For Once in my Life - Stevie Wonder
As a self-confessed Motown addict ever since I was eleven, people often ask me what is Motown and what's so special about it. They also are surprised that I can immediately identify a Motown track even if I have never heard it before. So definition: for me true Motown are the records released on various labels by the Motown Corporation between and including the years of 1960 and 1972, that is before the company moved to Los Angeles from Detroit. The whole ethos of the label, the production teams, the lyricists, the singers and above all the musicians, fondly known as the Funk Brothers, all came together, along with the supreme judgement and foresight of MD and company founder Berry Gordy, to produce the distinct sound of Motown.
Because the Funk Brothers were mainly jazz musicians, playing most nights in Detroit clubs, they had their own particular approach to pop songs and you can hear their jazz influences on this supremely funky groove. Perhaps the best example of their distinctive sound was bassist Jamie Jamerson who played on most of the great Motown hits of the sixties.
Many years ago I heard the late great Jack Bruce, bassist with seminal Brit blues / rock outfit Cream, on Desert Island Discs and this track was one of his choices. He said that when this came out, all the bassists had to wipe the backboard clean and start learning to play bass all over again.
So, presumably you have by now already listened to the track; now listen to it again, but this time listen only to the bass line, and you'll see what Jack means. It never repeats itself once throughout the whole song, arpeggioing like you've never heard before, setting the rhythm of the song purely through the timing of his improvisation. Which is why James Jamerson is the best bass player that ever was and why it's his picture at the top of this entry and not Stevie Wonder's.
And typically, this track, with its deep funky groove, its jazzy piano and the ever so soulful vocal from the maturing Stevie, is simultaneously groundbreaking yet completely identifiably Motown.