"For Once in My Life" is a swing song written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden for Motown Records' Jobete publishing company, and first recorded in 1966.
It was written and first recorded as a slow ballad. There are differing accounts of its earliest versions, although it seems that it was first recorded by Barbara McNair, but first released in 1966 by Jean DuShon. Other early versions of the ballad were issued by The Four Tops, The Temptations, and Tony Bennett whose recording was the first to reach the pop charts.
The most familiar and successful version of "For Once in My Life" is an uptempo arrangement by Stevie Wonder, recorded in 1967. Wonder's version, issued on Motown's Tamla label, was a top-three hit in the United States in late 1968 and early 1969. The song was included on the soundtrack to the 2001 filmSee Spot Run and the soundtrack to 2010's Shrek Forever After.
Miller and Murden wrote the song in 1965 as a slow ballad, and passed it around various singers so that it could be tried out and refined. Among those who, it is claimed, heard and performed the song in about 1966 – but did not record it – are Jo Thompson, a club singer in Detroit; Sherry Kaye, who may have performed it in a musical revue at the Gem Theater; and Johnny Hartman, who turned it down.
Jean DuShon was one of the singers who was originally tapped by Ron Miller to demo the song as he was fine-tuning the composition. Miller was impressed by DuShon's rendition, and her version, produced by Esmond Edwards, was issued as a single on Chess Records' Cadet label in October 1966. It was chosen "Pick Hit of the Week" by Detroit's WXYZ radio. Although the record label gave the sole songwriting credit to Murden, Motown CEO Berry Gordy discovered that Miller – who was contracted to Motown – had co-written the song, and reportedly asked Chess not to promote the single. DuShon dropped "For Once In My Life" from her nightclub act and later said: "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."
At Motown, the song was recorded, perhaps as early as October 1965, by Barbara McNair backed up by a symphony orchestra and produced by Frank Wilson. Some sources suggest that the song was originally written for McNair; others that Gordy, hearing the song, insisted that she recorded it. However, her version was not released until it appeared on her November 1966 album, Here I Am. It was also released as the B-side of her 1968 single, "Where Would I Be Without You". In later years, McNair re-recorded the song with a faster tempo.
Other early Motown recordings
Singer Jack Soo claimed that he was the first male artist to record a version of the song, after he joined Motown in 1965 as one of their first non-African American artists. The record was never released and was permanently shelved in the Motown archives. Another singer contracted to Motown at the time, Connie Haines, also claimed to have recorded an early unreleased version.
The Four Tops recorded the song on their album 4 Tops On Broadway, released in March 1967 and, like McNair's recording, produced as a slow ballad by Frank Wilson.
The Temptations also recorded the song for their pop standards based album The Temptations in a Mellow Mood, released in July 1967.Baritone singer Paul Williams sings the lead vocal on the song, and it subsequently became his showcase number in the Temptations' live shows. Williams' most famous performance of the number was during The Supremes and Temptations' TCB television special in 1968, a performance cited as the apex of Williams' career. The song also made its way into The Temptations 1998 made-for-television miniseries on NBC. After celebrating The Temptations' (and Motown's) first Grammy win for "Cloud Nine", the actor who portrays Paul Williams (Christian Payton) sings the slow ballad version.
Also in 1967, "For Once in My Life" became one of Tony Bennett's more successful forays into contemporary songs. His version of the song peaked at number 91 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, (#8 on the Easy Listening survey) and was the title track of his album For Once in My Life. "For Once in My Life" remained in Bennett's concert repertoire into the 2000s. In 2006 Bennett teamed up with Stevie Wonder to record a ballad tempo version for his Duets: An American Classic album, for which Bennett and Wonder received a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. Bennett also performed it on the Grand Finale of American Idol 6.
Stevie Wonder's version was recorded at about the same time as The Temptations' in the summer of 1967. However, Berry Gordy did not like Wonder's version, an upbeat rendition produced by Henry Cosby. Gordy vetoed the single's release, and the recording was shelved. Billie Jean Brown, the head of the Motown Quality Control department, finally coerced Gordy into allowing Wonder's version to be released in October 1968.
Wonder's version of the track is often singled out by bassists as the greatest example of James Jamerson's playing style, with no two bars of music played alike during the whole song; a completely improvisational line that is both melodic and complementary to Wonder's vocal.
Ella Fitzgerald performed a slow rendition of the song live in Berlin in 1968. She began by saying, "There's a song in the States made popular by Tony Bennett. Such a beautiful tune. We'd like to try and sing it for you because we think the lyrics are so gorgeous and the tune itself is beautiful."
Jackie Wilson recorded a modified ballad version, more uptempo than Tony Bennett, but downbeat compared to Stevie Wonder. It lost in a cover record war, Wilson reaching #70 in late 1968, Wonder peaking at #2 in Billboard's Hot 100.
Nancy Sinatra recorded a version in late 1968 and it was included on her album Nancy, which was released in March 1969.
Sammy Davis, Jr. recorded the song twice. Once, in 1970, on his album Something For Everyone (on Motown Records) and in 1973 for Sammy: The Original Television Soundtrack. He has also performed the song live in concert.
Bobby Darin performed the song live in the early 1970s.
Glen Campbell performed a version of this song on his "Goodtime Hour" TV Show. It appears on the DVD, "Glen Campbell, Good Times Again" released in 2007. It also appears on his "Live" LP from 1969 recorded at "Garden State Arts Center" in New Jersey, USA.
Australian singer John Farnham recorded a version of For Once In My Life in 1971. It was released on his album titled Johnny.
Known as The King in his country (Brazil), Roberto Carlos sang a version on his TV show, Roberto Carlos Especial, with Freddy Cole on piano in 1978. In 1979, he sang a version during the show Palhaço (Clown). Carlos recorded the song in 1979 and released it as a single. His version is very similar to that by Tony Bennett, of whom Carlos is an avowed fan.
In 1986, Dean Martin recorded the song and performed a duet of it with Smokey Robinson in a television appearance. Martin had previously recorded the song solo on his 1970 LP For The Good Times.
In the courtroom comedy-drama series Ally McBeal, "For Once in My Life" was performed by show mainstay singer Vonda Shepard. The song was used to "sing" the main character Ally Mcbeal's quest for true love. The song is included in the show's original soundtrack, For Once in My Life, volume 2.
In 2013, the renowned Spanish actress & singer Natalia Dicenta released an uptempo version of the song on her album Colours.
In pop culture
The song was used in the movie "Meet the Parents", with a version sung by Bobby Womack.
The song was used during the farewell montage at the end of the 2010 film Shrek Forever After. The song was used to represent Shrek's journey throughout all four films as Shrek Forever After was the final film in the series.
The song was also recorded by Harry Connick, Jr. for his 2004 album "Only You".
In 2010, the song was featured in Fringe episode 2.20, "Brown Betty," sung by Olivia Dunham in a "fairy tale" that Dr. Walter Bishop was telling Olivia's niece, Ella. The song was subsequently parodied by The Fringemunks as part of a medley that recapped this musical episode's storyline. The Stevie Wonder version was later played in episode 3.14, "6B," as selected by Peter Bishop from a bar's jukebox during a discussion with Olivia.
^Note: Author, David Freeland ("Ladies of Soul") recently contacted (June, 2007) Ron Miller's daughter (Lisa Dawn Miller) and asked her to confirm with her dad who recorded this classic first; Ron Miller said, "Jean DuShon."