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In Honey Cone Holland Dozier Holland found their female equivalent of The Jackson Five who epitomized the new pop age of Motown whilst on more feminine issues the group would reign supreme for the time that The Supremes floundered. As with other groups in their roster the trio had been pieced together by HDH in a shrewd move that meant that they would retain ownership of the name and thus if, as happened, the group members split then a totally different Honey Cone could still appear.
Honey Cone were Edna Wright, Carolyn Willis and Shellie Clarke. Wright, the lead vocalist, was born in 1946 and began her show business career when she was 15 joining a travelling Gospel group. Four years later under the name of Sandy Wynns she had a hit on VeeJay with "A Touch Of Venus". Two years later she began concentrating on background singing in her native California for Johnny Rivers, Bill Medley, The Righteous Brothers and Ray Charles. Ray later invited her to join The Raelets, his own backing singers and recording artists. She remained as a member for 6 months between 1967 and 1968. Honey Cone were indirectly formed by Edna Wright’s sister Darlene Love who had had her own solo success at the hands of Phil Spector both as a solo performer and as a member of Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans. She was asked to form a trio to work on an Andy Williams Television Series but because of prior arrangements wasn’t able to commit herself. At this point she was committed to her work as a member of The Blossoms. Edna Wright contacted Shellie Clarke and then Darlene Love recommended Carolyn Willis who had also worked with Bob B. Soxx. Edna Wright came to the attention of Holland Dozier Holland by default.
"The Supremes were doing the TAMI Show with Marvin [Gaye] and a load of others and Frank Wilson asked me to go into the studio and stand in for one of the girls as they were having Union problems. At that time, the Union insisted that the artist had to be in California and Motown wanted me to stand in and act like I was singing. But because I could read music, I actually started humming the song and unbeknown to me Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland were in the booth."
Edna Wright felt that as early as 1967 HDH were planing their move away from Motown because after this first chance meeting the Holland Brothers kept calling her explaining that they were trying to form their own label. Her sister pushed her onto a plane heading for Detroit where she met up with HDH who outlined their intention to make her a solo star. As the aforementioned Sandy Wynns she had made a relatively good living on the West Coast but had grown tired of the gigging and so refused their initial approach. Honey Cone’s first unofficial outing came on the previously mentioned Andy Williams show. Edna rang Eddie Holland up that night and told him to watch.
"In 1969 I saw Edna on TV with Carolyn Willis and Shellie Clark … What I liked was that Edna’s voice had a mellow quality and an intensity at the same time. We put the group together and named them after an ice cream that I loved as a child. Honey Cone were not a new Supremes, though. Each artist is a new personality to us, and we wrote songs that would fit Edna’s voice. The way she sang was sensitive and vulnerable … and a little tough too."
Shortly after that they were signed to Hot Wax by Holland who had taken up the position of company President.
"I had in mind that we had always enjoyed working with female artists at Motown. As a lyricist I noticed that women were more interesting to write for. Women have a broader sensitivity to emotions than men, I think. We were taught coming up that you don’t cry; you take it on the chin. We couldn’t say we hurt if we were hurt; we could only deal with those subjects through writing for women. That’s why we liked writing for girl groups so much. It wasn’t because they were easier to direct, in fact the women got away with more in the studio than the men; male groups like The Four Tops and Chairmen Of The Board always took much better direction. We were sure we wanted to go on working with women artists in our new company, and we also knew there was a market there. We knew it was women who bought all our records. Not just the Supremes records but the ones by male groups like the Four Tops as well, because there again, we had shown a sensitive side, and I think women like to see that side of men. I knew I was able to write in a way that appealed to women. I spend a lot of time listening to women talking about their views, their problems and so on. I find it interesting. Most men don’t."
The girls hit big time with their second Hot Wax release "While You’re Out Looking For Sugar" in July, 1970. Success didn’t prevent the three girls from continuing their background singing chores in Los Angeles and instead they chose to commute to and from Detroit whenever they were needed to overdub their voices onto tracks. Early on this job had fallen to Ronald Dunbar and later Greg Perry, Holland Dozier Holland being tied up in a lawsuit with Motown which prevented them from writing and producing their own acts.
In April 1971 the three hit Gold with the much imitated "Want Ads", a record that gained a following in the UK if not a chart place. As the single climbed to a National Chart position of Number 2 Hot Wax released arguably its most polished, irresistible and complete album, Honey Cone’s "Sweet Replies". Several tracks had been carried over from their initial self-titled set but within the newer framework there wasn’t a dud track. On the strength of the Gold single Honey Cone were given the complete treatment by HDH who, taking a leaf out of their old boss’s book, sent to Charm School. Chollie Atkins, choreographer supreme to the entire Motown family, was brought in as well as vocal coaches. The group also hit the road despite making a good living from their continued background singing.
"We didn’t need to go on the road but we did it until the end of ’72 and it was very lucrative. Unlike a lot of groups we hired our own people. We had Dick Griffey [who would later head Solar Records] on the road with us all the time – he handled the financial affairs."
Away from the album their follow up single chose to carry over the same successful formula with "Stick Up". Surprisingly it surpassed its predecessor gaining a second Gold award and reaching the top Soul spot. Despite its success the track was relegated to the ‘B’ side upon its eventual British release. Other areas of the industry, however, were quick to acknowledge this new vibrant sound spreading out of Detroit and the sound of Honey Cone began to bring forth imitators in the form of Krystal Generation’s "Wanted Dead Or Alive", First Choice’s "Armed And Extremely Dangerous" and Bobo Mr Soul’s " Answer To The Want Ads" finding US releases. None though could attain the quality that the trio was able to and "Sweet Replies" arrived to emphasise that fact to an eager British following. By the end of 1971 only Honey Cone and Laura Lee were able to keep Hot Wax from cooling down. Their next success came via the infectious "One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show" written by General Johnson and Greg Perry. When it received a British release "Stick Up" backed it. Their third album, "Soulful Tapestry" played on Carole King’s original "Tapestry" and was acclaimed as being superior to anything Motown was putting out at this time. Time dictated a change and so the next single from Honey Cone was a gentle ballad that probably sold more on the strength of the group than on the material itself although "The Day I Found Myself" did remain a most beautiful ballad and as such a departure from the more rhythmic material the regular punter had come to expect from the girls. The main criticism was the one being aimed at the labels generally and that was that the material was becoming warmed over. The track had appeared on "Sweet Replies" as well as in its new version on "Soulful Tapestry".
As July heated up Honey Cone came through with the first release heralding their fourth and final set, "Love, Peace And Soul". "Sittin’ On A Timebomb" complete with sound effects and a stunning flipside, "It’s Better To Have Loved And Lost" was sheer quality. After the explosive "Timebomb" the group followed with the weak imitation of former glory "Innocent Til Proven Guilty". By 1973 Hot Wax was on its way out and in March the threesome that had reached the dizzy heights fell to earth when "If I Can’t Fly" failed to take off. Edna Wright, Carolyn Willis and Shellie Clarke returned to background work while Gamble & Huff’s Three Degrees out of Philadelphia took up the girl group mantel for a while. The vitality that seemed boundless in Philly could not be matched in a City that seemed to have lost its heart.
The three girls who had been so important to Holland Dozier Holland returned to their background work while Holland and Holland attempted to rekindle the fire in 1976/77 wit anew line-up fronted by Sharon Cash with a single release "Somebody’s Always Messing Up A Good Thing" backed by "The Truth Will Come Out". Also in 1977 Edna Wright released a solo album on RCA "Oops! Here I Go Again" with the single written by her husband Greg Perry and former Hot Wax Invictus lyricist Angelo Bond. The whole project was a direct continuation of the Honey Cone sound and deserved to reap rewards. Wright continued working in Los Angeles on backgrounds and commercials. Carolyn Willis remained in demand for supporting vocal work while Shellie Clark faded away from the limelight. Interviewed by Paul Williams in 1984 Edna Wright put the group’s failing down to bad timing, although at the time that wasn’t apparent for how can a pioneer know if what they are doing is right or wrong? What do you have to be judged on or judge yourself by.
"Let’s just say that had we had hits at the beginning of the ’80’s instead of the ’70’s, we would all be filthy rich by now."
© 1999 – Howiepfunk