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.