With the recording of the Beach Boys’ third album Surfer Girl, in the summer of 1963, bandleader and principle songwriter Brian Wilson took over as the band’s producer, a role formerly held by Capitol Records in-house producer Nic Venet. While working on Surfer Girl, Wilson also co-wrote “Surf City”, Jan and Dean’s hit that became the first surf rock song to hit number one on the charts. It was during this time that Wilson began lending his talents to other artists such as The Survivors, The Timers, and a trio of young ladies (one of whom would become Mrs. Wilson) called The Honeys.
Formed in 1961, the same year as the Beach Boys, the Honeys were three sisters, Marilyn, Diane, and Barbara Rovell, and were originally known as the Rovell Sisters. When Barbara left the group, she was replaced by their cousin, Sandra Glantz, who went by the stage name Ginger Blake. While touring the amateur talent show circuit, they were discovered by producer Gary Usher. Usher featured Ginger on his 1961 single “You’re the Girl” b/w “Driven Insane” and the entire trio under the name Gary Usher and the Usherettes on his 1963 single “Three Surfer Boys” b/w “Milky Way”. Usher, who had co-written with Wilson Beach Boys’ hits such as “409” and “In My Room” among others, introduced the trio to Wilson, who in turn agreed to produce the group.
The group’s first order of business was to change their name from the literal to the colloquial. Taking their name from a lyric in the Beach Boys’ single “Surfin’ Safari” – “Early in the morning we’ll be startin’ out, some Honeys will be comin’ along…”– the Rovell Sisters became the Honeys, a slang term for a girl surfer, and in doing so became the world’s first all girl surf band, though it should be noted that prior to taking their more permanent name the group did record an unreleased single, “Miss My Little Surfer Boy”, under the name the Westwoods produced by Wilson in September ’63.
The last quarter of 1963 saw the Honeys release three 7” singles, all produced by Brian Wilson. Their first single, a novelty take-off of the folk song “Swanee River”, co-written by Wilson, “Surfin’ Down the Swanee River” featured the Beach Boys singing back-up in what comes off as more of a marketing tool than an actual contribution to the song. The B-side “Shoot the Curl” shows a truer surf sound complete with the ubiquitous staggered drum beat, rolling toms, and a totally groovy rhythm. An early lesson in girl power, lyrically, the girls call out their haters, even challenging them with lines like:
We’re gonna ride those boys right out of style
We’re gonna shoot the curl for one clear mile”
The Surfers have it spreadin’ all over town
That the Honeys way of surfin’ just isn’t around
But we’ve got moves … we’ll out surf them until the end”
As the song winds towards its end, the group repeats the phrase “Shoot shoot, shoot the curl” while a barrelhouse piano rolls the song out, capping off a far stronger single than the A-side.
“Pray for Surf” b/w “(Oly Oxen Free Free Free) Hide Go Seek” followed quickly on the heels of the group’s first single. Following the surf rock template to the letter, the song features thundering, hollow drums clubbing along a skronking saxophone and a very simple titular phrase repeated almost ad nauseum. The single’s B-side “Hide Go Seek” is one of the earliest indications of the Honeys aiming for a more traditional girl-group sound over surf. The continued use of sax skronk keeps it rooted with the surf rock community; however, the vocal harmonies and arrangements provide foreshadowing for the band’s desire to branch out.
What was hinted on “Hide Go Seek” was fully formed on their third single “The One You Can’t Have”, a track written and arranged in the style of the girl group sound of Phil Spector, himself a huge influence on Wilson. Easily one of the group’s best singles, Marilyn Rovell sings about all the great, wonderful boys in her world who will do anything for her, while Diane Rovell and Blake harmonize with their sweet “oohs”, softening the hard truth that “the one you can’t have is the one you want the most”. Coupled with an uptempo driving dance beat and swinging harmonies, the song is infectious and should rank up with the best of the girl group singles of the era.
The single’s flip-side “From Jimmy, With Tears” is the classic heart breaker. A slightly slower number, the song’s tempo hints at the potential seriousness of what is to come in the lyrics, but it never slows to that of a ballad or a blues. Sung by all three in harmony, this B-side is a sad tale of a girl getting left for another but still clings to a small bit of either denial or hope that he still loves her – even if just a little.
With their next single, the Honeys hopped labels to Warner Brothers. Released in early 1964, “He’s a Doll” b/w “The Love of a Boy and a Girl” was the first and only single by the Honeys for Warner. Beginning with Wilson giving production directions to the studio orchestra, the song has the feel of both surf rock and girl groups fused into one. The percussion and drums are highly linked with surf rock, but the harmonies are pure girl group pop and the horns are too clean to call skronk. A simple number, featuring a piano, two sticks clicking together and the girls’ harmonies, the backing track, “The Love of a Boy and a Girl” is akin to a doo-wop ballad along the lines of Penguins’ “Earth Angel” or the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” only without all the “shooby doobies”.
In December 1964, Marilyn Rovell married Wilson and the group, possibly due to a lack of commercial success, did not record a single again until 1969. In between recording their own music, the Honeys also served various backing roles for the Beach Boys (cheerleaders on “Be True To Your School”), Jan and Dean (“Dead Man’s Curve” and “New Girl In School”), the Surfaris (“I Wanna Take a Trip to the Islands”), Glen Campbell (“Guess I’m Dumb”) and Gary Usher (“Sacramento”). They even recorded demo tracks for Bobby Hart & Tommy Boyce, the Shangri-Las and Hayley Mills (post Parent Trap but well before “Saved By the Bell”).
The Honeys returned to Capitol Records and released their cover of Patience and Prudence’s “Tonight You Belong To Me” b/w “Goodnight My Love”. Beginning with an announcement of trumpets, the vocals, once again harmonized by all three, coupled with a brushed drum kit, can only be described as soft and sugary. The song itself is so goddamned sweet and carefree that one must question “how and why” if you aren’t bobbing your head along with the rhythm section. At such a volatile time in America’s history, the release of this single is almost like a throwback to simpler, more innocent (or naÃ¯ve) times. The B-side, “Goodnight My Love”, is a ballad much like their single “The Love of a Boy and a Girl”; starting off with a similar feel to the semi-saccharine love songs of the ’50s, by the song’s midpoint the production and vocal arrangement begin to pull away from the past with a cleaner, sharper sound. The orchestra rises in volume almost covering the vocals rather than embracing them. It is a pleasant number but pales against its A-side.
In the early ’70s, Blake left the Honeys and started her own publishing company while continuing to sing back-up for artists like the Supremes and Jimmy. The Rovell sisters, Marilyn and Diane, continued to work with Brian Wilson, recording two singles and one full-length for United Artists under the moniker Spring. A third single under the name American Spring (due to copyright infringement in Europe) was released in 1973. All three Honeys reunited in 1983 for a lackluster comeback album Ecstacy on Rhino. Since then, a couple of compilations collecting both the Honeys and Spring’s output have come out, and the Honeys themselves have remained active, singing studio back up for artists like the Smithereens and Marilyn and Wilson’s children Carnie and Wendy with their group, Wilson-Phillips.
In hindsight, the Honeys’ lack of commercial success might be attributed to multiple causes. Perhaps it was playing a style of pop that was too new and unfamiliar to much of the country, or maybe bouncing between surf rock and girl group styles never allowed the group to get a foothold in either and thereby getting lost in the wake of Motown and Phil Spector. Regardless of why the band was not as big as maybe they should have been, the Honeys, with their gentle, yet indelible harmonies, provided a layer of texture, depth, and warmth to the songs they contributed their voices to, be they their own or someone else’s.