The Honey Ltd. Story
Loud Harmonic Transcendence
by Jonthan Ward
It's a common musical fairy tale these days: in the late 1960s, a phenomenal LP squeaked out on a fairly well-known label, and no one paid much attention at the time. Later, owing to word of mouth, this LP is re-released, and becomes a "rediscovered classic." The band enjoys a well-deserved, critically-acclaimed revival, with club appearances and sidebar articles in leafed-through journals like Mojo and the Wire.
This isn't that story.
In 1968, a superlative, genre-busting, wonderfully produced, angelically-sung pop LP squeaked out on a fairly well known label, and disappeared. The band members had no idea it was even released.
The self-titled album, by the female quartet known as the Honey Ltd., is almost completely unknown but to record collectors, and even in these circles it's accompanied by hushed tones. Precious few have heard of it, let alone own a copy, but for those lucky enough to hear it, it's immediately apparent that the Honey Ltd. deserves a spot at the top of the late-'60s pop pantheon.
The Honey Ltd.'s album has everything: four gorgeous women with talent; their original songs; cascading four-part harmonies; gifted vocal arrangements; an irreverent producer, and – most importantly – it's got mystery.
Let's See What We Can Do
Everything begins in Detroit, in the mid-'60s. Two close friends, Laura Polkinghorne and Marsha Jo Temmer – known to friends as "Temmer" – had just graduated high school in the suburbs. Laura was a self-taught singer and Temmer was a dancer and choreographer of a local "teenage fair," where she and other groovily-dressed teens would dance behind all the hot bands that pulled into Detroit (such as the newly-formed Velvet Underground). They both found themselves at Wayne State University, where they met Alexandra "Alex" Sliwin. Temmer: One day we were all in the lunchroom at Wayne State. We just started to sing a little bit, and all of the sudden the place got quiet. And everybody started to listen and we got really excited with the attention. We just thought, let's see what we can do!
Alex brought them around to meet her younger sister Joan, and the four instantaneously hit it off – both socially and creatively. With protesting parents in the wings, and fueled by the excitement of the sounds they were creating together, they formed a quartet and started auditioning. One of the first people to get an earful of their music was a young entrepreneur named Punch Andrews.
Laura: I remember when Punch was 27 years old he said, "My goal is to be a millionaire by the time I'm 30."
Ed "Punch" Andrews and his partner Dave Leone were, apart from Motown, possibly the most influential presence in the Detroit music scene of the mid-'60s. They owned a legendary chain of teen clubs throughout suburban Detroit, all called "The Hideout," which had been bringing sweaty live music to kids since 1964. They also ran Hideout records, a record label whose output is arguably the pinnacle of local garage rock.
By 1967, they were managing and recording acts such as the Underdogs, the Pleasure Seekers (with the sisters Quatro), and Bob Seger. When Punch heard the four ladies he immediately decided to take them on, and while printing (and no doubt pondering) their 8x10s, he christened them the Mama Cats.
Laura: Our parents were freaked out. It was hard enough to get permission to do what we were doing, let alone be going out to clubs to hear other music. We were doing shows as they came up, plus we were in school. Punch started booking us in teenage nightclubs that he owned, and we had musicians in the group but we didn't play as a band. We had backup bands.
The backup band that stuck was a shaggy foursome called the Mushrooms, another one of Punch's hip groups on Hideout, featuring a young Glenn Frey. Throughout 1967, the Mama Cats toured, playing the Hideout clubs, ski resorts, dances, local TV – in both Canada and Chicago – usually as the opener for the Mushrooms, who were followed by Seger's band. All three groups became fast friends; they listened to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's for the first time together.
Seger wrote, produced and arranged two songs for the Mama Cats, "Miss You" and "My Boy," which Punch released on the Hideout imprint (Seger's band played backup). "My Boy" was a song about a young man bound for Vietnam, but "Miss You" was an all-out soul rocker, giving the group – particularly Laura – plenty of room to belt it out. But the single didn't fare well on local radio, and the four women began pondering a move – a crazy move, in a way – to Los Angeles. In the summer of '67, they pooled their resources, called on some of Punch's connections, and split for the coast for a two-week trial run.
With a repertoire filled with Mamas and the Papas, Beatles and Motown songs, plus elaborate dance routines choreographed by Temmer, the foursome played several gigs on their first two-week stint in L.A., the first at the now long-gone Cinnamon Cinder in Long Beach, the second at Disneyland. They were utterly taken with the city as they slept on Temmer's grandmother's floor in the Fairfax district, counting the days until they had to return to Wayne State for fall semester. Back in their hometown, however, the streets were burning.
Joan: You have to remember the summer of '67 was the riots. As it happened, we were in L.A. the two weeks that the riots occurred. The exact two weeks. My Mom had tanks on the front lawn where we lived. It was a tense time, and we missed all that. Coming out to L.A., we thought we had died and went to heaven. Everything was fun, L.A. was less congested, and we were in a good place.
Back in Detroit, classes resumed, as did the touring schedule for the Mama Cats. Bob Seger asked them to sing backup on his latest single, "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," which would end up on his first LP for Capitol – a classic example of hard rocking Motor City psychedelia. However, Seger's reputation – despite the Capitol contract – didn't have much impact beyond Detroit yet, and the four began feeling a push to move again. Laura, sometimes with Temmer, began writing and arranging more personal songs that the group intensely rehearsed. Perhaps they felt the need to write something more true to their hearts, or perhaps they wanted to escape the shackles of performing only cover sets. Whatever the reason, in January of 1968, bolstered by the encouragement of Punch and Bob Seger, with only enough money to live in California for two weeks, and no money to return, the Mama Cats moved to Los Angeles.
Temmer: I never thought of us as being part of the music scene [in Detroit], I must admit. Motown was so huge. I know that we had a lot that we wanted to accomplish, but I'm not sure that we accomplished that much in Detroit. I don't know if anyone would remember us being in Detroit.
Lee Hazlewood, the world's greatest – if not only – psychedelic cowboy, had begun his own artist imprint label LHI (Lee Hazlewood Industries) in 1966, at a time when few recording artists had that kind of creative control. Bolstered by the financial success he'd garnered through his work with Nancy Sinatra and Duane Eddy, LHI was poised to become a potential challenge to the major labels in Hollywood.
But Lee Hazlewood was a true eccentric, and many of the records LHI released had trouble finding the kind of large audiences guaranteed by the majors. In hindsight, of course, Lee's roster of artists was peculiar enough to be brilliant. Although only eighteen full-length LPs appeared on LHI, they included the International Submarine Band's Safe at Home, featuring a nascent Gram Parsons, the Kitchen Cinq's debut album, two extremely rare, dreamily psychedelic albums by Arthur and the Aggregation, as well as excellent solo LPs by Lee himself. In January of '68, Lee Hazlewood Industries was in its prime, signing artists left and right, with publicity money flowing.
The Mama Cats had settled back into Grandma's house, and immediately went to work promoting themselves, as well as drinking deep the fruit of Nehru-jacketed Hollywood. They called on Punch's cousin, Peter Burke, entrenched in the L.A. music business at the time. He made a few phone calls, and within a matter of days, the Mama Cats' audition with LHI arrived.
Alex: It happened so fast. We had prepared two sets, two sets of four [songs]. We picked about half of the ones we had prepared and went to the Lee Hazlewood audition. We actually hitchhiked there!
Temmer: It was 9000 Sunset, and we had toked up a little before we got there. We were a little stoned – we were a little nervous because we were a little too stoned. But once Laura hit that chord on her guitar, all those months of rehearsal just played out. I think Lee just sat there for a while and listened, looking at us. He said, "Yeah, I think we can do something." Y'know – immediately!
Alex: I just thought he was the greatest guy in the world. He said, "Wait a minute, you guys need managers. We're gonna call upstairs." Bernard, Williams and Price were in the same building. They got us into the studio right after we signed, then we got money, so we got a car. They were constantly taking photos of us, whatever we did, whenever we were out.
Joan: Lee gave us the name Honey Ltd. We never got to pick our own name! Nice, huh? But it was magical. We went along with the program 'cos we loved to sing.
Hazlewood instantly recognized he had something. At 9000 Sunset Blvd., the publicity machine rapidly took over. Preparing for a massive first single, they took out double-page ads in Billboard and Cashbox, focusing on the foursome's beautiful faces, long hair and cute outfits. Photographers snapped them at parties and in the studio recording, later to be plastered across teen magazines everywhere, transforming them within a matter of a few weeks into Beautiful People.
With Lee as producer, Ian Freebairn Smith the music arranger, and the renowned "Wrecking Crew" their backing band, the Honey Ltd. went into the studio to record "Come Down" and "Tomorrow Your Heart" – two originals – for their first single.
Powerfully soulful, and at the same time carrying the intricate, almost relentless four-part harmonies that would become their staple, "Come Down" (the A-side) was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production. Carol Kaye's incredibly complicated bass lines, lyrics that alternate between haunting and lustful beckoning, and Hazlewood's omnipresent echo helped produce almost a psychedelic soul – light years beyond the Mama Cats. Reviews compared their vocal arrangements to German composer Paul Hindemith. It charted, but only by the skin of its teeth.
Laura: I was surprised that it got as far as it did – to be recorded, to get on the radio and for people to like it. "Come Down" – that really is kind of an unfortunate title, particularly at that time in life when everyone is experimenting with drugs. [When] I was still living at home, I would go out and get stoned and come home, and I had no trouble relating to my family, and they had no trouble relating to me. They didn't know I was smoking pot. When I said "Come Down," I meant "Come on down" because we're happening. Come on over!
Television shows followed: Joey Bishop, Jerry Lewis, Operation Entertainment. Although the response to "Come Down" was looking lukewarm, Hazlewood and the group continued to record, with the idea that a full-length LP was the eventual goal. Lee was in fact rumored to have left the studio after rehearsals mumbling that they were just too good. Over the course of the next few months, they recorded six additional songs, all originals written by Laura and Temmer but for one. Jack Nitzsche was brought in to produce their only cover song during this time: a slow-tempo, brass and funk rendition of "Louie, Louie" replete with cries of "Sock it to me, Louie!" It was meant to be their follow-up single, but it may never have made it past the promo stage.
At some point during this intensely busy period, while the band was appearing on TV or driving an Excalibur down the Strip in a Japanese commercial for Melody candy bars, the intangible, elusive Honey Ltd. full-length LP was released.
Laura: I just thought there were singles.
Temmer: I know that [Lee] had said they had been pressed – [that] they were in boxes and they were ready to be distributed. And that's the last I ever heard of it.
Listening to the Honey Ltd. full-length album today is like being shot out of a harmonic cannon into a rainbow-filled echo chamber. Its twenty-minute length only prompts the listener to play it again and again – its compactness is perfect. The delicate balance between psychedelia and soul has rarely been played out in such a satisfying way. At once a beautiful ballad can turn into a ferocious, longing, four-part harmony wail. Lyrics are oblique then demanding, stoned then impetuous, and when the needle lifts at the end of side two, one feels the effect of a weird sort of whirlwind.
The album opens with "The Warrior," a terrifying anti-war song that, conversely, at times sounds like a frightening call for blood:
His country has called him, in a time of desperate need
We must kill more people; strong men are what we need.
We need more Warriors! We need more Warriors!
And it's good! It's good...Oh God, it's so good!
One of the more jaw-dropping openings of a pop LP segues into two back-to back up-tempo tracks – "I've Got Your Man" and the peculiarly-titled "No You Are." Both sting with an unapologetic forwardness found more commonly in songs written and sung by men. Side one ends with "Silk 'N Honey" – the name the band originally chose for themselves – a lush, pop-psych epic about lost love, with careening chord changes, stop-on-a-dime instrumentation and ethereal background vocals that seem to phase in and out like a dream.
"Silk 'N Honey" is the Honey Ltd.'s crowning achievement, and a testament to their talent. Few all-female pop bands existed on major labels in 1968, much less wrote and arranged complicated songs. And certainly, few could sing in a way that was truly innovative, or vocally posed a challenge to the ambling guitar solos oozing from every club on the Strip. This was true women's psychedelia.
The album's remaining songs were the single "Come Down" and its flipside, the alternately soft and blistering "Tomorrow, Your Heart," as well as "Louie, Louie" and another original, "For Your Mind."
Above all, what the Honey Ltd. album lends listeners is an extreme appreciation of the quartet's vocal arrangements.
Temmer: It was really indiscriminate, the way we picked our parts. It was a constant interweaving, like threads in a fabric.
Joan: Everyone made them up as we went. It was a real creative experience, and endearing. When something really blended and felt great, there was nothing better. That was our little creative moment together.
As 1968 wore on, the group was constantly booked on television and in local clubs (with backing bands), but they began to notice a distinct change in how they were being treated. Since their first single didn't perform as well as expected, there seemed to be a push for them to develop a repertoire entirely different from their original songs. The reason: Bernard, Williams and Price.
Laura: They were pulling us in a direction we didn't want to go. We used to call it the Acid Lennon Sisters. I think what they did was, they blew the wad with the double-paged ads and the first single instead of developing us a little more slowly, and letting us find ourselves, try our wings, and do more recordings. They thought, "What else can we do with them? We better change tracks and groom them for Vegas shows."
Joan: We opened for Eddie Fisher at Caesar's Palace. You can imagine what that was geared [towards], that situation.
Alex: We did the Charleston to "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and we did a tap-dance. We had top hats and disappearing canes.
Temmer: I think they were part of the downfall. They wanted us to prepare for Vegas because rock 'n' roll "was gonna die." It was somewhat of a horrifying experience.
Take It and Smile
Hazlewood remained in the background. Most likely, he too was disappointed about their sales, and had other issues to contend with. But before they could argue their case, a new opportunity arose that the group felt conflicted about, yet ultimately resolved to accept.
Bob Hope had seen Honey Ltd. perform on the Jerry Lewis Show, and had asked the group to join him on his next trip with the USO to Vietnam. Although against the war, in December of '68 they joined the Golddiggers, Rosey Grier, and Ann-Margaret for a two-week stint entertaining troops. After rehearsing in Japan, the USO stationed them in Thailand, where for two weeks they were flown by helicopter to various military outposts and naval stations, and performed two shows daily for thousands of extremely receptive G.I.s.
Joan: The experience was a good one all around. Obviously the war was a hot issue, but we felt it was for a good cause. Especially when you were singing to people you grew up with. I knew a couple of guys from Michigan that were over there. You could see artillery fire and lights going off in the distance. What can you say? It's still happening, and that's the heartbreak.
Upon their return, the group cranked out two more singles for LHI, both covers. The first, "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," was a country song, and the second – "Eli's Comin'" – was their version of a Laura Nyro classic. The wildly successful producer and composer Mike Post helmed both sessions, which gave the group a more contemporary sound – markedly different from Hazlewood's idiosyncratic style. Although the group was devoted to Laura Nyro and jumped at the chance to sing "Eli's Comin'," one can only deduce that Bernard, Williams and Price's decision makers were utterly confused. In the midst of the post-USO confusion, Alex left the group.
In the months prior to their trip to Vietnam, Alex had met a mustachioed musician named J.D. Souther and began dating him. Meanwhile, Glenn Frey, fresh from Detroit and running from a draft notice, had been crashing at the Honey Ltd.'s place in Toluca Lake.
Joan and Alex introduced Glenn to J.D. (effectively changing the course of 1970s rock music) and the two men formed Longbranch Pennywhistle. In the meantime, Alex and J.D. got married, and J.D. wanted her to quit the business; the rest of the group respected her decision. The marriage lasted a year, but the Honey Ltd. was finished almost as quickly as the group began.
The nail in the coffin was their final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1969. The group – Alex having been replaced with one of the Golddiggers – begged their management to sing "Eli's Comin'," their most recent single. Bernard, Williams and Price pushed back, ordering the group to perform songs from their Vegas act. Devastated, they still remember feeling crushed at having to perform those routines as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix mingled backstage. To make things sting even more, "Eli's Comin'" became a massive hit for Three Dog Night a few weeks later.
Laura, Joan, and Temmer gamely regrouped as a trio later that year, and became Eve. Although their relationship with LHI was effectively over, they had remained close with Hazlewood associate and producer Jimmy Bowen, as well as Tom Thacker, A&R man for LHI. With Thacker producing and Bowen helping in the wings, they went into the studio and cut Take It and Smile. As laid-back as the Honey Ltd. album was frenetic, Eve's Take It and Smile was a relaxing collection of country-rock songs, with Ry Cooder and even Sneaky Pete guesting on the sessions.
Yet again, the standouts are the close vocal harmonies, which completely distinguish the album from others of its kind. The arrangements are mellower – their version of Bacharach's "Anyone Who Had a Heart" in waltz time is particularly smooth – and the original lyrics somehow wiser. In a strange twist of fate, the album was eventually released by LHI in June of 1970, owing to Thacker's strong connections there.
Take It and Smile became another labor of love: a wonderful album that didn't generate huge sales, and another unique item in the confounding saga of LHI Records. Eve contributed a song for the soundtrack to the cult film Vanishing Point before the four went separate ways, carrying with them the crazed memories of their shamefully brief triumph together captured on record.
In the 34 years since, names have changed, marriages have come and gone, some have left the music industry and some have not, yet, unsurprisingly, they have remained extremely close.
Joan and Alex began writing songs, and had a band in the 1970s called Bijoux with several former members of the Association. Joan, after touring for years with Loretta Lynn, serendipitously ended up marrying Michael Glasser, himself a former musician signed to LHI records under the name Michael Gram. Temmer went on the road as a dancer and singer with Tina Turner, where she met her husband Kim, at the time Tina's bass player. Laura – now Laura Creamer – continues a successful career as a singer for such luminaries as Billy Joel, the Black Crowes, Kid Rock, and her old pal Bob Seger.
All of them still write music, stay connected, love each other, and sing like no one else. Their records – the Honey Ltd. album in particular – are some of the finest examples of the unique blend of ideas and freedom coming out of Los Angeles circa 1968. "All harmonic interest has gone out of pop," lamented Randy Newman music in 2001. The Honey Ltd. produced harmonies that were at times almost supernatural; once you hear them, you know that no one can fill their shoes.
Joan: It was such a great time in our lives. Had we made a lot of money and the group had tension and competition and strange stuff go down, we probably wouldn't be great friends. There were never any issues to make it hard to want to be around each other. We laugh about the same things. We see each other and it's like no time has passed.
Special thanks to Joan, Alex, Temmer, Laura, and Michael Row.
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