My Last Tears: Honey Cone, 1970

It’s wonderful to see modern takes of old school songs, especially when they’re done well, and especially if there is a new twist  on it.

Inspired by Motown’s Martha and the Vandellas as well as The Marvelettes, Honey Cone was formed in 1969 as a trio of singers who were in various singing and gospel groups before being spotted by a former Motown employee Eddie Holland and partner Brian Holland. Edna Wright, Carolyn Willis, and Shelly Clark signed with the new recording label Hot Wax under the name Honey Cone, an ice cream flavor that was one of the Holland’s favorites. They debuted in 1969 wiith While You’re Out Looking for Sugar that peaked at #26 on the R&B charts, before putting up their biggest hit Want Ads that topped the R&B and Pop charts in 1971.

At the turn of the decade of the 1960s, the idea of funk and disco sounds began to crest. The soulfulness gave way to ideas of freedom, experimentation, and fun, though these changes wouldn’t be seen until the middle of the 1970s. Many artists and singers recognized that the sound hadn’t shifted quite yet.

One of these groups, though, that held onto the sixties sound was the Honey Cone.  They came into the fray too late and lasted only a few years before the recording label went out of business and the group broke up. While they did not see the grand success many similar artists did in the middle of the sixties, they still gave great tributes to that sound by conjuring the best of the soul era in instrumentation, lyrics, and tenderness.

Here is one of my favorites from their 1970 album Take Me With You, entitled, The Feeling’s Gone:

Notice the triplet feel accompanied by a blues piano. Listen to the earnestness of the soloist, who tries hard to convince her partner that the feeling is gone. Hear the other two singers responding to her reasoning like the inner voices in her heart, affirming her instinct and decision to let this relationship go. The full horn section also helps recall the heaviness of the Stax, while the guitars and the rhythm section enliven the sound and keep it moving forward.  The message, too, stands in the thick of the soul genre: a heartfelt parting and confirmation of an end to something that was. It’s a strange message, admittedly, but one in which you can sense the sincerity even in seemingly harsh words.

Fast forward to 2009, when the rapper and producer Classified decided to use this song in his rap song, Breaking Up, on his 2009 album, Self-Explanatory.

This technique is known as sampling. An artist takes a small section — or a sample — of another song by a different artist to use as the backdrop for his/her own original song. The technique — often used by a rap or hip-hop artist since many old songs provide great context for rap, poetry, and lyricism — requires warping the sample to fit the rhythm of the new song, so you hear the original song in a different — often higher — pitch.  And of course, since it’s a sample, you never hear the whole song.

Against this backdrop, the new artist Classified speaks about a rough break-up, and the redemption he finds in another love. He outlines a story that could be based on the theme sung by the sample, the Honey Cone. He raps with sincerity that brings to life not only his own lyrics and the story he illustrates, but also the original hit by Honey Cone, deftly brought to light in the choruses between the verses.

I am happy to see contemporary artists hearkening back to older generations for both inspiration and musical use. We can learn much from our past, whether it holds lessons of love or opportunities for new forms of art. I tend to appreciate artists who are willing to be brave and hearken back to the old days and reinvigorate a bygone genre, even if in a new, unfamiliar way.


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