Songs with Earlier Histories Than the Hit Version

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For Once in My Life

First recorded (as a demo) in 1965 and first released by Jean Dushon (Oct 1966).
Also recorded by Barbara McNair (released Nov 1966), The Four Tops (1967), The Temptations (1967).
Hit versions by Tony Bennett (US #91/EZ #8 1967), Stevie Wonder (US #2/R&B #2 1968).

From the wiki: “‘For Once in My Life’, written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden, was originally recorded by Jean DuShon, tapped by Miller to demo ‘For Once in My Life’ as he was ‘fine-tuning’ the composition. Miller was so impressed by DuShon’s rendition he released her recording as a single on Chess Records’ Cadet label early in 1966. Motown CEO Berry Gordy found out that Miller, a Motown staff writer, had given the song to an outside artist, so had Miller immediately make the song available for Motown artist Barbara McNair to record and, later, for The Four Tops, The Temptations and, then, Stevie Wonder to record.

“DuShon’s version made no significant impact on the singles charts; it was chosen ‘Pick Hit of the Week’ by Detroit’s WXYZ radio in 1966, but Chess Records dropped the ball by not promoting the record. DuShon was so distraught at the failure of the record, she dropped the song from her popular nightclub act. Despite the failure of the record, she was the very first in a long line of singers to record the song.

“Other artists – Tony Bennett, and The Temptations, among others – also recorded the song as a slow ballad. Bennett’s recording, released as a single in 1967, was the first to impact the Billboard charts.

“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 recording, an upbeat production by Henry Cosby using Bert Keyes arrangement with McNair as its template. 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. Contrary to Gordy’s instincts, ‘For Once in My Life’ was a highly successful record, peaking at #2 on both the Billboard Pop Singles and Billboard R&B Singles (it was held off from the number-one spot on each chart by another Motown single Gordy had originally vetoed, Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’).

“Wonder’s recording is often singled out by bassists as the greatest example of Funk Brother 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.

“Barbara McNair’s original up-tempo recording (the Bert Keyes arrangement), released as a single shortly after DuShon’s, made no chart impact. In 1967, McNair (‘Here I Am, Baby‘) traveled with Bob Hope to Southeast Asia to perform with the USO for U.S. troops. She said on stage that Hope talked her into going on the tour by promising her she’d get to meet royalty. ‘He let me walk his dog Prince,’ she joked. Among the songs she sang was an slowed-down, emotional version of ‘For Once in My Life’.

“Not finding success as a pop singer, McNair turned to an acting career on television, guesting on series such as Dr. Kildare, The Eleventh Hour, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Hogan’s Heroes and McMillan and Wife. McNair also posed nude for Playboy in the October 1968 issue. McNair starred in her own 1969 television variety series, The Barbara McNair Show, one of the first black women to host her own musical variety show. The show, which was produced in Canada by CTV (at CFTO/Toronto) lasted three seasons in first-run syndication in the United States until 1972.

“Note: Singer Jack Soo (who later found fame acting on Barney Miller) 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 recording, however, was never released and was permanently shelved in the Motown archives.”

Barbara McNair, “For Once in My Life” (Nov 1966):

Tony Bennett, “For Once in My Life” (1967):

The Four Tops, “For Once in My Life” (1967):

The Temptations, “For Once in My Life” (1967):

Stevie Wonder, “For Once in My Life” (1968):

James Jamerson’s “For Once in My Live” illustrated improvisational bass line:

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