In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“I thought I’d use that sound.” That was Melvin Riley, Jr., lead singer for the Michigan R&B group Ready For The World, talking to the Chicago Tribune in the immediate wake of his band’s first and only #1 hit. Amazingly enough, Riley was not talking about Prince. Instead, he was referring to the gasping fake British accent he used on that song’s intro. At least for the one line about how what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, oh sailor, Riley probably wanted to sound more like Simon Le Bon than like Prince. But “Oh Sheila,” Ready For The World’s big hit, ultimately sounds a lot like Prince. This is not a complaint.
Ready For The World couldn’t escape the Prince influence, and nobody should’ve expected that they would. Ready For The World were an R&B band from the Upper Midwest who emerged in the mid-’80s. What else could they possibly sound like? When Ready For The World came into the world, virtually everybody was trying to sound like Prince, from Phil Collins on down. The sound of Prince was the sound of the zeitgeist. If a group from Flint could score a #1 hit on the pop charts with their own take on that sound, that’s a testament to Prince’s power, but it’s also a tribute to what Ready For The World were able to do for themselves. After all, not every actual Prince single hit #1, even in those days. Prince’s various proteges and imitators often did well for themselves, but almost none of them have #1 hits, either. Ready For The World pulled something off.
Ready For The World came together in the early ’80s, when all of the members of the group were still in high school in Flint. (I can’t find Riley’s birthdate anywhere online, but he was 19 when “Oh Sheila” hit #1, so that would mean he was probably born in 1966.) Riley and guitarist Gordon Strozier put the band together, recruiting members from other groups that were playing the local talent-show circuit at the time. The band put together a demo tape, but no labels were interested. That’s where the Electrifying Mojo enters the picture.
The Electrifying Mojo is one of the great cult heroes of ’80s music. The Arkansas-born Charles Johnson was a late-night radio DJ in Detroit, and he was famous for his cosmic Afro-futurist sensibility and for his all-over-the-place tastes. On his radio show, Mojo would play songs from Kraftwerk and Gary Numan and the B-52s alongside tracks from Michael Jackson or his obvious inspirations in Parliament-Funkadelic. Mojo was an early Prince booster, as well. The young heroes of Detroit techno had their minds blown listening to Mojo, and then Mojo was the first to play early proto-techno records like Cybotron’s “Clear.”
I’d like to believe that Melvin Riley, Jr. decided that he liked the sound of the English accent because he heard it all the time on Mojo’s radio show. But Mojo’s influence on Ready For The World’s career is more concrete than that. When they couldn’t get signed, Ready For The World started their own label and put out their sticky slow-jam “Tonight” as a single. They convinced record stores in Flint to carry the single, and the song became a regional hit when Mojo started playing it. Mojo introduced the band to some managers, too. Eventually, MCA, one of the labels that had previously rejected Ready For The World, was impressed enough to sign the group.
“Tonight,” originally released in 1984, just missed the Billboard Hot 100, but it eventually made it up to #6 on the R&B chart. The follow-up single “Deep Inside Your Love,” another ballad, had exactly the same fate: #6 R&B, no crossover onto the Hot 100. “Oh Sheila” was Ready For The World’s first uptempo single, and it was the first ever to hit the big chart.
At the time, a lot of people probably thought “Oh Sheila” was a Prince song. The beat from “Oh Sheila” sounded at least a little bit like the one that Prince had used on the much-loved 1999 album track “Lady Cab Driver.” Riley’s vocal affectations, his moans and yelps, are extremely Prince-ly. And given that one of Prince’s best-known proteges was a lady named Sheila E., it would’ve been natural for people to assume that the song was about her. (Sheila E.’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “The Glamorous Life,” peaked at #7. It’s a 9. Also, Sheila E. had a starring role in the movie Krush Groove, which opened two weeks after “Oh Sheila” hit #1. This was peak Sheila E. season.)
But “Oh Sheila” wasn’t about Sheila E., and it also wasn’t about the Sheila that Tommy Roe sang about on his own 1962 chart-topper “Sheila.” Riley co-wrote “Oh Sheila” with Gordon Strozier and percussionist Gerald Valentine, and he was adamant that Sheila was just someone he’d made up. The group had thought about naming the song “Oh Lisa” before going with “Sheila.” If they’d gone with the other title, it’s a near certainty that their track would’ve been on at least one episode of The Simpsons and that Screech would’ve sung it on Saved By The Bell.
A big video might’ve helped with the Prince-related confusion, but the “Oh Sheila” video is bare-bones and low-budget. It’s just a clip of the band playing on a soundstage somewhere. I can’t imagine it got a lot of airplay. The video is, however, great. Everyone wears matching white suits. Four of the six members of Ready For The World, including percussionist Valentine, do synchronized dance-steps, which rules. Riley has a young-and-hungry charisma that I really like, and he looks nothing like Prince. If someone had put some more money into the visual presentation, maybe the group would’ve stuck in people’s minds and had a longer run.
As it is, “Oh Sheila” is a perfectly likable piece of ’80s synth-funk. The drums pump mechanically, like pistons. There’s a whole lot of busy slap-bass in the groove, and the synths have a nice glide to them. Riley leans hard into that fake British accent, which is both terrible and fun. (The “oh, sailor,” bit is just ridiculous, and I like it a lot.) That accent should’ve helped with the Prince comparisons, but singing in a fake British accent is also exactly the kind of thing that Prince would’ve done.
Lyrically, “Oh Sheila” is a bit passive-aggressive. The Sheila of the title is either a girlfriend or an ex, but she’s been messing around with other guys, and Riley’s narrator is attempting to handle his jealousy. So he tells Sheila that he’s also going to start messing around, and honey baby, just you wait and see. He can’t seem to make up his mind whether he wants to stay with Sheila or move on. He tells her that he wants to be her only man, that he wants to love her till they get it right. But he also tells her that one of her male friends is going to hurt her the way she’s hurting him.
Ultimately, the narrator wants Sheila to know that he’s done waiting around: “It seems as though it’s getting too hard/ And I think I’ll start to have my own fun.” You want to tell this kid that, yes, he should move on and start to have his own fun. He is way too hung up on this girl who doesn’t seem to care that much about him one way or the other. “Oh Sheila,” then, belongs to a classic pop-song category: The joints where the guy acts way too confident in a frail attempt to mask his own insecurity. That’s just relatable content.
For a while, Ready For The World did well for themselves. Their self-titled debut album went platinum, and it’s a pretty strong piece of slick, new-wavey R&B that serves as a nice reminder of how Black and white pop music really were in close conversation through most of the ’80s. The follow-up album, 1986’s Long Time Coming, went gold, and it launched another single into the top 10. (“Love You Down” peaked at #9. It’s a 6.)
In the end, though, Ready For The World belong in the same ’80s-funk B-team pantheon as DeBarge and Klymaxx and Force MDs: Groups who came along and hit big but who couldn’t maintain their momentum. Ready For The World’s singles regularly made the R&B charts until the group’s 1991 breakup, but their albums didn’t sell in the same numbers, and they didn’t score any crossovers after “Love You Down.” After that breakup, Ready For The World reunited in 2004. They still put out occasional records and tour, though Melvin Riley, Jr. isn’t in the group anymore. Around the time of that reunion, they got a big namecheck in a single that’ll eventually appear in this column.
BONUS BEATS: 2 Live Crew mastermind Luke interpolated “Oh Sheila” on his 1997 single “Luke’s Sheila,” and Melvin Riley, Jr. sang on it. Here’s the video:
(Luke’s highest-charting single, the 1990 2 Live Crew collab “Banned In The USA,” peaked at #20.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Luniz interpolating “Oh Sheila,” especially the fake-British-accent intro, on their 1997 2 Live Crew/Christión collab “20 Bluntz A Day”:
(Luniz’ highest-charting single, 1995’s “I Got 5 On It,” peaked at #8. It’s a 10. As lead artists, 2 Live Crew’s highest-charting single is 1989’s “Me So Horny,” which peaked at #26. Christión’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “Full Of Smoke,” peaked at #53.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1998, the Dutch dance duo Angel City released a version of “Oh Sheila” with the British singer Lara McAllen. For whatever reason, Angel City’s “Love Me Right (Oh Sheila)” didn’t become a worldwide hit until a 2003 re-release, when it peaked at #95 in the US. Here’s that version:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Major Lazer used an “Oh Sheila” sample on their 2014 Pharrell Williams collaboration “Aerosol Can.” Here’s the video:
(Major Lazer’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Justin Bieber/MØ collab “Cold Water,” peaked at #2. It’s a 5. Pharrell Williams will eventually appear in this column.)