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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Who Did It Better? Isn't She Lovely

Who Did It Better? 
Isn't She Lovely

Once again, we 
will continue to take a look at songs written by one recording artist, but made popular by a different recording artist.

This is a fun one that will have us jumping back and forth across the pond. And, really, this story is primarily about the British charts. Here in the U.S. of A.? If asked who David Parton is, we'd assume he was one of Dolly's brothers. Stevie Wonder, on the other hand? An American treasure.

However, in England, David Parton is considered a true one-hit wonder - a hit that a couple of circumstances conspired to make happen.

David Parton is an English singer-songwriter/music producer from Newcastle Under Lyme, Staffordshire, England. He is also known as Des Parton and Cyril Dagworth.

Parton began his career as the lead singer for a band called Strange Fox. The band was taken under the wing of Tony Hatch (David Bowie, Petula Clark, Sweet Sensations, et. al) in the early 1970's. Parton wrote a pair of songs for a British band called Sweet Sensation. One of them, Sad Sweet Dreamer, went to #1 in the UK. He also arranged and co-produced the track with Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent. 

In 1975, Parton released a solo album (which did very little business) and a year later, made his debut with a band called The Cyril Dagworth Players, with Parton appearing under the moniker Dagworth. The group released one album, co-produced by Parton - and it did very little business.

Meanwhile, Stevie Wonder released his 18th album, Songs In The Key of Life, on September 28, 1976. The album was a huge sensation, continuing Wonder's winning streak; his third top-five album in a row. The album produced a number of hits (I Wish, Sir Duke, Another Star, and As) and contained the song Isn't She Lovely -  a song written to celebrate the birth of Wonder's daughter, Aisha. 

Isn't She Lovely received a lot of attention and the public was clamoring for it to be released as a single. Wonder's label, Tamala, was more than happy to oblige, however, the song clocked in at 6:33, much too long to be released as a single as is; it would have to be edited. Wonder adamantly refused. Given the genesis of the song, he was loath to have it altered in any way, so Wonder and his label were in the midst of a stand-off.

Meanwhile, Parton heard the song and couldn't understand why it wasn't a single, so he set about to make it one. Initially, Marcel King, singer from the band Sweet Sensation, was tapped for the task. However, King was unable to reproduce the same feel as Wonder's nuanced vocals, so Parton decided to do it himself. 

Parton's version was released on January 15th, 1977. 

Back in the states, Wonder finally allowed his label to release Isn't She Lovely in late December of 1976, but  as a promotional single only. It was cut down to 3:26. The edited version received so much airplay that, in January of 1977, the song actually made Billboard's A/C chart, peaking at #23. On the strength of radio play only? That's an impressive showing.

At the same time, over in England, Parton's version raced up the charts, hitting the #4 spot in the U.K and the #3 spot in Ireland. Wonder's version? Peaked at #94 in the U.K.  Parton's version would spend nine weeks on the charts, ending up as the 54th biggest hit of 1977. Stateside, his version would peak just outside the Hot 100, at #105. 

In the end, Isn't She Lovely would go on to be covered by numerous artists (Lee Ritenour, Jermaine Jackson, Livingston Taylor, et. al) and become a Stevie Wonder jazz/pop standard.

So, had Wonder not balked at the editing of the song and allowed it to be released as a single? No doubt, it would have become a world-wide hit. And had Parton's original choice for vocalist been able to deliver the goods, Parton, himself, would have never hit the charts. Talk about circumstances falling into place.

And what became of David Parton? 

He released a three additional singles, but never achieved any further chart success, making him a true one-hit (wait for it...) 'Wonder'. 

(Forgive me. I couldn't resist.)

Well, that's the whole story and now... on to the competition!

The Song: Isn't She Lovely
The Competitors: Wonder vs. Parton

Isn't She Lovely - Stevie Wonder

Isn't She Lovely - David Parton

Stevie Wonder
I remember very well where I was when I first listened to Songs in The Key of Life. I was so psyched. I loved Wonder's previous two albums, particularly the songs Higher Ground, Superstition, and Living for the City. That was what I was hoping to hear. I was already familiar with the lead single, I Wish, and I truly wanted the rest of the album to follow suit. 

My heart fell into the bottom of my cheap-ass shoes as I listened. And by the time I sat through  through Isn't She Lovely, I realized what I was listening to: Stevie Wonder's brain was turning turning into vanilla pudding. Glob after glob of sweet sticky goop dripped from the speakers. This? This was not the Wonder I loved. This was the Wonder who brought us You Are The Sunshine of My Life! And, instinctively, I knew the airwaves were going to serve up this current offering like it was the only game in town. 

And I was right! Oh, how I came to loathe Sir Duke

No. I could not get on board this particular train.

Fast-forward a few years to the day I heard I Just Called To Say I Love You? Well. The proof was, indeed, in the pudding.

As for Isn't She Lovely

It is sweet. I appreciate Wonder's enthusiastic vocals. He's so incredibly talented. That harmonica? Iconic (definition: widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence). He's a great songwriter. I hold him in the same esteem I reserve for Marvin Gaye. It's hard to argue the sheer purity of the production, here. But the song is exactly the same thing repeated three times and that outro? It goes on way too long. 

I see why this is considered a classic; it is so well-constructed, so wonderfully executed. But then, so is I Just Called To Say I Love You. And that song? 

That song makes me want to plunge knitting needles through my ear drums.

David Parton
The production isn't quite as alive and crisp as Wonder's. He subs a tired little synth for the strings in the intro. His voice is fine. He obviously has a thing for this song. His voice is a bit more pointed than Wonder's, lacking that lived-in warmth Wonder offers up so easily. In fact, I would go so far as to call Parton's vocals a bit strained. You can hear him reaching now and then while also falling a bit under the note on occasion. Still, not bad. Would have sounded fine on the radio. 

Oh, my... what is that wacky wind instrument he's subbed for the harmonica? Not good. Not crisp enough. When you're dealing with something as saccharine as this, you need all the crisp you can get in order to keep things palatable. Again, it's hard to argue with the enthusiasm pushing those vocals. Oh, dear... those group vocals sink this for me. That is some fine elevator music sounding BS. Well, at least the outro doesn't overstay it's welcome.

Ultimately? This reminds me of those Pickwick albums one used to find in the grocery story, promising 'Today's Hits'. You'd buy it (99 cents!), get it home and listen as your pop dreams die in a sea of failed sound-alikes. Yes... Mr. Parton's version is karaoke at it's finest. And as such? He's done a great job.

Keep in mind, he did have a hit; something not everybody can claim. I hope it made him happy and that he's proud of it. It is quite an accomplishment - one no one can ever take from him. 

The Verdict
Well, we knew Wonder was going to take this. His production values are so much cleaner and that harmonica is to die for. That said? I don't care for the song. It's fun for the first third and then becomes a bit of a bore. Sorry... I know diehard fans consider that blasphemy, but I can't get over the sense of betrayal I experience those many moons ago. You see, I thought Wonder was going to be a certain kind of artist - someone with a social conscious who would change the world. Instead, he opted for commercial success and widespread appeal. Which I guess is better than how Marvin ended up.

Well, good for Mr. Wonder. 

--- ---

That's it. Those are my two cents. Yours? 

Leave your thoughts in the comments section. I'm always interested in hearing other opinions, and, in light of my assessment of Stevie Wonder's career, I can well bet that a number of you disagree. So, let me know.

That's all for this week. Thanks for reading.

Oh, and for fun, I've included a clip of Mr. Parton on Top of The Pops, a program that helped launch a number of singles in the U.K. I think he's singing live (to a backing tape) and it sounds like he's lowered the key at least a half step. He's funny. It's like watching your Uncle Charlie walk around telling you he's cool. I love the moment he tells one of the audience members (like a 'Dad') to 'smile'. Enjoy.

Isn't She Lovely - David Parton 
(on Top of The Pops)


Bob said...

For me no contest: Stevie, always.

Hot guys said...

I just know I simply adore that song! 🧡🤎🧡🤎

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

OMG I have Songs in the Key of Life! It's a great record.
As for the song, in my mind it's Stevie. He can almost do no bad (I just called...) and the song is such an inescapable staple that you can't help but go for it.
Parton's version sounds muffled to me. Like you say, less crisp. Stevie is genius.


Jimmy said...

I will say this, very few people dare to cover a Stevie Wonder song. Parson did a good job.

anne marie in philly said...


Mistress Maddie said...

With this song, it would almost be sacrilegious to not pick Stevie Wonder. His version has always been such a feel good.

whkattk said...

Too long for radio play. Hah! Well, Queen put that issue to rest, didn't they? And did nit damn well, I might add. I have to agree, this is Wonder's all the way. Kisses.

SickoRicko said...