Girl groups ruled the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1960s. The Crystals, The Shangri-Las, The Shirelles and several other all-female vocal groups reached the chart’s pinnacle in the chart’s first full decade of existence — led, of course, by The Supremes, from Detroit’s powerhouse Motown label, who topped the Hot 100 a staggering 12 times, more than any other ’60s artist outside of The Beatles.
But by the end of the decade, most of those early-’60s groups had seen their chart runs wind to a halt, and late in 1969, Supremes frontwoman Diana Ross announced her plans to leave the group for a solo career — which she did, to great success, in early 1970. The question of which act, if any, would be able to pick up the mantle for the girl group at the top of the Hot 100 in the new decade was not one easily answered. Certainly, few would have predicted that it would be The Honey Cone — the L.A. trio of record-biz journeywomen who did in fact plant the ’70s girl-group flag atop the Hot 100 the week of June 12, 1971, supplanting The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”
The vocal group, led by veteran backing singer Edna Wright — who died on Saturday (Sept. 12) at 76 — had scored just two minor hits in 1969, “While You’re Out Looking For Sugar” (No. 62) and “Girls It Ain’t Easy” (No. 68). But while the act was not signed to Motown or any similarly major label, they did have hitmaker pedigree behind them: Wright had backed chart-topping artists like Ray Charles and the Righteous Brothers, before forming Honey Cone with Carolyn Willis and Shelly Clark after the three backed Andy Williams on a TV special. Meanwhile, the group’s Hot Wax label was formed by the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting/production team, who’d helmed countless hits for Motown artists (including The Supremes) before falling out with label head Berry Gordy late in the decade. (Wright was also sister of pop/soul great Darlene Love, who’d recorded the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and also sang lead on The Crystals’ Hot 100-topping “He’s a Rebel.”)
In 1971, the Honey Cone also got a hand from the Chairmen of the Board, a group that had scored one of the biggest soul hits of the young decade for Holland-Dozier-Holland’s other newly founded label, Invictus, with the No. 3-peaking “Give Me Just a Little More Time.” While that smash was scribed by the H-D-H team (under the pseudonym “Edythe Wayne”) along with Ron Dunbar, Chairmen singer General Johnson also wanted to prove himself as a songwriter, and found success in late 1970 with the Hot 100 No. 8 hit “Somebody’s Been Sleeping (In My Bed),” co-written with Greg Perry for the Hot Wax group 100 Proof (Aged in Soul). Perry and Johnson also linked up for another song, the heartbroken but jaunty “Stick Up,” which used robbery as an extended metaphor for a jilted lover.
Before that song was recorded, though, Perry and Johnson used a suggestion from recording engineer Barney Perkins, and wrote another spin on the extended-metaphor song with “Want Ads” — about an unsatisfied woman describing her plan to literally recruit a new man through the newspaper as an open job position. The song was first given to Hot Wax act Glass House — led by Scherrie Payne, who then recorded a new version of it with her sister Freda, of “Band of Gold” fame. Neither version came out to the satisfaction of its writers or performers, so it was then given to Wright and her new group. This time, it connected, and was released in March 1971 as the lead single from the group’s Soulful Tapestry album, out later that year.
“Want Ads” thrives on the sharpness of both its writing and its performance. With just a single measure of musical introduction, it kicks off with the full group’s commanding “Wanted — young man single and free!” proclamation, followed by a couple delectable guitar hits (courtesy of a then-unknown Ray Parker Jr.), and then Wright’s own pointed follow-up: “Experience in love preferred, but will accept a young trainee.” In the song’s first 12 seconds, everything that works about “Want Ads” is established: the litheness of its pop-funk groove, the clever conceit and chuckle-worthy detail of Perry and Johnson’s love-as-job-listing lyric, and Wright’s pitch-perfect delivery, piercing but syrupy, soaring but controlled.
Though “Want Ads” wasn’t a Motown record, it couldn’t quite escape the label’s DNA, as the song bears the obvious musical influence of Motown’s signature hit of the new decade to that point: “I Want You Back,” first of four 1970 Hot 100 No. 1s for their new phenomenon of a family act, The Jackson 5. The Honey Cone’s mix of gently bubbling bass, high-fretted guitar chops and sweetly sweeping strings on “Want Ads” carries strong echoes of the ecstatic “I Want You Back” groove, and even Wright’s majestic “ohhhh” call to kick off the song following its opening couplet mirrors Michael Jackson’s “uhhh-huhhh” introduction at the beginning of “Back.” At points throughout “Ads,” you half-expect Tito, Jackie, Jermaine and Marlon to pipe in with a “show you that I love you” in the background.
But while “I Want You Back” elevated skyward on the youthful exuberance of its teenage performers, “Want Ads” remains grounded in the been-around-the-block life experience of the Honey Cone. Wright’s lyric expresses frustration with her “playing the field” man, who leaves her alone at night “crying bitter tears” before coming home with lipstick and perfume on his collar. But her vocal — short, direct and unmistakably annoyed — stops short of ever sounding despairing or jaded, keeping the song breezy and unleaded. Instead, she wisely channels her anger into a sense of purpose, “going to the Evening News” to begin the application process for a new-and-improved lover. The final result is funny, painful and freeing, accomplishing what just about every pop song should set out to do: finding a new, novel and infectiously fun way to present extremely relatable emotions and situations.
The Honey Cone’s stay atop the Hot 100 was short, lasting just a lone week before singer-songwriter Carole King’s double-A side “It’s Too Late” / “I Feel the Earth Move” took over for a five-week reign. Indeed, King provided more of a model for the success that female artists would find atop the Hot 100 in the early ’70s than the Honey Cone’s vocal trio structure, as Melanie, Helen Reddy and Carly Simon would all top the chart over the next two years with songs they wrote or co-wrote, while all-female vocal groups were shut out from the chart’s apex. The Honey Cone would hit the Hot 100’s top 40 three more times — with “Stick-Up” (No. 11, 1971), Perry and Johnson’s “Want Ads” rough draft that the group eventually released as its follow-up, as well as with “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” (No. 15, 1972) and “The Day I Found Myself” (No. 23, 1972) — but never again even reached the chart’s top 10.
However, the girl group as a pop model would return to the top of the Hot 100 in the mid-decade — roaring back to life in large part thanks to the rise of disco, which resulted in groups like The Three Degrees (with MFSB on “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” 1974), Silver Convention (“Fly, Robin, Fly,” 1975) and The Emotions (“Best of My Love,” 1977) finding their way to the top of the chart. Over the decades since, the girl group has waxed and waned in Stateside popularity but never completely faded out, revived at various points by H-D-H-like writer/producer teams, pop svengalis, reality show competitions, and international imports. We might not have a girl group Hot 100-topper yet in the 2020s, but as The Honey Cone showed us nearly a half-century ago, we may not be more than a well-placed ad in the classifieds away from finding our first.