For the longest time, I thought “Oh Sheila” was a Prince song. It wasn’t until sometime in the mid-‘90s that I discovered that it was actually by a group called Ready for the World, an ensemble that consisted of multiple people who emphatically weren’t Mr. Unpronounceable Symbol. Regardless of who actually made it, I always loved the song to death. Even when I forsook R&B and rap in the late ‘90s to delve into the rock genre, I would get unreasonably excited whenever this song aired on the “old school oldies” radio station my mom liked to tune to in the car.
Ready for the World was one of a slew of workmanlike yet indistinguishable mid-level R&B hitmakers that swarmed American radio in the mid-1980s. The six-piece from Flint, Michigan notched several hits on the Billboard R&B Charts, but I dare you to even name a single band member. There of the band’s singles reached the Billboard Top 40: the aforementioned 1985 number one hit “Oh Sheila”, the oddly Mute Records-esque follow-up single “Digital Display”, and the 1986 slow jam “Love You Down”. But only “Oh Sheila” has the infectious energy and unstoppable hooks to warrant repeated listens. And you can bet like hell I’ve listened to this song constantly ever since finally I bought it on iTunes a few months back.
Despite its jilted suitor lyrics, “Oh Sheila” is positively upbeat. There’s no denying the influence of the Purple One on this record, but it’s so well-executed he should’ve written it. Everything is “bright”, from the reverbed drums to the synths that conjure images of a velvet-draped heaven. The whole production glistens like a Jheri curl. While singer Melvin Riley does not have the inflection adventurousness of his obvious inspiration Prince, his smooth, fey vocals slide right into the music in a very pleasing manner. He does manage to slip in a very bad faux British accent in the intro and in one of the verses, but it’s momentary. In fact, it comes off as awkwardly endearing.
I find every facet of this song insanely catchy. The killer drumbeat that cracks like fireworks, laying out the groove before any other instrument joins and driving everything like clockwork after they drop in. The slap bass guitar that slides up and down the neck with what seems like the greatest of ease. The scratchy funk guitar that comes in at exactly the right moments. The syncopated toms that come in briefly near the end (not present in the video version). The little synth solo that reappears as an outro melody (also not fully present in the video). And I just love the third verse and chorus, where Riley throws in some orgasmically gratuitous “Uhs” (punctuated in the music video by freeze-frame pelvic thrusts). Even the various instrumental fills are worthy of recognition, particularly the ascending quarter-note bassline that links the song sections. Nonetheless, the definitive hook of the single is the chorus. The way Riley coos the word “Oh” while the group follows up with a collective “Oh Sheila” is so infectious, one could write an entire song just around that. And that’s pretty much what the group did.
“Oh Shelia” does like to play up its main hooks almost to a fault. As a result the song is pretty samey. However, this does mean you could be flipping radio stations when you happen upon the song and be able to get right into it because, hey, the verse isn’t all that different from the chorus. Wait long enough and you’ll be right back at “Oh (oh Sheila) / Let me love you ‘til the morning comes”. Or you could just sing the lines over any part of the song and it would work.
And really, why should its repetitive nature be a hindrance? Listening to this song is like learning a really good guitar riff; once you become acquainted with it, you’ll play it over and over again for half an hour straight.
And I for one can’t stop listening to it. In all seriousness, I want this song played at my funeral. It’ll get some miserable folks dancing.