The sad passing of disco diva Loleatta Holloway this week attracted an appropriate number of tributes from people who had always respected her work, with the universally expressed view being that it was a shame she never quite became as famous as her impressive vocal talents deserved.
Inevitably many references were made to her most high profile vocal performance, that which featured on the Black Box single ‘Ride On Time’, a global smash hit from 1989 (it spent six weeks at Number One on these shores) and which was essentially created from chopped up samples from her 1980 single ‘Love Sensation’. That original record was itself by and large ignored upon release, save for a brief flurry of popularity in American gay clubs at the time, but it remained a staple of many DJs from the period, people who ended the 1980s as dance producers in their own right. Full Force were the first people to borrow part of the track, incorporating it into the single ‘I Wanna Have Some Fun’ that they made for Samantha Fox in 1988, but it was its subsequent use by Black Box which elevated it to the status of a lost classic.
Yet what most people probably don’t realise is that the vocals they hear on their copies of ‘Ride On Time’ don’t belong to Holloway at all and indeed only ever briefly did.
The Italia house classic was created by DJ Daniele Davoli along with collaborators Mirko Limoni and Valerio Simplici. Davoli claims to have created the concept of the driving piano rhythm by accompanying the tracks he played as a club DJ on a keyboard with a sampler attached. One of the samples he used was a small acapella snatch of of ‘Love Sensation’, prompting Limoni to suggest he brought the full track into the studio to create a record of his own around it,
Snapped up by DeConstruction records for UK release, ‘Ride On Time’ was a classic example of a post-summer club hit. Released in mid August to coincide with the arrival back in Britain of holidaymakers keen to buy the sounds they had been dancing to abroad, the single entered the charts at Number 28 in the week of August 12th 1989. A fortnight later it was a Top 3 single and on September 9th eased its way to Number One.
The only person who wasn’t happy was Loleatta Holloway. “I’ve been around for years trying to get this one hit record”, she stated in an interview later, “It annoyed me knowing that Black Box were Number One [all over Europe] and I was not getting any credit for it.” Adding insult to injury was the fact that for TV and promotional performances of the track Davoli had drafted in his ex-girlfriend Katrin Quinol to mime the vocals, this despite being unable to speak a word of English herself. Holloway threatened legal action and Black Box’s label were confronted with the very real possibility of their hit single being injuncted and its distribution being halted unless they paid out an expensive settlement or took remedial action.
To sidestep the problem they did something that was more or less unique and switched horses midstream. To much puzzlement retailers were told that no more copies of the existing version of ‘Ride On Time’ would be pressed. Instead from the second week of September they were offered stocks of the ‘Ride On Time Remix EP’, a 12-inch single that would still count for the same chart run as the original. To call it a remix was actually something of a sham. This new version (eventually given the official title of “Massive Mix”) featured an entirely new female vocal with another uncredited singer doing her best Loleatta Holloway impression – falling slightly short in the process.
The singer in question was none other than Heather Small, the future star of M People but at the time just another jobbing session performer trying to make it big. A few years ago I asked her about this odd open secret that she was the uncredited voice on the “new’ Ride On Time and she confessed that it only ever seemed to be people close to the music business that ever asked her about it. At the time she had no idea what the purpose of the session was, she was simply booked to spend an hour or so recording the vocal lines needed to recreate Ride On Time from scratch, was paid a flat fee and thought no more of it. Next thing she knew, her voice was on the Number One record of the moment.
Maybe I only noticed because I saw it pointed out, but when you hear the two side by side the differences between the track are obvious. Small was clearly doing her level best to recreate the exact phrasing of the original but she never quite pulls it off. Whereas Holloway sings “hot temptation” raw from the back of her throat, Small growls it from her diaphragm and when it comes to the preceding “You’re Such A..” line she cannot help but sing it in her native Manchester accent, meaning it comes over as “You’re Sooch Uh”. If you are paying close enough attention it is almost comically bad. The new version can be heard below:
The change of singers went subtly unmentioned at the time. When the “remixed” version of the track was hastily flung out during the single’s third week at Number One, it sat on the shelves alongside the original and speculation was that many existing purchasers snapped up a second copy, presuming that the disc contained a different edit of the track. By the following week Alan Jones noted in Record Mirror that three quarters of its sales were of the replacement version as copies of the original became scarce. Most radio stations, Radio One included, continued to play their original promo copies meaning that the version played on the Sunday afternoon chart show was by the end of its run a totally different one to that available in the shops.
Ride On Time wound up as the biggest seller of 1989 and is ranked today as the 20th biggest selling single of the 1980s, Yet despite settlement being agreed with Loleatta Holloway over the use of her vocals (she bought a fur coat with the proceeds we are told) it is the Heather Small starring “Massive Mix” of the track that has become by and large the default version of the track. Certainly it was the Massive Mix that found its way onto the subsequent Black Box album ‘Dreamland’ issued in May 1990 (although see note below). I own three copies of ‘Ride On Time’ in my own collection, all from compilation albums released at different times. My copy of “Hits Monster” from December 1989 features the Massive Mix, and it is even listed as such on the sleeve. On the 1994 compilation “Ultimate Party” there is no reference on the inlay which version is featured, yet it is once again the Heather Small vocal, yet on “Fantastic 80s 3” released in 1998 the Holloway vocals are present and correct.
It seems almost to be pot luck which master you get when you licence the track for release, leading inevitably to consumer confusion elsewhere. Of the handful of different versions you can pick up via the iTunes store today, you can cherrypick it from the still available “Dreamland” (Small vocals), pick it up as part of the 2009 UMTV release “Floorfillers – 90s Club Classics” (ditto) or buy it as part of “Now Dance Anthems” also from 2009 whereupon you will be treated to the proper Holloway-sung version.
So in a sense it is a shame that Loleatta Holloway is being remembered mostly for her vocals on a track which doesn’t actually feature them on most of the copies that were sold, and indeed many that still are today. Far better perhaps to note that one of her other famous performances, and yet again one which went largely unnoticed by the mainstream at the time, was to originate the female vocal line on a disco classic which would go on to become one of the more famous and best loved singles by Take That first time around. Take it away Loleatta. May you always be strong enough to walk on through the night…
(Fast forward to 8:08 into the video…)
NOTE: There has been a great deal of traffic to this post recently thanks to a thread on the Popjustice forums on a similar subject. One point that has been corrected therein is the version of ‘Ride On Time’ which appears on the ‘Dreamland’ album, several people having pointed out that contrary to what I stated originally, it is the Holloway version which is featured. I can only hold my hands up and confess that I originally came to the conclusion thanks to a sampling of the preview available on iTunes rather than having access to an original copy of the album. It would presumably be an interesting exercise to purchase a copy online and discover just which version of ‘Ride On Time’ is delivered to you as part of the package.
Not that iTunes (or indeed any of the online stores) have a perfect track record in keeping track of what is the correct mix or version of some reworked album tracks. For example try tracking down a copy of the Tori Amos album ‘Boys For Pele’ which features the original version of the track ‘Professional Widow’ rather than the radically remixed Number One hit version. Nigh on impossible believe it or not…