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Choral Crowd Pleaser: “For Once In My Life”

By Jaime Babbitt and Harvey Rachlin

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Soon after it was released in 1968, Stevie Wonder’s recording of “For Once In My Life” shot up the charts, reaching the number three position by the end of the year. With its impassioned message of how finding true love helped the narrator burst out of a shell, the song became a blazing anthem of empowerment. Now that the narrator knows the joys of life, even anguish won’t despair him or her like it did in previous times.  With someone who will stand by the narrator through thick and thin, nothing can prevent him or her from making it in life. This song is alive and kicking with joie de vivre!

“For Once In My Life” has generated hundreds of covers, but it is Stevie Wonder’s recording with which the song is most closely associated.  In late 1968, it sandwiched between Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Love Child” and Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” (Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” occupied the summit position of the chart) and it capped a tumultuous year in American history, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago. With its compelling theme of summoning inner strength following adversity, it was not just the right song at the right time, but this infectious toe-tapping quintessential pop tune is timeless and universal and has resonated with listeners of all ages and backgrounds since it was first released.

The authors of this classic gem are Ron Miller, who penned the words, and Orlando Murden, who wrote the music. Ron Miller was one of Motown’s master lyricists who produced a scintillating catalog of pop standards including “A Place In the Sun” and “Yester-You, Yester-Me, Yesterday,” both hits for Stevie Wonder, and “Touch Me In the Morning,” a 1973 number one national chart hit for Diana Ross.  A meticulous word sage who would wrestle for hours over which conjunction to use —“and” or “but” — in a song, it was vital for Miller that not one word in his songs was wasted, and that of course is evident in “For Once In My Life.” Prior to the Internet age, the song logged in over four million radio and television performances!

What makes “For Once In My Life” such a classic? First, the melody may seem fairly uncomplicated, but it’s far from simple by any stretch; anyone who has tried to sing along with Stevie can attest to that! It’s no doubt a classic melody, infused with joy; it walks an intuitive, chromatic path, leaving plenty of room for colorful grace notes and/or riffs. True, choirs may not “riff” a whole lot, but check out this acapella arrangement by the Yale Spizzwinks(?):

Many modern-day choirs pride themselves in choosing rhythmically interesting selections. While Stevie Wonder’s version plays like an upbeat R&B hit, many choral orchestrations take different approaches. Again, this speaks to the standing-the-test-of-time quality of this gorgeous song; this jaunty, swinging SATB arrangement takes a very different approach, yet it’s got personality:

Another version, arranged by Kirby Shaw, uses dramatic-sounding harmonies reminiscent of horn arrangements to drive home the uplifting sentiment; its sound harkens back to the days (and nights) of the Percy Faith and Nelson Riddle Orchestras:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBsz8O061ig

As a songwriter, you know you’ve hit the jackpot when all age groups love and wish to sing your compositions. So, for something completely different: you have to hand it to the Capital Children’s choir for rocking the socks off of their rendition:

No “Choral Crowd Pleaser” article would be complete without taking a look at the lyrics and discussing how they help listeners feel. Interestingly, this concise and consummate love song only mentions the word “love” twice. That is quite unusual, especially since the lyrics reveal such firm declarations of caring, strength and leaps of faith. In my opinion, love comes in many forms: romantic (in Latin, eros or pragma), filial (philia),  and friend to friend (agape). The uniquely wonderful quality about this song is that you could sing it to anyone in your life that you love – and no doubt you should!

RATINGS

We sum up our articles with ratings on a scale of 1 to 10 (by Jaime) of different crowd-pleasing characteristics of the compositions that are the subject of our articles.  We hope these summaries will serve as a handy guide to evaluating the compositions for performance in your choir programs.  Here is the summary for “For Once In My Life:”

  • Quality: 10
  • Recognition: 8
  • Audience Appeal: 10
  • Catchiness: 8
  • Fun-ness: 8
  • Choral arrangement : 9
  • Range for singability: 10
  • Positive emotional effect/listeners: 10
  • Physical effect/listeners (clap/tap): 10
  • Audience sing-along potential: 7
  • Crowd-pleaser rating: 10
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