Stevie Wonder is the prototype of the modern day one-man-band. From Shuggie Otis to Prince to Lenny Kravitz to D’Angelo, the 22 time Grammy Award winner is the zenith of celestial DIY music. From 1971’s Where I’m Coming From to 2005’s A Time 2 Love, Wonder has written, produced, arranged and played nearly every instrument on every song, with very few exceptions. While a majority of those instruments are an assortment of keyboards and synthesizers, Wonder’s prowess on the drums is especially unique.

Photograph by Neal Preston

Photograph by Neal Preston

Tutored by Motown’s Funk Brothers, most prominently the late, great Benny Benjamin, Wonder picked up the skins rather quickly (it’s rumored that Wonder was the excitable drummer on his 1966 hit “Uptight”). By the time he released Music of My Mind in 1972, it became clear that not only was Stevie a great drummer, but a distinctive drummer. Just listen to “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” and pay attention to how he uses plaintive hi-hat taps to set up his lifting, longing vocal plea and cranberry colored synths; not so much sounding sloppy but almost like he was simulating his own reverb.  And so, those slushy hi-hats became his rhythmic calling card; it’s as much a part of his genius as is his miraculous, melismatic singing.

Since Stevie had an unparalleled gift to capture various styles and textures, it was imperative that he provided each composition with a complimentary beat. Just listen to how the thumping bass drum drives the blues of “Living for the City.” How about “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” which finds Wonder giving his own take on the shuffling riddim on Jamaica. Then there’s his tom-tom rich adventurous gospel fervor in songs like “He’s Mistra Know-It-All,” “Please Don’t Go” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).”

Wonder’s virtuosity as a pianist and songwriter has clouded the average listener’s attention to his drumming, but his contemporaries certainly know better. In 1974, guitar god Eric Clapton called Wonder the “greatest drummer of our time;” hefty praise coming from a man who played side by side with Ginger Baker. Former co-producer Bob Margouleff once stated in an interview that Stevie’s proficiency on drums was equal to that of his piano and harmonica playing. Since he has at least 15 albums of evidence to observe, here are a few standout examples of Stevie Wonder’s dynamic beat sorcery:

“It’s A Shame (The Spinners)” – 2nd Time Around, 1970
By his late teens, Stevie had already been writing for other artists on Motown, including The Miracles and Tammi Tarrell. One of his first assignments in the producer’s chair was with The Spinners. Co-written with Syreeta Wright, Stevie was not impressed by the drumming from Funk Brother Uriel Jones. According to an account from guitarist Dennis Coffey, Wonder reached his breaking point, sat at the drum kit and played what he wanted out of Jones. The result is what we hear today, and not from hands of Jones, but from Stevie.

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“Superstition” – Talking Book, 1972
Snap-rest-sn-sn-sn-sn-snap! Five hits on one of the tightest snares you’ll ever hear, Stevie’s signature tune starts off with one of the most instantly recognizable drum intros of music history. The clavinet –led cautionary tale is further driven by his disciplined, but funky beat. “Superstition” cemented his reputation as a formidable drummer, and remains a true rhythmic milestone in R&B music.

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“Too High” – Innervisions, 1973
Wonder’s musical aptitude stretched through many genres – funk, folk, pop, classical and reggae. “Too High” is one of his first noticeable forays into the world of jazz, vibrating the hi-hat beyond recognition and displaying a sublime sense of control, going from seismic snare rolls to steady taps on the ride cymbals. Many jazz cats showed their admiration by covering the tune over the years, including Freddie Hubbard, Joe Farrell, Pat Martino and Fourplay.

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“Bird of Beauty” – Fulfillingness’ First Finale, 1974
Like “Superstition,” the drum intro to this Latin-flavored album track from Fulfillingness’ First Finale is a break beat that’s surely made a great many crate diggers drool. Coupled with mysterious, muffled laughter and a dense Moog bass line, the hi-hat to snare ebb and flow makes for one of Wonder most unusual rhythm patterns, and also one of his most pleasing. Remove the angelic female vocal harmonies, and you’ve got an unadulterated head-nodder.

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“I Wish” – Songs in the Key of Life, 1976
In the liner notes, Raymond Pounds is credited as drummer on this number one pop single. While he played prominently throughout the album’s sessions, Wonder confirmed in a 1996 documentary that it was in fact him behind the kit, not Pounds. But if you listen hard enough, there’s no question. Featuring his idiosyncratic hi-hat slosh and octopus-like polyrhythmic fills, “I Wish” stands arguably as Wonder’s best performance on the skins.

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“Happy Song (Ronnie Foster)” Love Satellite, 1978
For the most part, Stevie’s non-harmonica contributions (songwriting, producing, arranging) have remained within the Motown stable. For jazz keyboardist Ronnie Foster, famous for his oft sampled “Mystic Brew,” Stevie lent his drums under his birth name, Stevland Morris. Since Foster covered Wonder’s “Tuesday Heartbreak” and “Superwoman” a few years prior, this was Wonder’s own way of returning the favor. Keeping a rapid pocket and two-beat snare roll, Wonder gave the track a slight samba undertone, accentuated by brilliant percussion play from Paulinho de Costa.

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“That Girl” – Original Musiquarium I, 1982
The leading single of Stevie’s double LP compilation, the one-and-three stomps on the kick fused with the two-and-four handclaps, and bridged by quick clock-hand hi-hat ghost notes, the repeating drum pattern of “That Girl” made it one of Wonder’s most enjoyable dance floor grooves, and prime sample fodder for hip-hop acts like 2Pac and Queen Latifah.

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“Never in Your Sun” – In Square Circle, 1985
Throughout the mid-1980s on to the 1990s, Wonder succumbed to the trend of using drum machines in R&B music. Although the album as a whole certainly lacked the zeal that comes from a breathing drummer, the kicks in the intro of “Never in Your Sun,” was kind of beat you’d hear blasting from a boom-box during a spirited break dancing contest, inspiring rap artist Panacea to loop it for his 2006 single “Starlite.”

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Words by Matthew Allen (@headphoneadditct)

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