Stevie Wonder turned 18 years old during 1968. Since the age of 12 he had been producing hits and had become one of the most commercially successful artists for the Motown label.
Motown was known for the control of its artists and their output. Wonder, however, was beginning to establish his own identity and take control of his career. His contract with the label was coming to an end and Motown desperately wanted to sign him to a new one and so began giving him leeway in the producing and recording of his albums.
Wonder co-wrote or wrote eight of the 12 tracks on For Once In My Life, plus took production credit for the first time. Possibly more important was his initial use of a clavinet. This instrument quickly became a centerpiece of his music and would mark the beginning of his development as a noted keyboardist.
It was one of the four compositions credited to other songwriters that became the album’s title track and biggest hit. Ron Miller and Orlando Murden wrote “For Once In My Life” for the label and not specifically for Wonder. His version, however, would become the definitive one. Artists such as The Temptations and Tony Bennett would record the song in a ballad style. Wonder would change it into an exuberant, up-tempo, and soulful classic. It reached number two on the Billboard Magazine Pop Singles chart and number one of the Rhythm and Blues chart.
“I Don’t Know Why” marked the recording debut of Wonder on the clavinet. It is interesting to compare these first instrumental forays against the sophistication and increasingly complex sounds of what would shortly appear of his albums.
His own “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” was a smooth mid-tempo song that looked ahead to the material of such albums as Songs In The Key Of Life. It was a Top Ten pop hit and another rhythm and blues chart topper.
A track that sometimes flies under the Wonder radar is the funky “You Met Your Match.” He co-wrote the tune and it showed that he was on the road to the rhythms he would use on his classic 1970s albums.
There is little filler on the album. The only two tracks that fall into the neutral range are covers of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” and Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child.” While they were not bad interpretations, they were not songs that fit his style and both will always be associated with their originators.
For Once In My Life finds a maturing Stevie Wonder progressing musically and stylistically toward becoming one of the unique stars of American music. While this album pales a bit today because of what would soon follow, it remains a nice slice of late 1960s soul.