B-side of Hang On Bill
(Written by Chester Pipkin and Gary Pipkin)
And just like that, the Motown career of “Little” Lisa Miller is over, as quickly as it had begun. Motown had had success with one pre-teen star in Stevie Wonder, and would go on to success with another in Michael Jackson, but the road between the two is littered with casualties signed in haste, as Berry Gordy – tired and wary after the Stevie experience – had little enthusiasm to work with any more youngsters. Lisa was the youngest of them, just eight years old when this was cut, and after her one and only Motown single flopped, the label had no patience and no need to invest in a second release.
It’s kind of a pity, as while I’m no great fan of kiddie novelty fare, on the evidence of the Cellarful of Motown series – and indeed on the evidence of the A-side, Hang On Bill, a reasonably good cover of a terrible song – Lisa had already shown she had something about her beyond that snap categorisation. Her vocal on Hang On Bill didn’t sound like the work of an 8-year-old girl, having more in common with the self-consciously cutesy likes of the Murmaids or indeed Motown’s own Joanne and the Triangles, and despite Motown’s selection of material with titles designed to evoke that very air of kiddie novelty naffness I usually run from – Choo Choo Train, Honey Boy, Puppet On A String – the actual records never really played up to this angle, and her output dealt with some surprisingly mature themes.
(Shades of Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son, an unexpected second mention in a week for France Gall here on Motown Junkies. But I digress.)
Puppet On A String is cut from the same cloth, interesting lyrics concerning an unexpectedly frank dissection of an adult romance (I’m not your puppet on a string, Lisa chants, as she tells some would-be playground Casanova she won’t fall for him like he expects), and set to a not wholly inaccurate pastiche of the big hit 4/4 Motown sound (and particularly the Supremes circa the Where Did Our Love Go album) that’s all the more interesting for having been written and performed by Californian outsiders.
It’s a shame, though, that this ends up being by some distance the youngest-sounding of Lisa’s Motown vocals that I’ve heard; she not only sounds considerably younger than the A-side, she sounds even younger than she really was, meaning that what we end up with here is effectively a Supremes pastiche as sung by a first-grader. The uncomfortable overtones which previously reared their heads during the gawkier moments of “Little” Stevie Wonder, the sense of a precocious young vocalist being exploited by their adult colleagues, the expectation we’ll find their lyrical dress-up games cute because they’re too young to fully understand what they’re singing, à la “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool” (no, I’m not linking to that!), are hard to overcome.
Unlike the A-side, where I got the feeling everyone involved was making a bad song as good as they could get it, here the overriding feeling is that the performance isn’t up to the material. And the material itself isn’t classic by any means; if it was a Supremes song, it’d be something that turned up as a long-forgotten demo, a bonus track on some obscure import box set.
And that was that as far as Lisa and Motown were concerned; her mother and aunt (Kay and Helen Lewis) remained with the company as an important writing team, but Lisa’s Hitsville career was over. She later endeared herself to Northern Soul fans with the offbeat Loneliest Christmas Tree, still a controversial staple of Yuletide all-nighters, and she had a brief brush with the big time when (as “Leza Miller”) she provided a guest vocal with Joe Pizzulo for Sergio Mendes’ Never Gonna Let You Go, a Top Five hit in 1983.
But for Motown fans, she’ll always be remembered as a failed attempt at replacing Stevie Wonder as the company’s resident child star. This is a bad record, but even on this evidence, she deserved a better fate than that.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“Hang On Bill”
“You Can Cry On My Shoulder”