control over the duration and volume of each note. Pressing a key on a clavichord causes a hammer to strike the string in a way more similar to a guitarist’s “hammering” technique than a similar action inside a piano. The hammer remains in contact with the string, and as the player’s finger releases the key the string is dampened and thereby silenced. This allows the performer to create a punchy, percussive – potentially funky – sound on the instrument. See where this is headed?

In the 1960s Baroque music experienced somewhat of a short-lived revival, both in the classical world and in pop music. One of my favorite composers of the era, Burt Bacharach, began writing elaborate, narrative melodies often orchestrated with traditionally Baroque instrumentation. Bacharach’s orchestrations from this period frequently rely on flugelhorns for accent and color.

The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is often identified as the high point of “Baroque pop”, fitting as Brian Wilson had been one of the first to explore the high-falutin’ sub-genre with his elaborate work on the second side of the 1965 album The Beach Boys Today! The era’s other leading acts followed suit: The Rolling Stones with “Lady Jane” and the Beatles with “Eleanor Rigby”, a track on which their voices were backed only by a string quartet arranged by George Martin. As with many of the Beatles’ passing fancies, Baroque music was by and by the subject of ridicule, this time via George Harrison’s parody “Piggies” on the White Album.

Sophisticated baroque arrangements became commonplace in pop music, often occupying the upper echelon of the charts (Although remarkably many of the perennial favorite to come out of this era – the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, the Bee Gees’ Odessa or the Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle, for instance – would top Billboard’s US albums chart). Although it was enormously popular for a short time, inspiring not one but two Bacharach Baroque albums, the sub-genre faded rapidly as pop music took a turns towards rootsy-er, more basic influences like blues and classic country.

In this brief Baroque flourishing, Hohner introduced the Calvinet, an electronically amplified keyboard instrument based on the clavichord. It used electronic pick-ups in the same way as a guitar, although it was initially marketed at enthusiasts of Baroque and Renaissance music, not rock and soul performers. The Clavinet retained the intimate action of the clavichord as well as it’s percussive potential, and as an electronic instrument could be run through pedals the same as a guitar. It was only a matter of time before this modest, wood-paneled 60-key Baroque instrument would change popular music.

The earliest appearance of this instrument, first introduced by the German manufacturer in 1968, may have literally dropped out of the sky. Sun Ra’s 1969 album Atlantis is of greatest interest to his fans for establishing the framework in which he would work for the following decade with its side-long title track, but two songs on the flip of the disc feature “the solar sound instrument”, something that sounds distinctly like the Clavinet.

With some irony, it is an American-roots band (from Canada) who next fold the new instrument into the rock tableau – The Band’s keyboardist Garth Hudson played the instrument through a wah wah pedal on the group’s hit single “Up on Cripple Creek” the same year Sun Ra was exploring the distant expanses of the deep sea.

With Hudson’s innovative performance in “Up on Cripple Creek” (credited on the back of The Band as the “clavinette”) the potential of this mysterious new machine was revealed.  Stevie Wonder was an early innovator, presaging “Superstition” with his reworking of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”.

Sly Stone tapped into the Clavinet’s potential for subtlety with “Family Affair”, a song also remarkable as an early drum machine experiment.

On the flip side to his hit single “I Wrote A Simple Song” Billy Preston took the instrument to new funky heights in his first piece written for it, an instrumental called “Outta-Space”.

And then there was “Superstition” – All hell broke loose because everybody wanted to use the Clavinet, yet few could engineer and perform at the level of Stevie Wonder. A year later, his own “Higher Ground” was the closest anyone came to the total awesome-ness of “Superstition”. Our choice for a close second? Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time”:

Oftentimes in this period the Clavinet was used to establish a funky backing track, as with several tracks Bob Marley and the Wailer would record in the early 70s. Their first to feature a Clavinet, “Concrete Jungle”, remains one of the best, with the keyboards bubbling with lively energy underneath a searing guitar solo.

The Clavinet never played a central role in jazz fusion, despite the coincidental appearance of each in the late 60s and the instrument’s feature on what we imagine must be the genre’s most popular album, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. The fifteen minute “Chameleon”, not surprisingly a dancefloor favorite then and now, is entirely unimaginable without the Clavinet.

In fact, Hancock is pictured on both sides of the jacket seated at a Hohner D6 Clavinet, the most popular model.

So there you have it: Strange connections, unimagined consequences, and technological innovation driving new creations. We’d be surprised if you didn’t have several of these records on your shelves, or at least several of these songs saved in the computer through which you’re reading these words. Although very different from one another (you can’t get much further apart than Sun Ra and Garth Hudson, can you?) each owes it’s unique sound to an instrument that has not been made for years. In fact, more often than not the only appearances of a Clavinet in pop music are in the form of samples from songs recorded between 1969-1973.

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