Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Taste Of Honey Enjoys Sweet Success

It’s not unusual for an artist to seemingly appear out of nowhere and bolt to #1 on the pop charts. But with few exceptions, every artist to ascend to the toppermost of the poppermost has experienced a long, and often arduous journey to achieve that pinnacle of commercial pop success. In 1978, the R&B disco quartet A Taste Of Honey soared high on world charts with the foot stomping disco #1 ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’, but for long term members, vocalist/guitarist Janice Marie Johnson and keyboardist Perry Kibble, in particular, it was anything but a case of being overnight sensations.

Key ingredients in the recipe for A Taste Of Honey, Janice Johnson and Perry Kibble first blended their music talents during 1971. Kibble had played bass with a soul outfit called the Exits, whilst Johnson had fronted a group called Soundstage #1. The pair met whilst auditioning for a gig with Princess Cruises in the ship’s band - a career on the Love Boat beckoned. Presumably both Kibble and Johnson opted against life on the high seas with Captain Stubing, and instead put together their own soul/funk/R&B outfit. The pair hooked up with a couple of musician friends and scored a regular gig at a local southern California beer joint called L.C.’s Hideaway, reaping the princely sum of $50 a night. During their stint at the club the band underwent a number of line-up changes, one of which was to recruit drummer Donald Johnson (of no fixed relation to Janice). After three months Kibble and Johnson took their group on the road, and by the summer of ‘72 they had adopted the permanent moniker of A Taste Of Honey, inspired by the 1965 hit song of the same name by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Vocalist Gregory Walker and guitarist Carlita Dorhan had also been added to the line-up, along with another percussionist/conga player, to expand A Taste Of Honey to a sextet.

A Taste Of Honey signed up to a sweet new management deal and soon thereafter commenced a tour of duty overseas as part of the U.S.O. programme. The initial six week tour led to regular shows at military bases across the U.S. and overseas over the next couple of years, allowing A Taste Of Honey to take their inviting flavour of music to Spain, Japan (where they quickly established a strong fan base), Taiwan and Morocco, among other places. As lead singer Janice Johnson later relayed to Billboard Magazine, “We really paid our dues”. During that period the band’s line-up was relatively fluid, but the trio of Perry Kibble, Janice Johnson and Donald Johnson stuck to A Taste Of Honey. By 1976, vocalist Gregory Walker had walked out to join Santana, and the remaining trio resolved to establish a more stable line-up for the band - with the recruitment of lead guitarist Hazel Payne, and a little reshuffling (Janice Johnson switched to bass duties).

A chance meeting with the production team of Larry and Fonce Mizell (producers with the Jackons, L.T.D., Edwin Starr), led to an audition with Larkin Arnold, vice president of Capitol Records. Larkin must have enjoyed what he tasted, er..heard, because he signed A Taste Of Honey to a record deal in early ‘78 - well, after a three month deliberation and a second audition - no more backyard weddings for this band. A Taste Of Honey immediately set to work with the Mizell brothers on recording a debut album. The band had one stand out track which they were confident would be a hit. During one of countless live shows at military bases, A Taste Of Honey were faced one night with a particularly unresponsive crowd at an Air Force Club. Despite trying their damnedest to generate a good vibe, A Taste Of Honey’s sweet sound was greeted with a sour audience. Lead singer Janice Johnson interpreted the crowd’s cold shoulder as being a chauvinistic response from the mostly male patrons toward the fact that A Taste Of Honey were fronted by two female leads - vocals/bass and guitar. The snub infuriated Johnson but it did provide the fuel for her to pen a stinging retort in song - titled ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’.

The opening line of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ - “If you think you’re too cool to boogie boy, oh boy have I got news for you” - effectively encapsulated Johnson’s feelings about the incident. Together with keyboardist Perry Kibble, she wrote the infectiously catchy melody, and the song was topped by a funky bass riff from Johnson, featured in the intro, and captured during an impromptu warm-up jam. ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ was the perfect recipe for the disco dominated scene, and after seven years of struggle A Taste Of Honey could finally sense the sweet smell of success. Naturally, ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ was chosen as the band’s debut single. It debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 at #82 in late June ‘78 and, driven by an insatiable appetite for the song in disco clubs, eleven weeks later had reached #1, replacing Frankie Valli’s ‘Grease’ at the summit. ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ became Capitol Records 40th U.S. #1, and the label’s first double platinum seller, going on to sell over a million copies. A Taste Of Honey received a Grammy Award for ‘Best New Artist’ of 1978 - somewhat of a misnomer given they’d been toiling away for seven years. ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ also boogied its way to #3 on the U.K. charts and #18 here in Australia (in 1985 a John Luongo remix of the song peaked at #59 in Britain). I have to confess, on occasion I’ve confused ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ with another disco-styled hit, Baccara’s ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ (OZ#9/UK#1) from 1977. Well, that song also uses the “boogie oogie” lyrical theme - let’s face it the word ‘boogie’ was somewhat of a ubiquitous presence on the pop/disco charts between 1975 and 1980.

A Taste Of Honey’s eponymous debut album, which featured Janice Johnson and Hazel Payne on the front cover, racked up impressive sales figures (US#6/OZ#81) in the U.S., but almost exclusively on the back of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’s popularity, with the follow up single ‘Disco Dancin’ failing to make itself heard above the throng of disco-styled competitors. Undeterred, A Taste Of Honey returned to the studio kitchen with the Mizell brothers to cook up another batch of disco/funk imbued numbers, packaged as the 1979 album ‘Another Taste’ (US#59). The band’s second helping didn’t prove to be as appetizing as their first, but did yield a funky little disco-desert number titled ‘Do It Good’ (US#79-R&B#13) - though the second single ‘Race’ remained stalled on the starting line. With the rampant rise of disco about to become a calamitous fall, A Taste Of Honey were presented with a challenge common to all of the artists who had ridden the disco wave - to reinvent themselves or be washed away into pop oblivion. Essentially it was a test of which artists had more than one string to their stylistic bow.

After splitting for a short time, in 1980 A Taste Of Honey reformed as the duo of Janice Johnson and Hazel Payne, and went to work with producer George Duke (of Frank Zappa fame) on new material. The duo’s first two single dishes, ‘Rescue Me’ (R&B#16) and ‘I’m Talkin’ About You’ (R&B#64) did little to entice record buyers to a new Taste Of Honey, but neither song had been the duo’s first choice as their debut post-disco single. Janice Johnson had been inspired by Linda Ronstadt’s cover of the Smokey Robinson classic ‘Ooh Baby Baby’, and decided that A Taste Of Honey might reignite their career via covering a previous hit. The band had enjoyed a peak of success in Japan, originally on the back of regular touring their in the mid 70s. As part of their Japanese shows, Johnson regularly performed the former 1963 #1 hit ‘Sukiyaki’, originally by Kyu Sakamoto, and A Taste Of Honey even entered the famed Yamaha Song Festival with the song. The duo wanted to record the song as a tribute of sorts to their Japanese fan base, but Johnson felt that the song would stand a better chance in the contemporary music scene with English lyrics. The process then got a little complicated as publishers, translators, and song writers worked to come up with a new lyric for ‘Sukiyaki’. Janice Johnson ended up penning some of the new English lyrics herself, but then a new problem surfaced when Capitol applied pressure to record the track as a dance number. Johnson and Payne resisted, and with the backing of producer George Duke, A Taste Of Honey recorded ‘Sukiyaki’ as a simple, dreamy ballad. The track was included on the 1981 album ‘Twice As Sweet’ (US#36), which also included the previous two singles. But there was to be one more sticking point before ‘Sukiyaki’ was finally released as a single.

The complication arose out of a dispute over publishing rights for the song ‘Sukiyaki’. The original track had been written by Ei Rosusuke and Hashida Nakamura Rokusuke, but apparently one of the writers had signed away their publishing rights years earlier. The new owner insisted that Johnson and Capitol Records relinquish song writing royalties, and both parties duly acquiesced to that demand. Meanwhile A Taste Of Honey’s version of ‘Sukiyaki’ was receiving considerable airplay as an album track, and Capitol Records finally relented and agreed to release it as a single. ‘Sukiyaki’ climbed to #3 on the U.S. Hot 100 over the summer of ‘81 (OZ#24) and delivered A Taste Of Honey their first non-disco hit. A minor stir occurred over Johnson and Payne appearing on the single’s cover in full Japanese kimono garb, and performing a fan dance in the music video, but who cares what critics have to say when you have another gold record.

Alas, A Taste Of Honey then seemed to lose its flavour of appeal on the 1982 album ‘Ladies Of The Eighties’ (US#73), produced by Al McKay, though the set did yield the duo’s final foray into the charts, a cover of the old Smokey Robinson and the Miracles hit ‘I’ll Try Something New’ (US#41). Shortly after Johnson and Payne decided to retire A Taste Of Honey to the larder. In 1984, Janice Johnson released her debut solo album, ‘One Taste Of Honey’, which featured a harder edged urban-funk style, though the album’s only hit ‘Love Me Tonight’ wasn’t a million miles away from the style of ‘Sukiyaki’. Johnson was then dropped by Capitol Records, who at the time were undergoing the obligatory corporate restructuring that condemns so many quality artists to the pop wilderness. For a time Hazel Payne successfully pursued a career as a stage actress. Of the other alumnus from A Taste Of Honey, keyboardist Perry Kibble shifted to Canada where he continued to perform and write music for television prior to his 1999 death from heart failure. Drummer Donald Johnson also shifted to Canada and has continued to play as a blues musician. By 2000, Janice Johnson had signed a new recording deal, which realised the albums ‘Hiatus Of The Heart’ (2000), and ‘Until The Eagle Falls’ (2002), the latter celebrating Johnson’s Native American heritage.

Interest in A Taste Of Honey was revived by the inclusion of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ and ‘Sukiyaki’ on several compilations, and in 2004 Johnson and Payne reunited for the first time in 20 years to perform on the PBS television special ‘Get Down Tonight’.

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