In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
God bless gibberish. Pop music often works best when it’s most meaningless, when it reaches for a level of pure euphoric silliness. The word “boogie” isn’t quite gibberish; it has a whole etymology. In the ’70s, as far as I can tell, “boogie” was just a synonym for “dance.” But a lot of the best disco smashes of the ’70s are about boogieing, not dancing. Songs about dancing are, almost by nature, frivolous. Songs about boogieing are somehow even more frivolous, if only because the word “boogie” is a sillier word than “dance.” That’s a good thing.
Before A Taste Of Honey came along, the Sylvers got to #1 with “Boogie Fever,” and KC & The Sunshine Band followed them with “I’m Your Boogie Man” — two gloriously goofy songs. “Boogie Fever” is about an epidemic of dancing, an urge that takes people over even when they’re at pizza parlors and drive-in movies. “I’m Your Boogie Man” is the tale of a guy who likes to dance and have sex and who uses the same verb to describe both of them. A Taste Of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” gets even looser with it simply by turning the word “boogie” into an echo of itself, pushing it further into the realm of pure gibberish. That rules.
A Taste Of Honey started in Los Angeles in the early ’70s, naming themselves after a Herb Alpert song, and they spent years honing their craft, heading out on USO tours and playing on American military bases throughout the world. The band went through tons of lineup changes over the years. Gregory Walker, the band’s original lead singer, left in 1976 to join Santana (a group who, in a much later incarnation, will appear in this column). By the time their lineup solidified, A Taste Of Honey were led by two women, singer/bassist Janice Marie Johnson and singer/guitarist/keyboardist Hazel Payne.
In 1978, A Taste Of Honey met up with two producers, Jackson 5 collaborator Fonce Mizell and his brother Larry. That got them signed to Capitol, and the Mizell brothers produced their self-titled 1978 album. Johnson and keyboardist Perry Kibble wrote “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” their first single. The song was a response to a tough night they’d spent playing an Air Force club. Johnson, angry at the icy reaction they’d gotten, wrote “Boogie Oogie Oogie” as a kind of command: “If you’re thinking you’re too cool to boogie, boy oh boy, have I got news for you/ Everybody here tonight must boogie/ Let me tell you, you are no exception to the rule.” Boogieing was imperative.
Listening to “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” though, you’d have no idea that Janice Marie Johnson wrote the song because she was pissed about a bunch of insufficiently appreciative Air Force guys. My old boss Chuck Eddy once pointed out the similarities between “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and “The Oogum Boogum Song,” a minor 1967 soul hit from Brenton Wood. Indeed, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” ties back to a long and proud tradition of bubblegum-pop nonsense, one that predates disco by years. And “Boogie Oogie Oogie” works especially well because Johnson and Hazel Payne never seem to consider it to be a silly song. Instead, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” is a song about escape, about losing yourself on the floor.
More than most of the disco hits of 1978, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” keeps at least some connection to soul music. Johnson’s bassline is heavy and deep, and she gets especially busy on the breakdown. Perry Kibble gets into some Stevie Wonder clavinet action on the keyboard. Hazel Payne plays a couple of blazing rock-adjacent solos that fit beautifully within the context of the song; I’d like the imagine that Prince, whose debut album came out a couple of months before “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” was paying attention. (Prince, obviously, will eventually appear in this column.) In its sparkling liveliness, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” also anticipates some of the lush quicksilver club music that Michael Jackson would soon start making.
In a lot of ways, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” is a generic disco song, from its giddy meaninglessness to the pedestrian horn fanfares that open the song. Still, it’s a good generic disco song, and there was a lot of room for that in 1978. A Taste Of Honey didn’t change the game, but they played it well.
The group would only have one more top-10 hit, an English-language quiet storm cover of Kyu Sakamoto’s 1963 chart-topper “Sukiyaki.” (A Taste Of Honey’s “Sukiyaki” peaked at #3 in 1981; it’s a 4.) The group broke up in 1983. Johnson had a brief solo career, and Payne became a stage actress. Johnson and Payne got back together in 2004 to sing “Boogie Oogie Oogie” on a PBS special about disco. So that’s A Taste Of Honey’s real legacy: One slice of giddy nothingness that went to #1 for three weeks in 1978. That a hell of a lot more than most of us can say.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Brooke Valentine’s crunk&B cover of “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” with guest verses from Fabolous and Yo-Yo, from the soundtrack of the 2005 movie Roll Bounce:
(Brooke Valentine doesn’t have any top-10 hits; her only charting single, the 2005 Lil Jon/Big Boi collab “Girlfight,” peaked at #23. Neither does Yo-Yo; she peaked at #36 with 1991’s “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo.” Fabolous, on the other hand, has two singles that peaked at #4: the Lil Mo/Mike Shorey collab “Can’t Let You Go” and the Tamia collab “Into You,” both from 2003. They’re both 4s.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2019 Pose episode where a bunch of women sing along to “Boogie Oogie Oogie” on a road trip: