When A Taste of Honey issued the 1980 Capitol LP “Twice as Sweet,” the R&B/disco group was looking to make some changes amid changing times.
The original four-piece lineup of Janice-Marie Johnson (bass), Hazel Payne (guitar), Donald Johnson (drums) and the late Perry Kibble (keyboards) made history in February of 1979 when they became the first black band – and second black act overall behind labelmate Natalie Cole – to take home the best new artist Grammy on the heels of the smash single “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and their self-titled platinum debut album. They bested favorites Toto and The Cars in the category, a triumph that surprised industry insiders and fans alike. As one would expect, many tried to make the win a black thing – but Janice-Marie wasn’t trying to hear it.
“Don’t get us involved in a racial thing. Look at it as a victory of R&B and disco over pop and rock,” the bassist told the Los Angeles Times. “How about the fact that two of us are women? I think that had more to do with winning than us being black.”
Such out-of-the-box success, however, was tough to duplicate: Though the frothy single “Do it Good” became a Top 20 R&B hit, its parent album “Another Taste” was met with a lukewarm response in the States that left the band fending off the dreaded one-hit wonder label. Fearing that disco’s impending death spelled the demise of the band, they began to retool their sound and image. Perry and Donald exited the lineup after “Another Taste” and producers Fonce and Larry Mizell were jettisoned in favor of George Duke, who was having tremendous success with his fusion of jazz, funk and disco on hits like “Dukey Stick” and “Reach for It.” The result was the soulful, jazzy “Twice as Sweet” (No. 12 R&B/No. 36 pop), a record that proved a huge shot of musical love for A Taste of Honey’s career.
A lean, sophisticated nine-track collection, the album could have easily been a follow-up to their blockbuster debut. Duke’s well-honed chops as a jazzman suited the talent of these lovely ladies to a tee because their panache for guitar playing was never really limited to disco in the first place. Janice-Marie and Hazel could swing from funky slap and pop bass to laid back blues licks in the blink of an eye, and Duke drew from their diverse approach beautifully. While the R&B charters “Rescue Me” (No. 16) and “I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout You” (No. 64) were textbook grooves, “Don’t You Lead Me On” and “Superstar Superman” glisten with a blend of grace, rhythm and femininity that was often missing from the funk the sisters brought early in the game. Hazel’s lead vocal on “Superstar Superman” in particular is noteworthy, as her distinct sense of phrasing is as precise as her nimble guitar riffs. That’s not to say they don’t bring the heat here, as the frenzied and fabulous “She’s a Dancer,” with Hazel’s searing rock guitar and Janice-Marie’s lead vocal, is a direct descendant of the material from their first two releases and the best dance cut on the LP. Even the Sugar Hill rap combo Funky 4 + 1 knew what was up: The pioneering rap combo sampled “Rescue Me” for the classic “That’s the Joint.”
Oddly, it was the album’s dramatic closing number, not its sophisti-soul center, that turned the duo’s fortunes around. Legend has it that Janice-Marie felt that an English-language ballad version of the 1963 Kyu Sakamoto chart topper “Sukiyaki” – a Japanese song about a heartbroken man who looks up while he whistles so his tears won’t fall down his face – was just the single the group needed to transcend the stifling disco label. Capitol rejected the idea, releasing “Rescue Me” and “I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout You” instead under the assumption that black folks would not want to hear a Japanese song – but it wasn’t long before Janice-Marie won out. Black radio had already jumped on the track, and massive airplay forced the label to issue it as a single. In a victory as stunning as the group’s Grammy win, the song shot to the top of the R&B chart and climbed all the way to No. 3 pop. Complete with a koto arrangement by Hiroshima member Dan Kuramoto, the song was the ultimate Quiet Storm classic. Janice wrote the special English lyrics heard on the duo’s version of the song, but a publishing dispute resulted in her name being removed from the writing credits before it was released. To this day official credit for the lyrics eludes her, despite the fact that everyone from Mary J. Blige to 4 P.M. have struck gold with them.
When I read that Capitol was not hot on releasing the song, it just didn’t make sense to me. In its original incarnation – which, ironically, was released by Capitol Stateside – it not only topped the pop chart, but it rose to a respectable No. 18 R&B, which shows that black people were in fact feeling the record the first time around. And I have to say that while I can’t understand a lick of what Sakamoto is saying, his version of the song has a nice feel to it. It’s easy to see why kids both black and white dug it. The fact that Janice-Marie was able to see the hit potential in such a song is a testament to her understanding of music and how people respond to it. The move was a sheer stroke of genius, and the woman deserves all of the credit she is due and then some.
A Taste of Honey would score one more major hit with a beautiful cover and the Smokey Robinson and The Miracles classic “I’ll Try Something New,” but the duo split up after the 1982 album “Ladies of the Eighties.” Janice-Marie issued the album “One Taste of Honey” and the single “Love Me Tonight” for Capitol in 1984, but neither proved a major hit. Today, both Janice-Marie and Hazel travel with their own configurations of A Taste of Honey and occasionally appear together. Hazel has carved out a niche as a stage actress, while Janice-Marie continues to record for her own Tastebuds Records label.
Thankfully, “Twice as Sweet” is not too terribly difficult to come by. The album is available for download on Itunes for under 10 bucks, and back in 2000 it was issued along with “A Taste of Honey” in a two-disc set. Though it’s now out of print, used copies sell regularly on the Web for reasonable prices. Perhaps one day, the group’s entire catalog will be made available. In the meantime, “Twice as Sweet” remains the perfect starting point for anyone with a hankering for the sweet, sticky stylings of A Taste of Honey.
Nearly 30 years later, it still proves that they indeed had the groove.
Check out A Taste of Honey in a lovely performance of the hit “Sukiyaki” below.