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A Tribute to Ron Miller and “For Once in My Life”

By Lisa Dawn Miller, daughter of Ron Miller

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Stevie Wonder and Ron Miller

2020 marks the 55th anniversary of my father’s classic, “For Once in My Life,” one of the most successful and recognizable songs in history, having been recorded by over 500 major label artists and heard in hundreds of films and television shows. A truly great song can be interpreted in any genre for any generation. “For Once in My Life” is one of those rare, unique songs that transcends time and style because it speaks a universal language that resonates. Merv Griffin once asked my father, “Ron, how do you tune into today’s themes?” My father responded, “I don’t. I write about timeless emotion.” My father’s songs are indeed timeless, as are the emotions they make us feel. “For once in my life, I have someone who needs me – someone I’ve needed so long” is something someone could have felt 50 years ago, and it’s also something people will feel 50 years from now.

One of the things I believe differentiates many songs of yesteryear from songs being written today is that classics like “For Once in My life” are instantly recognizable, having been covered so many times by so many different artists. Standing the test of time, these songs in many ways have become part of the fabric of our lives.  For generation after generation, “For Once in My Life” has been the song we listened to during our first kiss, the song played during our wedding, and the song we dedicated to our child. For choir performances, audience members will listen to its uplifting essence and connect to it emotionally in ways that are personal for them. It’s a crowd pleaser, yes – but more importantly, it’s reminiscent of our own individual experiences and history because it’s been there all along – during the good and bad times in our life.

Tony Bennett was one of the first to record “For Once in My Life.” To this day, during his show, Tony always tells the story of how my father came to him one night after a performance at the Roostertail in Detroit and pitched the song to him. He recalls recording it with a big orchestra and having a hit with it. He also recalls Stevie Wonder recording it subsequently and how Stevie’s version became the megahit and classic.

Stevie Wonder also talks about my father affectionately, remembering when he played his version of “For Once in My Life” for my dad (after he changed it from a ballad to a more contemporary arrangement). My father, known as a ballad and theatre writer said, “Stevie, you’re ruining my song!” However, he loved Stevie and admired his talent. Stevie said they had a deal.  He told my father “if the song is not a hit, I’ll buy you dinner.” My father’s response was, “if the song IS a hit, you can drive my car!” You can watch Stevie talking about it here, when he invited my son, Oliver, and me to share the stage:

 

In a tribute to my father when he received the Heroes and Legends Award for Lifetime Achievement in songwriting (posthumously), Motown founder Berry Gordy wrote “Ron Miller – an artist like you doesn’t come along for once in my life but for once, period.”

Lisa Dawn Miller, Stevie Wonder, and Oliver Richman

I had the honor of producing the 50th anniversary recording (and video) of “For Once in My Life” with my then 14-year-old son, Oliver Richman. At the beginning, you’ll hear an intro to the song which is rarely performed.  My mother, Aurora Miller, wrote the intro music to “For Once in My Life.” Many people don’t know this and in fact, many people don’t even know there is an intro. Dean Martin recorded the intro but very few major artists included it.

At the time the sheet music went to print, Orlando Murden, the song’s composer, was not available. My father needed something quickly. He loved intros and had a beautiful lyric, “Goodbye old friend, this is the end of who I used to be, ‘cause there’s been a strange and welcome change in me.” He asked my mother to write the music, which she did – but never got credit for. Throughout the years, every time we had a family gathering, my mother would sit down and play the intro music and pretend that she was about to progress into the full song, but she always went back to the beginning of her intro music and never played the full song – she just kept repeating the part she wrote. We would all laugh, especially my dad. Oliver wanted to include my mom’s music and the beautiful intro that is rarely heard for his version of the song, which also marked 50 years since it had been written. My mother can be heard playing the piano on Oliver’s recording. You can watch the video here: www.youtu.be/TqPBW3z38Dc

Long gone are the days my mom and dad used to call the radio stations in Detroit several times a day, disguising their voices, requesting DJs to play “For Once in My Life,” Stevie Wonder’s latest single.

“For Once in My Life” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009. I wish my father could have been here for that. He passed away in 2007 but his songs will live on forever, being performed and reimagined for generations to come. I was honored to perform “For Once in My Life” at the 2018 Heroes and Legends Awards, and I’m very excited to be developing a show for Broadway about my dad’s life entitled, “For Once in My Life,” to share the remarkable story of his life, his music, and his spirit.

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