Thursday, 23 August 2007

Ron Miller R.I.P.

In 1966 a man called Ron Miller wrote a song called "For Once in My Life" on the occasion of the birth of his daughter. A singer called Jean Dushon recorded it and released it as a single. Not many people bought it. Miller was a Motown writer and Berry Gordy demanded that he make the song available to his label. Barbara McNair then included it on an album. At this time the song was a ballad.

In the summer of 1967 the song was recorded by two of Motown's more well known acts - The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. It appeared on a Temptations album but the Wonder version was shelved because Gordy didn't like it. I can only assume that Gordy was in the grip of some kind of temporary insanity or was blighted by an addiction to nasty drugs or maybe both of these as no-one with so much as a cursory interest in music can deny that this shows a serious lapse of judgement. We have someone named Billie Jean Brown to thank for persuading Gordy that his ears needed sorting out. Fair play to Gordy though - it was he who appointed Brown head of Motown's quality control department.

Wonder's version of "For Once in My Life" was finally released towards the end of 1968 at which time it peaked at #2 in both Billboard's Pop and R&B charts. The #1 in each chart? "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye. That's okay then; normally when you look back at why a classic song didn't get the recognition it deserved you find some kind of novelty song or Herman's Hermits or something keeping it from the top spot. Apparently Gordy didn't want Gaye's song released either. I wonder whether he'd veto Citizen Kane if he was in movies or decide against grass and flowers and just have mud instead if he was God.

If pressed I'll name Stevie Wonder's version of "For Once in My Life" as my all time favourite song. There is nothing in this world, be that another song, film, person, animal, view or anything at all that can fill me with joy just by its presence like that song. The sound of those first few bars elicits in me a sort of Pavlovian reaction where, whatever I'm doing, my facial muscles are unable to resist forming on my face the biggest grin possible. This song makes me so HAPPY! And by the song's end, or probably well before the end, when it sounds like the pop music equivalent of a Busby Berkeley musical, I'm probably wiping tears from my face just as I am now. Yeah, I'm listening to it right now. Just listen to it too will you?

Anyway, back to Ron Miller. I knew that Stevie Wonder, as with most of the other Motown artists, generally sung other people's songs in the sixties but I've never really taken any interest in who these people were. I've found out that Miller was the only white man in Motown. He wrote a few other songs for Stevie Wonder: "A Place in the Sun", "Travellin' Man", "Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday", and "Heaven Help Us All". Any one of these would represent the pinnacle of a lifetime's songwriting efforts for most people but to have written all of them shows that Miller was some kind of genius.

I can't quite believe that I'd never acknowledged Miller's existence until I read his obituary today. Here is a man largely responsible for producing the one thing in the world that is guaranteed to make me smile at any time and I didn't even know who he was. So I'm acknowledging him now.

Having discovered Miller I thought I'd check out the identities of others who wrote for Wonder. "Sunny" is another of my Stevie Wonder favourites and was written by Bobby Hebb. Here's Hebb's inspiration, according to Wikipedia:

On 23 November 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy's assassination, Harold Hebb (Bobby's brother) was killed in a knife fight outside a Nashville nightclub. Hebb was devastated by both events and sought comfort in songwriting. The song he wrote was the optimistic "Sunny":
"All my intentions were just to think of happier times – basically looking for a brighter day – because times were at a low tide. After I wrote it, I thought "Sunny" just might be a different approach to what Johnny Bragg was talking about in "Just Walkin' in the Rain".

God, I love that song even more now! Take note kids: try experiencing some things beyond getting your heart broken or having a fight in a nightclub before you decide to record songs about your trivial lives. People like Hebb, Miller and Stevie Wonder knew this. They're the people that today's pop stars have to better and they've set the bar pretty darn high. Thanks guys x


Anonymous said...

Recently, Tony Bennett has appeared on national TV saying that he was the first to record "For Once In My Life." Why, I don't know.

I know Jean DuShon, who was actually the one who had the first release on the song, mid-1966 on Chess Records. Ron Miller had sought her out to help him interpret the song after seeing DuShon perform in a Detroit nightclub. After they worked on the song all day, he loved her suggestions for change and the way she modulated the song. He was so impressed with her soulful interpretation, he insisted that she record it.

Many people have never heard her version, which actually was the BEST, becasue her record company did not promote the record. So frustrated, Jean took the song out of her nightclub act.

Go here to hear the orginal version:

Ian said...

Many thanks for that, anonymous, that's a great version. I still prefer Stevie's thoough...