When Holland-Dozier-Holland, the songwriting/production wizards behind so many of the label’s great hits, left Tamla Motown to start up their own operation they knew that they would need a girl group on their roster. Their songs for Martha & the Vandellas & the Supremes had moved the sound along from Phil Spector’s work with the Crystals & the Ronettes (not forgetting the Shirelles, the Chiffons & the Shangri-Las) maintaining the female vocal group’s importance in American R&B/Soul. The first release on H-D-H’s Hot Wax label in 1969 was by Honey Cone, a trio from Los Angeles, by the 30th April 1972 the group were the girl group of the day, enjoying their fifth entry into the Top 10 of the Cash Box R&B Top 60.
Honey Cone had connections, lead singer Edna Wright was the sister of Darlene Love, the go-to vocalist on many of Phil Spector recordings. She & Carolyn Willis had sung on many sessions, Shelly Clark had been an Ikette. It was when Darlene was unable to fulfill a TV date on “The Andy Williams Show” that the stand-in trio were seen by Eddie Holland, signed up & brought to Detroit to record. The majority of their debut album were songs credited to “Ronald Dunbar & Edythe Wayne”, H-D-H had not yet settled their publishing independence from Motown so could not us their own names. Ron worked for them, Edythe was a friend. It was Honey Cone’s fifth single “Want Ads” that really broke them out, #1 in the Pop & R&B charts, they looked good on TV in their hot pants, sounded good too. “Stick Up”, the follow up, put them back at the top of the R&B list, both bright, strong & driving like the Vandellas tunes, based on the new hit sound of Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, a good sound & who cares when it was done so well.
The hits were both written by Greg Perry, producer & Edna’s boyfriend, & General Johnson, frontman of Chairman of the Board, flourishing with the encouragement of his new employers. On “Soulful Tapestry” (1971) Holland-Dozier-Holland stepped back from Honey Cone as it was apparent this pair knew what they were doing. Along with label mate Laura Lee, Millie Jackson & Ann Peebles, the album’s songs of female empowerment were part of a new thing. One of the three tracks H-D-H did provide, “The Day I Found Myself”, #26 this week was sliding down from the R&B Top 10. It’s a really good one bringing to mind the Marvelettes & the Velvelettes from Motown’s mid-60s. It’s also a change from the pure Pop-Soul of the previous hits, an indicator of the way Honey Cone could be progressing. Unfortunately H-D-H were discovering that there was more to the business of music than making hits, getting paid by their distributors was more important. With the label in financial trouble Honey Cone’s “Love, Peace & Soul” (1972) was their least successful album, a dissatisfied Carolyn left the group & there were to be no more recordings by the original trio. Honey Cone burned bright for a short time, their confidence & sass influential on future girl groups.
#26 down from 19
Barry White spent much of the 1960s in Los Angeles writing, producing, recording the odd overlooked solo record. His biggest success was with Felice Taylor whose “I Feel Love Coming On” made the UK Top 20 in 1967 – there’s a story about why I like that song so much but I don’t know you well enough to share it. White’s ambitions as an independent producer stalled until he assembled a girl group. He worked with sisters Glodean & Linda James & their cousin Diane Taylor for a year before launching them as Love Unlimited & 50 years ago this week their debut 45 “Walking In The Rain With The One I Love” was a big mover on the R&B chart, rising 14 places to #16 before crossing over to the Pop Top 20 in the US & the UK. “Walking…”, with Barry growling to Glo on the telephone, is from an album full of mid-tempo Love ballads, the Motown girl group sound with any sharp edges smoothed, the songs drenched in orchestration, the sweet, sweeping string arrangements of Gene Page making it distinctive.
Having discovered how to do it Barry did it better next time & “I’m Under the Influence of…Love Unlimited” (1973) was a Top 3 Pop & R&B album though I’m surprised that the title track & “It May Be Winter Outside (But In My Heart it’s Spring)”, both dusted down from the Felice Taylor times, were not bigger hits. He was looking for a male singer & found one at home – himself. In 1973 his debut was the first of four successive chart-topping R&B albums, the following year “Love’s Theme”, an instrumental originally included on L.U.’s “Influence…” was released by the Love Unlimited Orchestra & hit #1 on the US Pop listing. Barry married Glodean & Love Unlimited became an important part of the international superstar Barry White Show, still recording & heading the R&B chart in 1974 with his song”I Belong To You”. Disco was coming & Barry White was leading the way.
Honey Cone may have been carrying the girl group swing in 1972 but the long-time title belt holders were not about to hand it over yet. The group had not been “Diana Ross & the Supremes” since 1970 when their lead vocalist left for a solo career & Jean Terrell joined Mary Wilson (that’s the lovely…) & Cindy Birdsong. Frank Wilson had been one of “The Clan” assembled by Tamla Motown to fill the gap left by Holland-Dozier-Holland’s departure & had co-written hits for the Supremes when Diana was still around. Now, as sole producer, hits like “Up The Ladder To The Roof”, “Nathan Jones” & the sublime “Stoned Love” showed that there was still life in & love for a group who since there breakthrough in 1963 had established themselves as the most popular female group in the world. In 1971 “Touch” did well on the R&B chart but tanked on the Pop albums list, other producers were tried but a planned follow-up “Promises Kept” was shelved. The next man up for the job was label stalwart, vice-president & legend Smokey Robinson.
Smokey wrote all nine songs on the “Floy Joy” album. They’re not of the same quality as “Ooh Baby Baby” or “Tracks of My Tears” but it’s a smooth, sweet, consistent record, Jean being the featured lead voice with Mary & Cindy having their moments while the Funk Brothers (guitarist Marv Taplin had played with the pre-Supreme Primettes before joining Smokey & the Miracles) hit all the right notes. The two uptempo tunes were released as singles, the title track making the US Pop 20 & “Automatically Sunshine”, a new entry at #44 on this week’s R&B chart, James Jamerson’s bass leading in Mary & Jean’s shared vocals, was more successful in the UK than in the US. Cindy’s pregnancy was showing, her maternity leave replacement Lynda Lawrence is on the album sleeve & sings on “The Supremes Produced & Arranged by Jimmy Webb”, released later in 1972. It’s an interesting record, check out Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want”, that failed to connect with record buyers. With more line-up adjustments, disputes with Motown & changing tastes it would be four years before the trio, by then Mary, Scherrie & Susaye, returned to the Top 40 when Eddie & Brian Holland returned to produce an act they had helped to make the greatest,the dream girls, the most successful girl group ever.