DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Honey Cone Up)

“While You’re Out Looking for Sugar”
The Honey Cone (1969)
Billboard Pop: #62
Billboard R&B: #26
Recommended source: Greatest Hits

The Honey Cone, Edna Wright in the center

I came across an item on Facebook today which claimed it’s Edna Wright’s 75th birthday.  I wasn’t able to confirm the date anywhere else  (though she is listed as being born in 1944) but I’ll take any real or imagined occasion to celebrate her and her great group the Honey Cone’s not-so-little and all-too-forgotten place in the history of Rock and Roll America.

When the titanic writing/producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland split with Motown in 1968, they set out looking for artists to fill the rosters at their new labels Hot Wax and Invictus. The first act they signed was a trio of girl group veterans consisting of Wright (Darlene Love’s sister–the vocal and visual similarities were striking), Carolyn Willis and Shelly Clark.

The group’s history soon became an old, familiar one. Like the Chantels, Dixie Cups and Shangri-Las (among others) before them, they were the soul and success of their new label, made fabulous records, had a modest but indelible run of hits and were abandoned to their fate when the record company went out of business. Like those other groups, their identity remained largely obscure, except when they opened their mouths to sing. For the Honey Cone, that musical identity consisted of a nudge forward in what their label mate Laura Lee would soon term “Women’s Love Rights.”

Their biggest hit, “Want Ads,” was, even more than Lee’s hit, the culmination of the process–a new style of assertiveness that married the old girl talk timbres (vulnerable, yearning) to soul and blues themes that had mostly been left to males. The ethos could be summed up in a simple phrase: You better watch yourself!

But the road to “Want Ads” and similarly themed records like Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” (out of Miami, where she, too, would be the foundation stone for yet another process of somebody else making a lot more money than she did), began with the Honey Cone’s first Hot Wax release, “While You’re Out Looking for Sugar” (1969) a fine soul side that did just well enough on the charts to confirm H-D-H’s faith in bigger and better things to come.

It was a bold leap. There were scant role models at the time for the kind of sly but forceful pushback Edna and her group were insisting upon. No more pleading, no more begging, no more daydreaming and no more prizing the church over the street.

Once they got going, the new woman was here to stay, and not just on the Pop and Soul charts. Like all the great girl groups before them, including those H-D-H had guided at Motown (even the mighty Supremes), they were often dismissed as puppets.

Like all the great girl groups before them, it was never that simple. Put it this way: Except for “Want Ads,” Honey Cone’s entire catalog could qualify as its own subcategory of Diamonds in the Shade. There was a reason why, when Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland went looking for the foundation of their own vision, they signed Edna Wright first.

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