“For once, unafraid, I can go where life leads me…”
The 1983 LP Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars was a novel idea; an album of unreleased Motown covers by other Motown artists. The vault tracks dated back to the 1960s, with recordings like “Shop Around” by the Spinners and “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” by Jimmy Ruffin. In the early 80s, before the advent of CD reissues and remastered “lost and found” collections, getting an LP like this was a huge deal for fans, giving added validity to the idea that the Motown vaults were full of hidden treasures; the album cover even trumpeted the collection as “…gems from the Motown vaults.” And of course, 1983 was a big year for the record label anyway; the television special “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” garnered huge ratings and publicity for the artists celebrating Motown’s 25th anniversary, and renewing interest in the classic music produced out of Detroit.
Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars wouldn’t have been complete, of course, without an appearance by Motown’s Queen (just as the television special wasn’t…for better or worse), and she shows up here with a version of the oft-recorded standard “For Once In My Life.” Though the most famous version of the song remains Stevie Wonder’s 1968 single release (which hit #2 on the pop charts), the Ron Miller/Orlando Murden composition had already been sung by artists like Barbara McNair, Tony Bennett, and The Temptations. That group’s Paul Williams performed an impassioned version of the song on the TV Special “TCB” with the Supremes, an early link between the song and Miss Ross. Wonder also performed the song on the 1969 episode of “The Hollywood Palace” hosted by Diana and the Supremes; she sings a bit with him, although it’s really only a few lines on the back-end of the song.
Diana’s version here was produced by Hal Davis, the man who’d given her the 1976 smash “Love Hangover” and had recorded some other disco cuts on her that remained unreleased for decades. Rumors of a full disco album (writer J. Randy Taraborrelli mentions a planned LP called Feelin’ Fun) swirled around for awhile, but never happened; Diana mentions recording dance tracks during a 1977 Rolling Stone Magazine interview during which she was working on Baby It’s Me. This version of “For Once In My Life” was probably meant for that planned album, because Davis gives it the full-on disco treatment; the popping bass, breathy moans, and choir of background voices all could have come from the same session as “Love Hangover.” For fans yearning for a classic-Diana, torchy reading of the song…well…this is not it.
Opening with two plaintive, breathy moans from Diana — something, again, she’d perfected on “Love Hangover” — Davis immediately sets the mood with the dense and busy bassline (lifted high in the mix — almost equal to the vocal) and the wind instruments, which give the song a “70s-lounge” vibe (even the album liner notes point to this). Miss Ross handles the first verse extremely well, her voice sexy and husky but with a youthful spark that marked her work on 1977’s brilliant Baby It’s Me LP. She ups her game a bit beginning around 46 seconds in, with her angsty, multi-note cry of “Yes!” leading into the second verse. Her first reading of the famous “For Once In My Life…I have someone who needs me” is a little shaky, though she nails a nice little vocal run at 2:00 when repeating the refrain. Producer Davis puts the emphasis on the track and beat beginning around 2:50, as the “Turn The Beat Around”-ish bongos take over and the flutes start going wild. This dance break is also reminiscent of the track to the original swing-arrangement of “Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin’” as featured in the film Thank God It’s Friday — which was also, of course, produced by Mr. Davis. This breakdown section sounds awfully dated today, although the popping bass is hard to resist and there’s some nice, muted keyboards woven into the mix. Diana shows back up about a minute later, with a little spoken section that’s kind of silly (she actually spells out the word “need” — really?), but on which she sounds pretty sexy. She then riffs a bit, singing bits and pieces of the song, sounding loose and comfortable in front of the mic, if not pushing herself too hard. By the time the song fades out at around five-minute mark, the entire thing feels a little campy, but is also extremely likeable and memorable, with Diana Ross once again emerging as the wise, mature club diva that she created with “Love Hangover” and would soon re-create as a born-again love devotee with “The Boss.”
“For Once In My Life” may not be a classic, top-notch Diana recording, but it’s a nice addition to Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars, as it illustrates the fact that many, many Motown songs were recycled repeatedly and experimented upon in various ways. Immediately following Diana’s song is a version of “Love Hangover” by recorded by the great Jr. Walker. He turns Diana’s classy club smash into a more rowdy, rough affair, imagining it in a far more funky setting. As with “For Once In My Life,” it doesn’t eclipse the more famous version, but adds a little perspective and history to it, which is all it really needs to do.