I have been debating for the past few days as to list this song as part of the Perfect Song series, or simply a guilty pleasure. It is both for me, so let’s proceed.
A Taste of Honey was one of many one-hit wonders of the disco era. Record companies were looking for anything that they could throw out on vinyl that would get people dancing at the discotheques. However, this band was different. The band actually had been around since the early 1970s doing USO tours and corporate shows in the Los Angeles area. The core of the band was bassist/singer Janice Marie Johnson and keyboardist Perry Kibble. The original guitarist Carlita Dorhan left in 1976, and Helen Payne replaced her. It was these three musicians (along with producers Fonce and Larry Mizell) that made “Boogie Oogie Oogie” the classic song that it is today, over 40 years after its release.
On the surface, the song is typical disco. Basic 4/4 beat with a dance tempo, moving bass line, and simple lyrics. However, there is a reason (in fact, a few reasons) why “Boogie Oogie Oogie” is still relevant today while thousand of other disco songs gather dust in the used vinyl bins at the local record store. First off, this was performed by the band, not a bunch of studio musicians backing a molded and shaped singer. When you have musicians that have worked together for a number of years, whether it is a tight-knit studio ensemble or a group like The Beatles, a good listener can distinctly tell that groove.
Turning to the song itself, it was written by Johnson and Kibble. Again, no record company tampering here. In the pop music world, having a team of songwriters is the norm. However, the Mizells and the A&R people at Capitol Records had a good ear this time.
Now, let’s look at probably the most important piece of this song – the bass line. Johnson laid it down herself. There was no bringing in a studio pro bassist for the recording, and that is a good thing. This bass line is beyond the disco dance groove. It is a line so catchy, that any beginning bass player HAS to learn it! For anyone that studies music production (like me), it is so damned refreshing to know that she got carte blanche with her bass playing. It is beyond a groove – it is a statement. I also love that, at the end of the second chorus, she sings, “listen to my bass, now!” Yes, I am listening!
Next, let’s check out the rhythm guitar. Again, laid down by Payne, not some studio guitarist. The intro has that slide that is sensual, then once the song kicks in, the staccato picking followed by the jangly Bb chord. What makes this sound so special is that the guitar sound is so clean. No distortion, delay, or dated effects like phasing or flanging. Just the guitar straight into the amp. Yes, there is that heavy-fuzz lead at the end of the first chorus, but it can be expected to create a different kind of tension. But Payne makes playing rhythm guitar sexy.
As for the lyrics, there is nothing that is literary here. Simple words that people can sing along to. Johnson has a sweet voice that makes the verses flow smoothly. Then, when the chorus kicks in, Payne’s gritty backup harmony singing is beautiful. The vocal climax here is at the end of the chorus, when the words “more — boogie” is sung, it goes from two-part harmonies to a full, lush sound. THAT is a great production ear!
“Boogie Oogie Oogie” is sexy without being sexual. The arrangement is timeless, and again, that bass line makes anyone that picks up an electric bass want to learn that groove. Because the disco era was not kind to most artists, a group like A Taste of Honey felt the wrath of the recording industry. Fortunately, knowing that the song is still being played on classic R&B radio stations as well as appearing in a number of commercials and soundtracks, royalties are still going to Johnson and Kibble’s estate (he died in 1999). A wonderful thing would be to see Janice Marie Johnson receive more recognition for her amazing bass playing.
Chew on it and comment (and listen to her bass, yeah!).