Original v. Cover — #33 in a Series

Maxfield Parrish "daybreak" Pictures, Images and Photos

The featured selection this week could well be the biggest hit that never was. The song was written as a tribute to the birth of the composer/performer’s daughter Aisha in 1976. Despite the song’s popularity and extensive airplay, it never charted on the Billboard Hot 100 because the artist never allowed it to be released as a 45 rpm single, despite being requested to do so by Motown Records.

The 1976 album on which this song appeared would become one of the best-selling and most critically acclaimed albums of this celebrated artist’s decades long string of successes. In 2003, the album was ranked #56 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  

Had it ever been released as a single, we can now only speculate as to how high it would have ascended on the charts, however, David Parton would release a cover version that would become a Top 10 hit in the U.K. in 1977. Variations of this song would later be recorded by artists representing a wide variety of genres:  punk, a capella, jazz, and blues. An instrumental version of this song was played after Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.  

This essay would be remiss not to include a few words about the creator of this exuberant song.

The artist was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1950 and was a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer and activist.  Blind from shortly after his birth, he signed with Motown Records’ Tamla label at the age of eleven and continues to perform and record for Motown to this very day.  He has recorded more than thirty Top 10 hits and has received twenty-two Grammy Awards, the most ever received by a male solo artist.  

This multi-talented man is also known for his political activism, perhaps most notably his effort during a 1980 campaign to have Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday designated as a U. S. holiday.  In 2009, he was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace.  

Having now exhausted the preliminaries, without further ado, this week’s featured song appeared on the 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder, and is entitled “Isn’t She Lovely?”

By 1976, a year had passed since the United States had evacuated the last remaining soldiers from Vietnam. We were left to await the fall of one country after another to the scourge of communism, to fall like a row of dominoes until such a dire fate would be visited upon the United States.  For many long years, our political leaders sternly warned us that such a calamity would surely befall us should we withdraw from Southeast Asia without having achieved complete victory. Yes, it would be only a matter of time before the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would land on our shores and invade our now disgraced country, raping and pillaging with wanton impunity.  

In contrast to the brave “patriots” who waited in fear, there were many others who chose to celebrate the fact that our country was no longer involved in a large-scale military conflict, for the first time in at least a decade. The considerable energy that fueled the anti-war movement had mostly dissipated. Those who chose not to embrace fear, allowed themselves to again feel a sense of hope and optimism for the future of this country. It was within this context that “Isn’t She Lovely?” was heard on our nation’s airwaves. Here is Wonder’s original version from 1976…

David Parton released a version of “Isn’t She Lovely?” in 1977 that remains quite faithful to the Wonder’s original. He enjoyed considerable success in the U.K., where his interpretation became a Top 10 hit…

GRP recording artist Lee Ritenour performs a very respectable rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely?” on his 1977 album, “Captain Fingers.”  Ritenour turns in some fine guitar work, ably assisted by Bill Champlin on vocals.  Listen for Poco drummer Jeff Porcaro’s unique rhythms as well…

Milt Jackson performs on the vibes in an upbeat jazz rendition of this song, from his album “Soul Fusion”, from 1978…

Livingston Taylor grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father was a medical professor at the University of North Carolina. All three of his siblings recorded albums as well. Early in life, Livingston suffered from severe depression, and was hospitalized at the same hospital where his older brother had been previously admitted (i.e., McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts). Part of his therapy included playing the guitar and singing.  After his release, he began playing in local clubs and coffeehouses.

Taylor has been artist-in-residence at Lowell House at Harvard College since 2000 and is also a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In addition all this, he maintains a busy concert schedule and earlier this year, released yet another album, “Last Alaska Moon”, which received critical acclaim. Here is a relaxed, acoustic version of “Isn’t She Lovely?” by James Taylor’s younger brother, Livingston, from 1997…

The acoustic guitar duo of Bireli Lagrene and Sylvain Luc turn in some fine guitar work in this rendition performed on February 22, 2000…

Here is a fine interpretation by Keb Mo, from a June 5, 2001 performance, accompanied by a slide show of scenes from the movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Unfortunately, the embedding is not allowed, but you can view it by clicking here.  This rendition is also included in Mo’s 2001 album, “Big Wide Grin.”

Here is a cover of Keb Mo’s cover version by Tejo and the Bluestigers (date unknown)…

Saxophonist David Sanborn, who performed at Woodstock in 1969 with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, performs a slow, sultry jazz version, exploring yet additional possibilities for this great song.  From his 2003 album “timeagain”…

The a capella group The Idea of North turns in yet another interpretation of “Isn’t She Lovely?”, as can be heard on their 2004 album, “Evidence.”  They were the 2003 National Harmony Sweepstakes Champions…

Here is a live version from 2009 by the punk band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, as performed at the Pinkpop Festival. This interpretation is included in their album entitled, “Take a Break.” Their version does not resemble any of the others in this sequence…

Bassist extraordinaire Victor Wooten performs an incredible version of “Isn’t She Lovely?” as a bass guitar solo! You have to see this to believe it. Performed at the Northridge Library in the greater L.A. area in January, 2010 this year…

Sungha Jung, a young Korean fingerstyle guitarist, plays ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ arranged by Hata Shuji. Although the date of this video is unknown, Jung will not turn fourteen years of age until September of this year. Jung released his first album earlier this year, entitled, “Perfect Blue”…

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  1. Ever wonder about the graphic images that appear at the beginning of each essay in this series?  If there is one outstanding choice that might relate to the title or message of the song, that would be the determining factor.  Some song titles are difficult to translate into pictures, however, and in some cases, I attempt to locate an interesting photo of the performer, usually one that is not immediately identifiable, but captures a novel view of that individual or group.

    This song title this week lent itself to many great choices, and even though Stevie Wonder had dedicated this song to his infant daughter, I took the liberty of choosing artistic depictions of those who appeared to be young adults.  The headline photo for the essay is “Daybreak” by Maxfield Parrish, one of my favorite artists.

    Here are two runners up, which presented difficult choices, given the many other extremely beautiful works by the British painter John William Waterhouse, who was born in Rome in 1849 and died in London in 1917.  Here are the two which were essentially tied for second place.  Many of his works feature vibrant colors, which can be viewed here and here.  

    John William Waterhouse Pictures, Images and Photos

    John William Waterhouse Pictures, Images and Photos

    We tend to think of Stevie Wonder as a talented singer and songwriter, but he was also an accomplished instrumentalist.  The following selections showcase the rather unusual combination of Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix jamming together!  

    The first selection, to the best of my knowledge, is untitled, and the second is reportedly based loosely upon Wonder’s hit “I Was Made to Love Her.”  Please be advised that some of those commenting on youtube insist that Mitch Mitchell was playing the drums on “I Was Made to Love Her” rather than Wonder.  Maybe someone should ask Stevie?  Anyone have him on speed dial?

  2.  and he was one of the few cats that made me stammer a bit.  Well, a lot.

    Not because of that song, though, but  because of that song I think on the same album about his baby (which came out when I was 12 or 13).   The emotion it is awesome.  And it’s about a kind of love that more or less hasn’t made it into pop music-love of one’s child.

    This one though, I don’t think is that great.

  3. I have no idea, but no way, does that sound un-rehearsed …  

  4. I`m just getting started tonight so I haven`t listened to all the covers yet.

    The base player was pretty cool.

    I started listening to the Sax cover but got called away.

    I`ll be back tomorrow.

    Very nice choice of song for this week.

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