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for once
Stevie Wonder – “For Once in my Life,” Pop # 2, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

“For Once in my Life” was less than two years old, but already practically a staple by the time Stevie Wonder’s cover was finally released in October, 1968.

Jean DuShon recorded the original version for the Chess Records subsidiary Cadet in 1966. Although the label failed to promote the single, it still managed to reach the ears of Berry Gordy. He was not pleased to learn that Motown composer Ron Miller had written the number for a performer outside of the Hitsville stable. Gordy demanded Miller let a Motown artist record the number and he promptly gave it to Barbara McNair for her 1966 album “Here I Am.” Best known as an actress who appeared on “Mission: Impossible,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Dr. Kildare,” McNair’s version sank without a trace.

Gordy wasn’t done with the song, though. In 1967 he gave it to the Temptations as a showcase for baritone Paul Williams. Their downbeat interpretation was one of the highlights of a 1968 television special with the Supremes.

Tony Bennett released his version of “For Once in My Life” the same time the Temptations were staking claim to the tune. Bennett’s reading was a crossover hit, lodging in the Top 10 of the Easy Listening chart and peaking at 91 on the pop chart. The title song of his 1967 album, it became one of the crooner’s signature numbers.

So the public was more than familiar with “For Once in My Life” by the time Wonder’s version hit the streets. Arriving a year after Bennett’s version peaked, Wonder’s interpretation became the most successful and definitive reading of the song. Like many great songs, however, this one almost didn’t get released.

Wonder recorded his vision of “For Once in My Life” the same summer the Temptations cut the song. Wonder’s upbeat arrangement stood in sharp contrast to the Temptations’ soulful balladry, and Gordy preferred the Tempts’ reading. After a year of pleading and cajoling, the head of Motown’s Quality Control department finally talked Gordy into allowing Wonder’s version to be released as a single. The result, of course, was a No. 2 single (held out of the top spot by Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”) that became the title track of Wonder’s tenth album.

Sonically, it’s hard to believe this song hails from 1968. The production and arrangement sounds like a throwback from the Holland-Dozier-Holland heydays of 1966. The big strings and Wonder’s vocals are front and center in the mix with the drums pushing the entire arrangement. The strings and horn tiptoe just shy of being bombastic, and a great piano line snakes along the bottom of the mix. Wonder’s harmonica makes the most of its verse-long solo, nimbly improvising on the melody like a jazz horn. The backing vocals are a little corny, but they are redeemed by Wonder’s best vocal performance to date. Wonder wasn’t yet 18 when he recorded this song, but there is a confidence in his delivery and phrasing that shows how much he’d grow since “Uptight” was released the summer before.

Wonder had far from the final word on the song. Gordy’s old boss Jackie Wilson released a cover that tried to split the difference between the Bennett and Wonder arrangements as a single to compete with Wonder. His version stalled at No. 70 on the cart. Ella Fitzgerald performed the song in concert throughout the summer of 1968 with an arrangement based on Bennett’s version. The following year, Frank Sinatra included his reading on the “My Way” album. In the twilight of his career, Sinatra revisited the song with Gladys Knight and Wonder for the 1994 “Duets II” album. Wonder returned to the song a dozen years later, sharing vocal duties with Bennett for Bennett’s “Duets: An American Classic” recording.

An enduring classic, “For Once in My Life” was covered by rocksteady singer Slim Smith in1969, recorded by James Brown in 1970 and translated into German by Stefan Gwildis in 2005. The song has also popped up on “Oprah,” “American Idol” and countless other television shows and films.

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(Above: Honorable mention R.L. Burnside, who was convicted of murder 1959 and sentenced to Parchman Farm. Burnside later said, “I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.”)

By Joel Francis

Phil Spector is hardly the first musician to be convicted of murder. He’s not even the most famous or influential one. But he is the latest. In honor of Spector’s recent sentencing, The Daily Record recognizes five other musicians convicted of murder.

Cool C and Steady B

Cool C and Steady B both came of age in the 1980s Philadelphia rap scene. Steady, nee Warren McGlone, was one of the first Philly rappers to taste the mainstream, while Cool, born Christopher Roney, was a member of the Hilltop Hustlers. The two teamed up in the early ’90s to form C.E.B., which was short for Countin’ Endless Bank. Taking their moniker a little two seriously, the duo decided to rob an actual bank.

On Jan. 2, 1996 – perhaps fulfilling a New Year’s resolution – C, B and Mark Canty, another Philadelphia rapper, attempted to rob a PNC bank in the City of Brotherly Love. Needless to say, the heist didn’t go as planned. When officer Lauretha Vaird responded to the silent alarm, she was shot and killed by Cool C. Steady B exchanged shots with another officer as the trio hopped into a stolen minivan and made their escape.

Steady was arrested at his apartment shortly after the crime. When two handguns left at the bank were traced back to him, he confessed to the crime.

In October, 1996, Cool was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Steady got off with a second degree murder conviction and life in prison. Cool was granted a stay of execution in 2006, by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (probably a closet C.E.B. fan), but remains on death row. Steady also remains incarcerated.

Little Willie John

In the late 1950s, Little Willie John traveled in the same soul circles as his contemporaries Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Hank Ballard. His parade of hits started in 1955 with “All Around the World” and included “Need Your Love So Bad” (later covered by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac) and “Fever,” which Peggy Lee made famous and took to the U.S. Top 10.

John had a golden voice, but he also had a bad temper and a taste of alcohol. Those three traits collided backstage at a concert in 1964 when John stabbed a man to death. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to Washington State Prison. John was appealing his conviction and aiming for a comeback when he died of pneumonia in 1968.

Don Drummond

In the fall of 1964, trombone player Don Drummond was living the good life. The band he helped form, the Skatalites, were finally breaking through, thanks to a song he wrote. “Man in the Street” was a Top 10 U.K. hit and for many their first taste of reggae. One year later, Drummond’s arrangement of the Guns of Navarone also hit the U.K. Top 10. But 1965 was not as kind to Drummond.

Drummond earned the nickname “Don Cosmic” for the erratic behavior brought on by his manic depression. When the body of Drummond’s girlfriend exotic dancer Marguerita Mahfood was found in Drummond’s home with several knife wounds, the police quickly arrested Drummond and charged him with murder. Drummond was judged legally insane at his trial and committed to Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Drummond died in Bellevue in 1967 at the age of 39. His death was ruled suicide, but because no autopsy was performed conspiracy theories persist to this day.

Drummond left behind a catalog of more than 300 songs and pivotal role backing Lee “Scratch” Perry, the Wailers, Delroy Wilson at their earliest sessions.

Jim Gordon

Drummer Jim Gordon started his career backing the Everly Brothers in 1963. By the end of the decade he’d performed on “Pet Sounds,” “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” and numerous other albums. When Jim Keltner pulled out of a tour with Delaney and Bonnie, Gordon was brought in as the replacement. Gordon got on so well with the rest of the band, which included Eric Clapton, bass player Carl Radle and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, that the quartet played on Clapton’s first solo album, the first post-Beatles album by Clapton’s friend George Harrison (“All Things Must Pass”) and even a session with Ringo.

The group is most memorable, however, for the album it produced with Duane Allman. As Derek and the Dominoes, Clapton was able to pour out his unrequited love for Harrison’s wife Patti Boyd and Allman was able to lay down some of his best licks. Gordon gained notoriety for writing the piano coda to “Layla.” He composed the piece independently and had to be persuaded to let Clapton incorporate into what became one of the biggest rock singles of all time.

After Derek and the Dominoes broke up in 1971, Gordon played in Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. He also toured with Traffic and Frank Zappa. Gordon’s session work also flourished. He played drums on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” and the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock” album. Gordon’s drum solo on “Apache” is one of the most sampled licks in hip hop.

In the late ’70s Gordon complained of hearing voices. Treated for alcohol abuse instead of schizophrenia, the voices had pushed Gordon out of music entirely by 1981. They pushed him even further in 1983 when Gordon killed his mother with a hammer. Gordon was properly diagnosed in his 1984 trial and sentenced to sixteen years to life with the possibility of parole. Gordon remains in prison.

Lead Belly

Most musicians wait until after they’re famous to start killing people. Not the man born Huddie Ledbetter. Before he recorded a note for Alan Lomax, the towering legend of folk and blues had escaped from a chain gang in Texas, served seven years for killing a relative in a fight over a woman. Lead Belly learned new songs and honed his craft while in prison, eventually earning a pardon from Texas Governor Pat Neff, who enjoyed the religious songs Lead Belly had played for him. Five years later, Lead Belly was back in prison, this time for attempted homicide. After serving three years for knifing a white man in a fight, he was discovered by John and Alan Lomax, who fell under his spell and petitioned to have him released.

After taking Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen a recording of “Goodnight Irene,” Lead Belly was released (the official reason was time off for good behavior). He recorded several albums for the Library of Congress based on his book “Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly.” Unfortunately, Lead Belly could not shake his criminal past, and was back in jail again in 1939 for stabbing a man in a fight in New York City. Again, Alan Lomax jumped to Lead Belly’s defense, dropping out of graduate school and helping Lead Belly record an album of songs to pay for his legal expense.

Lead Belly became a fixture of the New York City folk scene in the 1940s. He appeared on the radio, performed with Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Woody Guthrie, and others and recorded a wide range of music. Acolyte Bob Dylan once said Lead Belly was “One of the few ex-cons who recorded a popular children’s album.”

“Goodnight Irene” became Lead Belly’s most popular song. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see Pete Seeger’s group the Weavers make it a No. 1 hit.

Lead Belly died in 1949, leaving behind a treasure of songs that includes “Midnight Special,” “Cotton Fields” and “Rock Island Line.”

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