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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Who Did It Better? Heart (Stop Beating In Time)

Who Did It Better?
Heart (Stop Beating In Time)

During the recording of any given album, numerous songs are recorded only to be rejected as part of the final product. Not a bad thing, for in some cases, one recording artist's leftovers become potential hits for others. Such is the case with today's Who Did It Better? entry. 

In 1981, the Bee Gees were at a bit of a crossroads; the disco they'd created in order to add another chapter to their storied career had fallen out of favor. So, as they sculpted their new album (1981's Living Eyes) they found themselves trying on and discarding various musical hats. 

One of those hats, a lovely song written by Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb, titled Heart (Stop Beating In Time) was tossed aside, as it didn't quite fit the new sound they were looking for. Barry Gibb had even gone so far as to record a demo, but it simply wasn't meant to be. 

Released in October, 1981, Living Eyes, the group's 16th album, would be met quite coolly by a public who formerly couldn't get enough of the brothers Gibb. Instead of racing to the top of the US charts, as did their previous three singles, its lead single, the title track, barely limped its way to #30. It would mark the end of their second period of dominance of the charts. 
Meanwhile, Leo Sayer was coming off the heels of a bit success; his 1980 album, Living In A Fantasy had spun off two surprise Top 40 hits in the US; the title track (#23) and More Than I Can Say (#2). In the process of collecting songs for his ninth album, World Radio, Heart (Stop Beating In Time) fell into his lap. Produced by Arif Mardin (Chaka Kahn, the Bee Gees, Bette Midler) and released as part of the album on May 14, 1982, the song served as the album's second single, hitting #22 in the UK, #17 in Ireland and # 15 in Zimbabwe. 

In 1983, Marilyn McCoo (5th Dimension) had succeeded Dionne Warwick as host of the syndicated pop music countdown / dance extravaganza, Solid Gold. RCA, sensing an opportunity, stepped in and recorded a one-off with McCoo in order to capitalize on the show's popularity. Produced by composer David Wolfert (Cher, Melissa Manchester, Dusty Springfield) and released in 1983, it was composed of cover versions of the shows most popular songs along with a cover of the show's theme song. In addition, it contained two originals. The first, I Believe In You And Me, was a duet with husband and musical partner, Billy Davis, Jr. and the second, a cover of Heart (Stop Beating In Time.) Both were released as singles, but  - despite many televised promotional performances on various programs (including Solid Gold) - failed to chart. I Believe In You And Me (written by Sandy Linzer and David Wolfert) would go on to become part of the soundtrack for 1996's The Preacher's Wife and a big hit (#4) for Whitney Houston.
Singer Stevie Woods had enjoyed a pair of Top 40 successes in 1981 - Steal The Night (#23) and You Can't Win 'Em All (#38) - on Cotillion Records. His third album, 1983's Attitude would contain his version of Heart (Stop Beating In Time). Produced by Robbie Buchanan (Bette Midler, Laura Brannigan, Barbra Streisand) and released as a single, it failed to return him to the Top 40, pretty much ending his career as a pop star. But, no worries; in 1991, Woods would relaunch his career in Germany, enjoying great success, starring in the Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express.  
And that's the whole story.

Now? On to the competition!

The Song: Heart (Stop Beating In Time)

The Competitors: Sayer vs. McCoo vs. Woods

Heart (Stop Beating In Time) - Leo Sayer

Heart (Stop Beating In Time) - Marilyn McCoo

Heart (Stop Beating In Time) - Stevie Woods

Leo Sayer

Arif Mardin was always a great fit for Leo Sayer's sound. And here, he brings the same lusciousness that he brought to many of the Bee Gees mid to late 70's hits. 

Love that deep beat intro with the squirrelly synth tooling on top. Interesting key for Sayer, as it plays right at the break between his natural tenor and lovely falsetto. It creates a number of colorful flits at the end of phrases, adding an almost birdlike quality. The man can pop notes up into his head voice with such ease. 

I can see why this was released as a single. It's a lovely song; great lyrics, rich melody, built with a solid, if ponderous, drive. I have zero issues with the production work throughout; both artist and producer are firmly on the same page. The backing vocals enhance without impeding, and those strings (always a hallmark of any Mardin effort) float in and out effortlessly, creating a marvelous pillow for the song to ride upon. 

The failure of this song to catch on stateside is a testament to exactly how out of favor anything associated with the Bee Gees had become by 1981. I dare say, that had the group itself recorded and released this version it would have succeeded in the UK, but still fell upon deaf ears in the US. A pity, as I think it's a lovely composition. 

Throughout, Sayer is firing on all cylinders, bringing a marvelous ache to the proceedings. That bridge is a shining moment for all involved; a great bit of dramatic build. And as Sayer stretches out on the playout, he begins, as usual, to overreach himself a bit, but it's forgivable. Do you hear that tiny, popped 'ohhhh' right near the fade? An incredible sound that I wish he'd employed earlier in the piece - it could have become a signature moment, but, all good. 

A truly lovely bit of pop. 

Marilyn McCoo

Wolfert, who no doubt was chosen as the producer by default, is primarily known as a composer, but one who occasionally dabbled as a producer. He seems an odd choice, given that he supplies only one song (I Believe In You And Me) to an album composed primarily of established hits done by others (I'll Tumble 4 Ya, On On One, Every Breath You Take.) It would seem to indicate that this is nothing more than a rush-to-market effort.

The intro forgoes the lush sounds of Sayer's version, aiming instead for something more muscular and modern. Those funny accent synths play well opposite the rooted pseudo-funk being laid down by the rhythm section.

McCoo enters the mix with a nice solid sound. She can come on like latex paint, coating everything with such a polished veneer, but here, she's held in check a bit, though she's already hinting at the professional over-singing that's to come. There's something off about the tempo - it doesn't vibe with McCoo's delivery. "Go with the motion," serves as an example of McCoo failing to dig into the song. Hers is a very professional read, but not a very personal one; it's as if a lifetime of avoiding being truly sexy (she's always been a beauty) has left her a bit of a robot. She lands those first two notes of the bridge with a flat thud. No fire. Those backing vocals are rather rote and, rhythmically, rob the song of it's bite. 

McCoo is a vocalist from a different era. Her concentration appears to be on connecting one note to another in as smooth a fashion as possible. That's lovely and a gift, but it does not great modern pop make. The reason modern vocalists commit all sorts of phrasing gaffes is in order to create texture and bring a rhythmic element to a given melody. This seems to escape both McCoo and Wolfert. Therefore, the drive that one senses in Sayer's version is wholly lacking (so far) in McCoo's take on the song. 

That said, McCoo has a strong, lovely voice, exhibiting brilliant breath control throughout. I just wish she'd play more with the back beat. Listen to how she tortures "in the midnight hour," wrestling it into her very constrained musical exactness. The lady needs to let her hair down! 

Oh, dear. That instrumental bridge... they've jettisoned some of the lyrics in favor of a blatting, dull synthesizer and some strings. When McCoo reenters the mix, she turns up the temp just a bit, but it's very straightforward and doesn't have the dramatic impact of Sayer's interpretation. I must say, they did not spend a lot of time playing with the dynamics inherent in this song; studio time must have been at a premium, or McCoo just couldn't be bothered. Again, she has an incredible gift and, if pushed in the right direction, could have done a much more interesting job of this. 

What the hell was she thinking when she sang 'mis-ERY?' A truly awful moment. 

I keep waiting for her to start playing between the beats, but nope... very didactic - on the beat, every damn single syllable. 

Aww. A missed opportunity. Not that the production does her any favors, but it would have been nice if she'd foregone delivering what was expected and actually brought a bit of interpretation to the song - you know, a bit of herself. 

Stevie Woods

Buchanan, who spent a couple of years working closely with Laura Brannigan, actually first rose to fame when he played piano on Bette Midler's original version of The Rose. An accomplished keyboardist and session musician, he's actually a good, if uninspired, choice for Woods, who is also a keyboardist.

The intro subdues the beat in favor of heavy, icy synth. Those drums sound slight, like cardboard. Something tells me not a lot of money was invested in Woods' third (and final) shot at the brass ring. Still, this is likable and more interesting than McCoo's straightforward approach. Woods, who came up through the ranks of the world of jazz, immediately finds the syncopation to be found in that lovely melody - and, like Sayer, ends that opening stanza showing off his lovely falsetto. 

Not a lot of bottom to this production, but then, this hasn't been remastered, so that lack of depth is more due to the era in which it was recorded. Lovely head voice on display as we enter the bridge to the chorus. He's got great chops - not remarkable, by any degree, but pleasant - the sort of ineffectual, non-threatening R&B sound which permeated an era of jhiri-curled politeness: sadly, you could be black, but not 'too' black. 

The production harks back to the late 70's. It reminds me of pop songs like Robert John's Sad Eyes and Kenny Nolan's I Like Dreamin'

The chorus is nice. Those backing vocals fit like a glove with Woods ruling the day. That's a nice, solid synth bed the chorus is riding on. It allows the vocals to do all the driving. Woods only falters on the final "love like yours." It's a bit flat. He needed to pop the sound through his eyes, instead of coasting.

I was hoping he would dig in and get a bit grittier with the second verse. Instead, he plays on top of the melody, working in some very subtle rhythmic flavors. A bit sly ("woo-man.") You know, there is something very Johnny Mathis about his delivery. It makes this influence known during the second verse - the way he pulls back on the reins of a note. Interesting. (And wouldn't it have been interesting to hear Mathis and duet partner Denise William take this one on?)

Huh, he goes sort of Kenny Rogers with that C section. Still not digging in or hitting the sonic heights of Sayer's version. And the arrangement doesn't help matters. That space laser synth? Ick. So dated. Woods also fails to lean into the inherent drama. 

He finally brings some grit to the proceedings on the play out. I could do without that thin guitar solo, though. 

Overall, Woods acquits himself quite nicely with this one. Very pleasant. It makes me want to hear all three of his albums (all reissued on Wounded Bird Records), for he has a very nice pop sensibility. 

The Verdict:

This one falls pretty much as I expected.

Sayer, by a landslide. He's such an accomplished, gifted vocalist and in the hands of a producer like Arif Mardin, who worked so closely with the song's authors, they skillfully shine this one up like an incredibly, tempting apple

McCoo's version was a bit of a disappointment, but I don't think she was coached to deliver anything other than her typical performance. The arrangement and production work certainly didn't ask anything of her. 

Woods is a pleasant surprise. A bit tame, but very likable. Anytime someone demonstrates a bit of pop smarts? I'm all in. 

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And that's enough of me. Okay, your turn! Let me know what you think.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

That's all for now.

Until next time...

Thanks for reading... and listening!

Heart Stop Beating In Time - Leo Sayer

Heart (Stop Beating In Time) - Marilynn McCoo

Heart (Stop Beating In Time) - Barry Gibb
(unreleased demo)

Steal The Night - Stevie Woods (#25)

Just Can't Win 'Em All - Stevie Woods (#38)


Mistress Maddie said...

I wasn't familiar with the song, but I think I agree with you, I enjoyed the first also. I thought for sure I'd enjoy MaCoo's the best but didn't.

Jimmy said...

I prefer McCoo! I always loved her clean mellow voice.

whkattk said...

There's something about McCoo's vocal tones that I prefer. ....shrug....

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Well, hello there, Stevie Woods. What a beautiful man!
And yes, it's Leo Sayer's song. I think I've heard it before. Some FM station.
I think McCoo had a great voice and was very pretty. I wonder why she wasn't bigger..