Track of the Day: 'For Once in My Life' by Stevie Wonder

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, John McKie, writes:

Have you considered Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life”? One definition of a great cover version is when it’s so good, it doesn’t just surpass previous incarnations but eviscerates them to a degree that you forget they even existed. (Donald Trump’s current wife is presumably mapping out that pathway as we speak.)

For an artist who would go on to become a master song-writer, Stevie took a slow ballad, got The Funk Brothers and Henry Cosby in the studio, and whipped up something even Berry Gordy couldn’t turn down—he wasn’t keen, but eventually relented. The song reached number two in the Billboard Hot 100 behind Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” another song Gordy had initially vetoed as a single. Now everyone is keen on “For Once In My Life,” even Ari Gold.

As far as the original:

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, Diana Ross and Tony Bennett whose recording was the first to reach the pop charts.

Here’s Bennett’s version. Update from another reader, Allan Moyes:

Now, as fine as Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett’s versions are, neither come close to Judy Garland’s version on the Mike Douglas Show in August, 1968.

Not on Spotify, or anywhere else but YouTube it seems, but her version makes all the others seem like mere “songs.”  Judy’s version is very emotional and vulnerable. The sheer delight and relief at having someone in her life comes across, along with defiance too—you can’t take it..!  Gut wrenching stuff.

I find it hard to listen to other versions now.  As I said, they seem like “songs.” This seems like the truth.

She died the following year at the age of 47.

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