Stevie Wonder, “Superwoman [Where Were You When I Needed You]” (1972): Almost Hits

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An eight minute song with alien (for the time) sounds wasn’t a recipe for a major hit, but just reaching 33 on the Hot 100 in 1972 qualifies as a notable achievement for “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).” Then again, everybody was paying attention to what Stevie Wonder was putting out in those days.

“Superwoman” — as well as the Music Of My Mind album it came from — has been looked back on as Wonder’s Revolver or Filles de Kilimanjaro, a transition album that contained as much flair and fascinating moments as the lionized music that followed.

Having just turned 21 and signed a new deal with Motown that gave him creative control over his music, the timing was ripe for Wonder to achieve his vast potential. Wonder played everything on this recording, save for Buzzy Feiten’s jazzy guitar, including the then-new synthesizers that were just beginning to nudge its way into mainstream music. Wonder didn’t approach this new technology treating it like a toy; he was adroit enough to leverage it to enhance the music.

Instead of seeking to confront listeners with the otherworldly sounds, he created a warm, pleasing floating ambience with it, and carefully deployed it alongside his electric piano so that they worked together to present the gentle, friendly melody of the first part of the song and the melancholy of the second part. The lower register served as a synth bass, another innovation that helped to shape the direction of RnB music in the latter 70s and through the 80s, as well as popular music in general. Many an Isley Brothers ballad through the rest of the decade and into the next has a sonic quality that bore a resemblance to this song; I don’t think that’s coincidental. It certainly signalled what was coming over the next few years from Wonder himself, who scored one megahit after another, using contemporary sounds that don’t seem all that dated even today.

Lyrically, the coy and playful attitude of the “Superwoman” part revolves around a love interest “Mary” who wants to be a star and in control (“try to boss the bull around”) and the narrator taking it all in stride. The second part finds Wonder turn from bemusement to sorrow, his lover now apparently left him behind. It’s a clever reworking of “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” from his LP Where I’m Coming From of the prior year.

Ultimately, it wasn’t technology or lyrics that became the most appealing feature of this song, it’s the melody, or rather, the two melodies. The song has been covered by many more jazz artists (Ramsey Lewis, Phil Woods, Noel Pointer) than mainstream artists, suggesting that the song’s chord progression was ideal for improvising over, like many Wonder songs.

The precursor to so many of Wonder’s best songs is not just a genius in experimental mode; “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” is a fully formed gem in its own right. Once he tweaked this formula and distilled it down to a radio-friendly length, major music history was made.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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