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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Earworm Weekly: Stevie Wonder's Puppy

Posted By on Tue, Oct 20, 2015 at 10:46 AM

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I suspect that for most people, Stevie Wonder's “For Once in My Life” is just another love song, albeit an unusually brisk and catchy one. But I have always balked at that interpretation. Romantic love shouldn't be about dependency, it should be about mutuality. A lover isn't a possession, and raw need isn't sexy. So a couple of years ago, I decided that Stevie Wonder was not singing to his love interest at all. He was singing to a new pet. To be specific, a dog.

Think about it. “For once, I have something I know won't desert me/ I'm not alone any more” sounds like a paean to a loyal pet. And the lines “someone warm like you/ would make my dreams come true” are surely just another way of saying “happiness is a warm puppy.”

Once I convinced myself of this story, I became much happier. Puppy love! What could be sweeter? And how many artists have recorded a love song to their dog? Not enough, I say. I have gone on to repeatedly torment friends and family with my version of the song's “true” meaning. I like to share the love.

Of course I know that my version is deliberately counterfactual, but it turns out I was on the right track. The lyrics aren't a romantic statement at all. “For Once In My Life” isn't about a puppy, but it isn't about a lover either. And its history is fascinating.

“For Once in My Life” is the first and title track from Stevie Wonder's 10th album, released in 1968 – careerwise, it's situated between “Uptight (Everything's Alright)” and “My Cherie Amour,” and still several years ahead of his groundbreaking 1970s albums. Wonder was a grown man and a seasoned hitmaker but not yet a genius, not quite. And he wasn't writing all of his own material.

Veteran Motown songsmiths Ron Miller and Orlando Murden wrote “For Once in My Life” originally as a ballad. Wonder chose to take it uptempo, much to the consternation of label head Berry Gordy, who preferred the soulful version recorded by the Temptations at about the same time, a take that hewed more closely to the original intent. Nonetheless, Wonder's version hit hit number two on the Billboard pop charts, behind another stone-cold Motown classic that Gordy disliked – Marvin Gaye's version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Meanwhile, Tony Bennett made the mellower take on “For Once in My Life” part of his standard performance repertoire. Eventually the crooner would record it as a duet with Wonder and win a Grammy for it in 2007, the same year that Miller passed away. (It wouldn't be the last duet of the song Bennet recorded; here's a lovely version with Marc Antony from 2012.) All in all, hundreds of versions have been produced by an equally numerous group of performers, making it among the most-recorded songs in history.

Most of Ron Miller's other memorable songs are, in fact, more ballad-oriented. For Wonder, he penned “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday.” For Diana Ross, “Touch Me in the Morning.” And for a one-hit-wonder known only as Charlene, he wrote the cornstastic classic “I've Never Been to Me.”

With such delicious cheese on his resume, it wouldn't be a stretch to believe that Miller wrote “For Once in My Life” as an overwrought romantic statement. It turns out, however, that the songwriter penned the lyrics in honor of the birth of his daughter, much as Wonder himself would later write “Isn't She Lovely” in 1976 after the birth of his daughter Aisha, who can famously be heard gurgling on the intro and outro. The “someone who needs me, someone warm, won't desert me” is a newborn baby. Ron Miller was trying to capture the emotional quality of the love between parent and child. Wonder's version, with its bombastic orchestration and backing chorus, captures the pure giddy elation that can accompany it. As a parent myself, I get it. Completely.

But I'm still going to pretend that it's about a puppy.

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Lori Selke


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