And now, another one of those unbridgeable cultural gaps between the past and present. For readers of a certain age, the summer of 1965 will always be the summer of Motown, the time when the charts, the magazines, the radio and the shops were full of Hitsville’s latest and greatest creations. And yet here on Motown Junkies, we can see that the records Motown actually released at the height of the summer were, well… not great.
Up until downloads completely reconfigured the singles market forever, from the late ’80s onwards most of a single’s public life span happened before it was actually released; weeks, if not months, of radio and video play leading up to the big day, the CD shooting into the charts in the week of release at its highest position, followed by a gradual (or not-so-gradual) falling away – by which time a clued-up and savvy record label should already have been pushing the follow-up. By contrast, while Motown Junkies is sorted by release date, most of these records were released first and then took weeks, if not months, to climb the charts, slowly spreading across radio as sales picked up nationwide. So, the real sounds of America in August 1965 have already long since been covered here; now that we’ve reached August on the release schedules, what we’ve actually got is one of the quietest spells for quality new records in Motown’s recent history. On which note: let’s welcome Little Lisa to the Hitsville fold!
Lisa Miller was the eight-year-old daughter of Kay Lewis, one of the Lewis Sisters – the “Singing School Teachers” – who’d recently signed to Motown’s West Coast office as artists and writers. Lisa had been awarded a Motown recording contract in her own right, so the story goes, after getting up to sing an impromptu guide vocal (standing on a box!) and blowing away the producers, who recommended her to the top brass.
This wasn’t nepotism, though – the sisters weren’t big enough to have anywhere near that kind of pull, and Lisa was signed on merit, Motown boss Berry Gordy (who was impressed enough to actually produce this single, in one of his rare 1965 visits to the coalface of studio work) perhaps hoping to score a hit by signing up the next Little Stevie Wonder, now that the current Stevie Wonder was getting too old for the role. (It’s tempting to ask if Gordy was ever tempted to rechristen her “Little Lisa Wonder” before settling on plain “Little Lisa”.)
She wasn’t awful, either, as kiddie novelty acts go; alright, that’s not a particularly competitive category, but as the A Cellarful of Motown series shows, she had talent, her renditions of the Supremes’ Honey Boy and the yearning, wistful Choo Choo Train coming out both likeable and entirely listenable.
Sadly, her Motown recording career was killed off before it even had a chance to get started, as the song Gordy and his brothers saddled her with for her début 45 was this, a remake of Bob Kayli (aka Robert Gordy)’s naff 1962 “comedy” flop Hold On Pearl, with the lyrics modified to be more suitable for an 8-year-old girl to sing.
It’s better than the original, that’s the first thing to note. Even before we get to talking about Lisa’s voice, the backing track is so much more sinuous and slick than the one “Kayli” had been stuck with back in 1962; it fits right in with the rest of Motown’s summer ’65 output, with its 4/4 beat and tight arrangement for tambourine, horns and backing vocals. And the sudden ending – complete with flushing-toilet sound effect – from the original is mercifully gone, here replaced by an extended coda which gives the song a more definitive happy ending.
Lisa, too, gamely gives this her best shot, her high voice almost otherworldly with her weird diction (“Oy have a goy…”) and undeniable technical ability right up there at the top of the stave. The effect is immediately interesting, and if it’s not enough to drag the piss-poor material up to actually being good, the faults of this – surprisingly – aren’t by-products of its having a kiddie narrator.
She sounds quite a lot older than eight; without any background knowledge, I might have pegged her as a girl in her mid-to-late teens doing a self-consciously cutesy voice in the style of so many Sixties girl groups. At no point does this go for the cutesy novelty angle, never trying to paper over the cracks by playing the “Aww, she’s only eight” card – a slight, daffy song for a grown-up it began, and despite the lyrical modifications (which make no reference whatsoever to Lisa’s young age), a slight, daffy song for a grown-up it largely remains.
The record was a flop, despite some TV promotion work, and no more was heard from Little Lisa at Motown. It’s a pity that there were no more singles, that we don’t get to track her development into a mature artist here on Motown Junkies; this isn’t great, it’s silly and annoying, but there’s enough here to suggest this might have been an interesting story to watch.
Of course, by now, Motown had enough sure things on their books that they didn’t need to pump money into interesting stories. Like I said: a pity.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- Bob Kayli (November 1962)
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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“What Now My Love”
“Puppet On A String”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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