#459: Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder
Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950. He was born six weeks premature and confined to a hospital incubator. After birth he developed resulted in retinopathy of prematurity – a condition of some premature babies – in which the growth of the eyes is aborted and causes the retinas to detach. Soon after his birth he became blind. As an adult he remarked “people who see often choose the book by the cover…. Maybe a person is also beautiful inwardly and that’s the side I’ll know first.” When he was four his mother divorced his father and remarried. The boy took his new father’s legal name, Morris, after they moved to Detroit. He remembers that in the winter of 1954 “my mother, brothers and I went to this dry dock where there was coal and steal some to keep warm. To a poor person, that’s not stealing, that’s not a crime. That’s a necessity.” As he could not see, he spent a lot of time in his family home listening to the radio. His favorite recording acts were Johnny Ace, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, and later Del Shannon. An uncle gave him a harmonica. After he mastered the instrument, he was given a drum kit one Christmas. And a neighbor gave her piano to Stevie where she moved from the neighborhood. He formed a singing partnership with his friend John Glover. They billed themselves as Stevie and John, playing on street corners, parties and dances.
By the late ’50s, Stevie could play any song on the radio by ear. He was taken to Motown and performed on one instrument after the next as he was led around the room. Barry Gordy instantly signed the boy to Motown. He was eleven years old. In 1962 “little Stevie Wonder”, as he was nicknamed by some of the Motown staff, joined the Motown Revue. This involved performing 94 concerts on the Chitlin’ Circuit of black-owned clubs and theaters. Others on the tour were Mary Wells, the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Contours, the Temptations and Singin’ Sammy Ward. Wonder’s contract with Motown gave him $2.50 a week (about $21.13 in 2020).
On June 1, 1962 Wonder performed a concert at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. His finale was a tune called “Fingertips”. The audience was amazed and the live recording went on to be released in May 1963 as Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius. The recording of “Fingertips” was six minutes and forty seconds long. So Motown decided to split the song into two parts for a single release, with “Fingertips Pt. 2” as the side to pitch to radio Deejays. The side, which was his fourth single release, peaked at #1 for three weeks in August ’63 on the Billboard Hot 100. The followup hit in Vancouver was his first single release from 1962 “I Call It Pretty Music, But the Old People Call It The Blues”.
In 1964 Little Stevie Wonder appeared in two films with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach movies: Muscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach. His voice was changing and Motown considered cancelling their contract with him. However, he began to write songs and in 1965 co-wrote “Uptight” which climbed to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, #1 on the Billboard R&B chart, and #4 in Vancouver (BC). It also won Grammy Award nominations in two categories. Wonder also went on to write songs for other recording artists including “Tears Of A Clown” for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles; “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” for Aretha Franklin; and “Tell Me Something Good” for Rufus.
In the early Sixties, a young Jewish songwriter named Ron Miller had been discovered by Barry Gordy when Miller was playing in a bar in Detroit. Miller had served in the United States Army and since being discharged was selling washing machines. He ended up penning a number of songs recorded by Stevie Wonder. These included “A Place In The Sun”, “Someday At Christmas”, “For Once In My Life”, “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” (#9 Vancouver) and “Heaven Help Us All” (#6 Vancouver). Curiously, the Deejays on CKLG chose not to add to their playlist “For Once In My Life”, a song that earned Stevie Wonder a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance, Male. These aspirational songs were part of an uplifting image that Stevie Wonder gave to radio listeners from the mid-sixties into the early ’70s.
But Stevie Wonder was also recording songs he was writing under his first Motown contract. These include “I Was Made To Love Her” (#1 Vancouver – July 1967), “My Cherie Amour” (#7 Vancouver – September 1969), “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (#3 Vancouver – August 1970) and “If You Really Love Me” (#2 Vancouver – October 1971). The latter hit became the 20th Top Ten R&B single, Wonder’s 12th song to chart in the Top Ten Billboard Hot 100, and tenth Top Ten hit in Vancouver in eight years. At the March 1969 Grammy’s, “For Once In My Life” received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Song, losing out to “(Sittin’ at) The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding. However, in 2007 Wonder and Tony Bennett won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals for their rendition of “For Once In My Life”. At the March 1971 Grammy’s, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Song, losing out to Clarence Carter’s song “Patches”; And the single lost the Grammy Award nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance to “The Thrill Is Gone” by B.B. King. And at the March 1972 Grammy Awards, Stevie Wonder’s cover of the Beatles’ song “We Can Work It Out” received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, losing out to “A Natural Man” by Lou Rawls.
In 1971 Stevie Wonder got a new five-year contract with Motown. He was given publishing rights and full creative control over his recordings. His lyrics also became more political, as he commented of social issues. As well, Stevie Wonder performed along with John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Bob Seger at a “Free John” benefit concert on December 10, 1971, for White Panther activist John Sinclair. (The White Panther Party was a sympathetic off-shoot to the Black Panther Party). In 1972 Stevie Wonder was the opening act for a 50-concert tour across America with the Rolling Stones. This included a concert at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver (BC) on June 3, 1972.
Later in 1972, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book album displayed his new creative freedom. The singles from the album, “Superstition” and “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, both earned him Grammy Awards respectively for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. “Superstition” also earned him a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Song. On August 3, 1973, he completed recording his Innervisions album. This included the track “Higher Ground”, which Rolling Stone in 2013 listed as Song #265 in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. On August 6th he was in a car accident on the I-85, heading north for a concert in Durham, North Carolina. A logging truck ahead of his car slammed on the breaks and a log shot through the car windshield hitting both Wonder and the driver. It broke Stevie Wonder’s skull, giving him a brain contusion. He ended up in a coma for a week. Amazingly he recovered, and performed on stage with Elton John in Boston on September 25, 1973, receiving a 15-minute standing ovation.
In 1974 “Living for the City” another Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Song. And in 1975 Wonder nabbed another Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male and Best Male Pop Vocal Grammy Awards for “Boogie On Reggae Woman”. For his albums, the Grammy Awards were also praiseworthy. In 1974 Innervisons won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. And on December 1, 1974, Stevie Wonder headlined a concert at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver (BC) with Rufus. In 1975 Stevie Wonder won the Grammy for Album of the Year for Fulfillingness’ First Finale. That album also earned him a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and a nomination for Producer of the Year. And in 1975 Ray Charles cover of “Living For The City” won him a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.
On April 7, 1975, Stevie Wonder’s spouse Yolanda Simmons, gave birth to their first child Aisha Zakiya Morris. Wonder had kept his legal surname, Morris, ever since his mother remarried when he was four-years-old.
In 1976 Stevie Wonder released his fourth studio album since he gained complete creative control of his recordings with Motown. Songs In The Key Of Life was an ambitious double-album. It won him Grammy Awards for Album of the Year – his third in a row – and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, along with Producer of the Year. The debut single “I Wish” also won him a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. His track from the album, “Have A Talk With God” also received a Grammy nomination for Best Inspirational Performance. And for the song “Contusion”, inspired by his car accident in 1973, Stevie Wonder received Grammy nominations for Best Instrumental Composition and Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
Songs In The Key Of Life included many standout tracks in what was a tour de force effort. These included “As”, “Another Star”, “Pastime Paradise”, “Village Ghetto Land” and”Love’s In Need Of Love Today”. The latter track received a Grammy Award in 2003 in the category Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, as recorded by Stevie Wonder and Take 6. Another standout from the album was “Isn’t She Lovely”.
“Isn’t She Lovely” was only released as a track on Songs In The Key Of Life. However, demand for the song on the radio resulted in Motown releasing a promotional single. “Isn’t She Lovely” peaked on the Top 40 charts at #1 in Phoenix, #2 in Allentown (PA) and San Bernardino (CA), #3 in Sarasota (FL), #5 in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale (FL), #7 in Vancouver (BC), Oklahoma City and Sacramento (CA), #8 in Boston, and #9 in San Francisco.
Vince Aletti, writing in Rolling Stone, praised “Isn’t She Lovely”, exclaiming “Stevie’s irrepressible fatherly joy sets the song aglow, finding its best expression in his sprightly harmonica playing. The beginning, when the baby’s cries are orchestrated to a thumping drumbeat and suddenly sound like shouts from African ritual music, is especially brilliant.” The song contains the s0und of Aisha’s first cry during her actual childbirth, and giggling while being bathed by her father. The lyrics take us to that moment beautifully: “Isn’t she lovely?/Isn’t she wonderful?/Isn’t she precious?/Less than one minute old.”
The song takes on an explicitly spiritual tone when Wonder writes “I can’t believe what God has done/Through us he’s given life to one…” The transcendent ritual of giving birth is reflected in choosing the name Aisha. The baby’ girls name, the song’s lyrics tell us, comes from a word in the Bantu language, Swahili, meaning “life.”
The birth of a child can be a catalyst for giving a tangible focus for the parent(s) of the baby, an enlivened sense of purpose. Here is a helpless infant who needs their care, who is their offspring.
Numbers of poems have been written about giving birth. Here is one by contemporary America poet Marea Johnson.
Birth Of A Child
You’re all I’ve ever wanted,
you are everything I’ve dreamed.
You give new definition
to what loving really means.
You’ve given me a purpose
to set out and do my best.
You’ve opened up my heart
and you have put me to the test.
You’ve given me the chance
to make you something that I’m not
To give you all the things you need-
the things I never got.
I’ll give you all the love you need,
the understanding too
‘Cuz I have never wanted
anything as much as you.
On “Isn’t She Lovely” Stevie Wonder played harmonica, percussion, drums, piano and synthesizer. On June 4, 2012, Wonder performed the song for Queen Elizabeth II at her Diamond Jubilee Concert outside Buckingham Palace.
From Songs In The Key Of Life, his next single release was “Sir Duke”. In the spring of 1977 the song spent two weeks at #1 on the CKLG chart in Vancouver, including ten weeks in the Top Ten. In 1979 Stevie Wonder released a soundtrack to a documentary titled Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants. The album received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special. It also contained the Top Ten 1979 single “Send One Your Love”.
Wonder began 1980 with the release of his nineteenth studio album, Hotter Than July. The lead single, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” received a Grammy Nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male. But he lost the award to George Benson’s Give Me The Night. His followup single “I Ain’t Gonna Stand It” peaked at #2 in Vancouver (BC). Stevie Wonder kept on getting Grammy nominations for Best R&B Song. On December 18, 1980, Stevie Wonder headlined another concert at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver (BC).
In 1981 his composition of “Let’s Get Serious”, sung by Jermaine Jackson, received a Grammy Award nomination. And in 1983 Wonder received two Grammy Award nominations in this category for “That Girl” and “Do I Do”. Both singles were tracks from his album The Original Musiquarium I. Wonder got a Grammy Award nomination in 1983, along with Paul McCartney for “What’s That You’re Doing?” in the category of Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. And in 1984 Stevie Wonder won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” from Woman In Red. The album The Woman in Red also received a Grammy Award nomination. After Stevie Wonder received the award and gave a tribute to Nelson Mandela, his duet with Paul McCartney – “Ebony And Ivory” – was banned in South Africa. While “Ebony And Ivory” received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus. But it lost to “Up Where We Belong” by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.
In 1986 Stevie Wonder’s album In Square Circle won a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. The album included the number on hit “Part-time Lover”, which also received a Grammy Award nomination. In the early 1980s, he campaigned to have Martin Luther King’s birthday, 15 January, celebrated as an annual public holiday. President Reagan agreed. And in 1986 the first Martin Luther King Day featured a concert which starred Stevie Wonder.
In 1987 Stevie Wonder shared a Grammy Award in the Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus category with Gladys Knight, Elton John and Dionne Warwick for “That’s What Friends Are For”. In 1996 Wonder won two more Grammy Awards for his single “For Your Love” in the R&B categories. In 1999 Stevie Wonder won a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, accompanied by Herbie Hancock for “St. Louis Blues”. Additionally, the song won them a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocal(s).
Stevie Wonder continued to receive and win more nominations for Grammy Awards into the 2000s.
Between 1963 and 1985 Stevie Wonder charted 27 singles into the Top Ten on the Billboard Hot 100. And up to 1991 he charted 48 singles into the Top Ten on the Billboard R&B chart. Between 1967 and 2010, Stevie Wonder has received 70 Grammy Award nominations, and won on twenty-two occasions. Between 1962 and 2005 Wonder released 23 studio albums, four live albums and three soundtrack albums. On July 12, 2008, Stevie Wonder performed in concert at General Motors Place in Vancouver (BC).
April 17, 2020
“Ron Miller, 74; Wrote Many Hit Pop Songs For Motown Records,” New York Times, July 24, 2007.
Vince Aletti, “Songs In The Key Of Life,” Rolling Stone, December 16, 1976.
Bob Gulla, Icons of R&B and Soul: An Encyclopedia of the Artists Who Revolutionized Rhythm, Volume 2, (Greenwood, 2007) 308-328.
“Stevie Wonder: Blind Faith,” Independent, London, UK, July 12, 2008.
“100 Greatest Singers of All Time: #9 – Stevie Wonder,” Rolling Stone, December 3, 2010.
Michael J. Feeney, “Stevie Wonder Inducted into Apollo Theater Hall of Fame with Star-studded Celebration in Harlem,” New York Daily News, June 17, 2011.
“Singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder Designated UN Messenger of Peace,” UN News, December 1, 2009.
David Aretha, Awesome African-American Rock and Soul Musicians (African-American Collective Biographies), (Enslow Pub Inc., 2012) 79-88.
“Stevie Wonder Tours/Appearances,” December 2003-November 2008, Steviewonder.org.uk.
“LARRY KING LIVE: Interview With Stevie Wonder,” CNN, November 30, 2010.
Jim Gigliotti, Who Is Stevie Wonder?, (Grosset & Dunlap, 2016).
Mark Ribowsky, Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder, (Wiley, 2010).
Jann S. Wenner, “500 Greatest Songs of All Time: Song 265 – Higher Ground by Stevie Wonder,” Rolling Stone, July 30, 2013.
“Vancouver’s Official Music Survey,” CKLG 730 AM, Vancouver, BC, January 4, 1977.
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