B-side of Lifetime Man
(Written by Chester Pipkin and Gary Pipkin)
This one’s got pretty much nothing at all to do with the Beatlemaniac-baiting A-side Lifetime Man, to the point where two sides of the same 45 sound like they were recorded by two completely different artists. Where that one was a slamming pseudo-Merseybeat dance rocker, this one is a slinky, sophisticated soul ballad. It’s quieter, it’s infinitely more poised and composed, it runs something like half as fast as the top side… for want of a better phrase, it all just sounds more grown up.
Oma Heard, here making her first and only Motown solo appearance (though we’ll catch up with her again in a few years under another banner), had come away from the ramshackle A-side with some credit despite its shoddy nature, navigating the web of difficult vocal lines and the carelessly thrown together arrangement to impose something of her own personality. None of that personality manages to survive the flipping of the record; B-side Oma sounds almost nothing like A-side Oma. Instead of gamely giving a brave stab to a difficult dance rocker, here Oma has to up her game to match a more sophisticated song built for a big-voiced diva; she’s playing in a different league, and the competition here is tougher. Put simply, on the A-side I liked her despite the song; on the B-side, the song’s much better, and so she needs to stand out.
Mr Lonely Heart is the more accomplished side of this record, but that’s not to say there aren’t still kinks to be worked out. There’s a somewhat slapdash, slightly unfinished sound to both sides, which – coupled with the vast differences in style and feel between the two – suggests (to me) that these may not have been much above the level of a pair of demos, rough cuts intended to show off Oma’s versatility as an artist (and perhaps to throw her hat into the ring for the coveted job of Marvin Gaye’s new duet partner? Certainly she auditioned for that role further down the line.) Whatever the story, this side is much the more intriguing and promising, and if it still doesn’t quite get everything right, it’s not for want of trying.
It’s a song about lacking confidence. Oma’s narrator is pining for some feckless boy (“with a string of girls”) who doesn’t seem to care – or realise – how she feels, and she’s not ready to let him know just yet. She’s scared about what would happen if he were to find out – not just how he’d react, but what might be if his reaction is favourable (he’s painted as some sort of flirtatious ne’er-do-well). As a result, this song sees her pleading with her own heart – the “Mister Lonely Heart” of the title – to help keep her secret under wraps.
This is an incredibly frustrating little record, in a way. Everything about it is within touching distance of true greatness, but can’t quite – quite – get its fingertips to it. When a huge, towering intro sees delicate vibes supplanted by great slabs of organ and bass, and Oma strikes up with a deep, velvety delivery, it’s a wonderful surprise – what is this? A completely unheralded contender for a ten, perhaps? It sounds remarkable. Plus, there are plenty of charming touches to go along with the moody descending four-bar bassline the whole thing’s built on; when Oma throws in a couple of extra syllables, for instance:
I remember when he asked i-if he could walk-a me home
I cried –
“I’d better make it alone”
…and yeah, that’s me pretty much won over. Brilliant.
And yet it’s still really scruffy, almost as much as the A-side in its way. Syllables get stretched out in awkward ways. Line breaks keep cropping up mid-sentence, something which starts out adorable but ends up sounding unfinished as it goes on. The simpering middle eight, which seems to back away from the mature stylings of the rest of the song to go for a bland white MOR pop progression instead, is a real disappointment (No, mister heart, I just can’t show / How much I love that gu-uy so). These are all minor niggles, but taken together they sand off some of the aura of sophisticated cool, which is unfortunate because this record does rather put a lot of its eggs in that basket, sound-wise rather than lyrics-wise (the narrator being anything but cool). Oma is trying to convince us – she’s going for a very different image than on the A-side, and probably a very different audience – and she wants us to think she does this all the time. It has us fooled for a while, but she can’t quite pass for a seasoned soul diva.
The best illustration of this is when the whole thing comes within a hair’s breadth of breaking down altogether at 1:27, when all the instruments drop away and the backing singers are left stabbing out staccato semi-syllables as individual lines, scythed apart by clomping great caesuras that feel several seconds long –
Help me play it cool
And maybe in time
It sounds amateurish and ad-libbed, almost accidental, and it’s badly jarring, pulling the listener out of the slinky, smoke-filled cool and into a harshly-lit studio – the last thing the record needs. Oma, too, starts to lose it after this bit, giving it the full Liz Lands as she delivers a series of uncalled for and uncontrolled operatic whoops and hollers all over the end of the record. It’s never bad or anything, but if this was a Hitsville recording, and if Kim Weston or Mary Wells or Martha Reeves were due at the mic, you can’t imagine the likes of Mickey Stevenson or Smokey Robinson letting this sort of thing fly without asking for a re-take.
Sadly for Oma Heard, this is an LA cut, and she’d never really get the chance to do that re-take. Legal problems prevented her from cutting any more singles, and of course she wouldn’t end up getting that Marvin Gaye gig. Her reputation has to stand and fall on the two sides of one 45; this side shows a great deal of promise and the kernel of an exceptionally fine song, but not much more.
It’s still very good, and it’s still definitely, definitely worth seeking out, but ultimately, it’s not as good as it could and perhaps should have been.
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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