Behind the Song: Stevie Wonder, “For Once in My Life”

“For Once in My Life”
Written by Ron Miller & Orlando Murden

Videos by American Songwriter

“For Once in My Life” won a Grammy Award for its treatment by Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder. The song is one of the most enduring compositions associated with the mighty Motown combine, it has been recorded by no less than 100 artists, among them Frank Sinatra, reggae star Desmond Dekker, Brenda Lee and, more recently, Michael Bublé and Vonda Shepard.  And then of course there’s Wonder’s hit rendition, which rose to the No. 2 position on both the pop and r&b charts in 1968.  

But for all its success, “For Once in My Life” is lodged in controversy, subject to endless debates over who should get credit for singing it first. For some performers, each new version becomes another reminder of missed opportunities-of dreams that failed.

Motown staff writer Ron Miller specialized in creating tunes that sounded like they were lost standards: “A Place in the Sun,” “Heaven Help Us All,” “Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday.”  It seems he also liked to test his songs extensively before having them recorded.  Sometime in 1965, Miller gave lead sheets of “For Once in My Life” to two Detroit-based singers, Jo Thompson and Sherry Kaye.  In a letter written to the Detroit Free Press this March, Kaye claimed that she performed the song first, in a musical revue at the Gem Theater. Meanwhile, Thompson was featuring it in her act at the Celebrity Room, a swanky club operated by Flame Show Bar owner Al Green (no relation to the soul singer).  Today, both Thompson and Kaye own “original” copies of the song, and Thompson’s even bears a hand-written note from Miller: “To Jo Thompson who sang it first-and Best!!!”

Enter big band vocalist Connie Haines, who claims to have recorded an early version of “For Once in My Life” during her brief and somewhat unlikely tenure as a Motown artist-although that master remains unreleased.  The late Barbara McNair, signed to Motown, included the song on her Here I Am album, released in November 1966. The Temptations also waxed it around this time.  But the first version to actually hit the airwaves was probably by Jean DuShon, a glamorous performer who recorded it for Chess Records in July 1966 (at least a month after McNair, although McNair’s was released later).

DuShon’s performance is a beauty, capped by soaring modulations that glimmer with the hopefulness of love. But it didn’t become the hit it should have been. According to manager John Levy, who wrote about the record in his 2000 book, Men, Women, and Girl Singers, “[Motown head] Berry Gordy stopped radio stations from playing it.”  Gordy, it was alleged, wanted the song for Stevie Wonder, and he wasn’t going to let rival Chess (whose A&R man was his former songwriting partner, Billy Davis) get the better of him.  DuShon’s single rose as far as “Pick Hit of the Week” on Detroit’s WXYZ and stalled.  In a recent interview with Ralph McKnight and Martin Lawrie, DuShon described her feelings of hurt when Wonder’s recording broke out across the country.

“It was a very big disappointment in my life.  I stopped singing it ‘cause I didn’t have the song. I didn’t have anything. It wasn’t mine anymore.”

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