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Seminal vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock celebrates 50 years of singing

Sweet Honey in the Rock
Christopher Robinson
Sweet Honey in the Rock

I discovered and fell in love with Sweet Honey in the Rock as a young college student at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. In 1981, As a budding radio announcer at WMUA, their music was part of my playlist every time I was on the air and every album they’d recorded was in my collection. To my surprise I was asked to be the MC for the female-led African American acapella ensemble at their annual Pioneer Valley concert at Smith College (Thank you Art Steele!). It was my inaugural hosting gig.

Now, 42 years later, the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock can be heard weekly on my show “Come Sunday.” I’d like to think I’ve perfected my MC skills and Sweet Honey is celebrating 50 years. The group uses its voices to create dynamic rhythms and rich harmonies, with various musical styles, while keeping social justice issues at the center of their repertoire, particularly the struggle for equality for African-Americans and women. The songs they perform could doubtless revive the spirits of even the weariest of fighters for peace and justice. Recently, I was honored to spend time talking with Carol Maillard, one of the founding members of Sweet Honey in The Rock. Still moving and still relevant, Sweet Honey in the Rock celebrates their 50th Anniversary March 24th at The Town Hall in New York City.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Lezlie Harrison: You have an upcoming concert at Town Hall and it's part of a three-year celebration tour.  Sweet Honey in The Rock: Road to 50.  Can you give us a brief history of this wonderful journey, beginning in 1973 when you were part of the DC Black Repertory Theater Company in Washington, DC and working as an assistant for Bernice Johnson-Reagan, the vocal director of the company?

Carol Maillard: Wow, that's a big old question. How many minutes do you have? In 1973 we all know music was in a very social activism progressive mode, from pop to rock to folk—all of that music was coming together trying to talk about issues that were affecting all people, primarily African Americans. That was important for us during that period of time, coming right out of the Civil Rights movement. We had our theater company and we were doing Black theater and Black authors. We were being taught so many marvelous techniques—how to be a triple threat as a dancer, a singer, and an actress. How to use all your facilities in the arts.

Bernice Johnson Reagon was our vocal director and we were using all kinds of music in our plays, mostly acapella. One of the actors in the professional company said, “Bernice, can we have a singing group? We’ve got a dance company, we’ve got a professional group, we got the workshop. Can we have a singing group?”

Bernice was quite busy working on her doctorate and she had two small children. She was reluctant. Finally, after much cajoling from Louise Robinson, Mie Fredericks and me, she said, “Okay.” Ten people show up at this rehearsal. Men and women. The first song she sang and taught us was “Sweet Honey in the Rock.” [sings] No explanation about why this song. I said, “Ooh, that'd be a good name for the group.” I think somebody else said, “Yeah, that would be a good name for the group.” And Bernice said, “Okay.” At that time everybody had an interesting way of describing what their music was about by the name of the group.

There was a rehearsal in September of 1973 where only four people showed up. Over the summer people had children, jobs, work, other shows to do, also vacation and family. The four people that showed up were Louise, me, Mie Fredericks and Bernice. Bernice was not going to be in the group. She was putting the group together as the musical conductor. But Louise said, “Oh, come on Bernice. You know, we got a group” because Bernice was like, “Ain't nobody here.” We replied, “We’re here, let's sing.”

And that's the beginning of the group named Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Those were the early days. You mentioned something about the music in the ‘70s from Motown to rock musicians of all musical genres who were voicing their support for causes such as civil rights or against the Vietnam War.  In 1973, I was just 13 years old, but listening to all this wonderful music on the radio, from Stevie Wonder to the Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye.  Stevie had two hits that year, “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City.”  Can you share some of the inspirations?  I know you said the music of that time, but what was the first repertoire that you put together for “Sweet Honey in the Rock “for your first concert in November 17th, 1973?

I call that our first appearance. We sang for 20 minutes at the WC Handy Blues Festival at Howard University. We were in a classroom, there was a panel. We did a blues medley, “[sings] “My baby done gone away/Took my love with him.” We did “CC Rider.” Each one of us had some portion of a blues medley that we did. The four of us sang different versions of the blues that we knew, that Bernice had taught us, and things that we had brought to our rehearsals.

That was basically what we sang. I do remember we knocked it out the ballpark with that “CC Rider” tune and that kind of music. That was our first appearance. Now, our first concert was actually May 8th and 9th of 1974 at the Last Colony Theater, at Georgia and Farragut [in Washington, DC]. It used to be called The Colony Theater in Upper Northwest. Motojicho, the artistic director of the theater, revamped it and turned it into our home. He called it The Last Colony because DC was one of the last colonies of the United States of America.

We had a piano. Diana Ruth Wharton was a student at Howard University. Bernice loved her music and said, “Come be a part of this.” We sang our gospel songs. We sang our civil rights material and some beautiful piano vocal music with Diana Ruth Wharton. That was the first concert. That was something else.

So you all contributed to the repertoire?

Yes. Everybody always brought in a new song, an arrangement, a reimagining something like “Moon Shadow” by LaBelle. “Moon Shadow” was a big hit. We would cover tunes. We weren't really thinking, “We are this kind of group.” We just sang what we felt, sang what we wanted to share with the audience, and let it be.

I've heard some jazz arrangements in some of your presentations such as the tribute to Abbey Lincoln. Then you performed and recorded with the great pianist Horace Silver. Tell me how that came about.

Who called me? I think that it was Chapman Roberts who called me and at that time was and still is a legend and an icon. He did vocal arrangements for Black Broadway shows, and his arrangements were just off the hook. He called and said “Horace Silver is doing this project called “Music of the Spheres.” He's looking for singers and they got in touch with me. Chapman said, “Why don't you go down and audition?” I said, “Oh, what about Loretta Devine?” Loretta auditioned, I auditioned. There were a couple of other Broadway singers that I recommended that went in. But I got it. I was like, “I'm going to work with Horace Silver.” Gregory Hines, the Broadway performer, was on there. Horace Silver, Chapman, and a sister from Baltimore named Brenda Alfred.

I maintained a close relationship with Mr. Silver and did other performances and other new works that he did in New York City. I also put groups together for him when he needed singers. Ron Carter is on the recording as well. I love those songs. I love that I'm a part of it. Thank you for asking about that.

Carol Maillard
Carol Maillard

I'm a vocalist and of course, the dream would've been to work with Horace, McCoy… Over your 50 years working with Sweet Honey in the Rock, there have been different configurations of the ensemble.  You've performed all over the world. You've released over two dozen recordings. Three Grammy nominations. You've been the subject of two PBS television specials, including American Masters. There have been 28 different women. Is that correct? As well as sign language interpreters.

Yes, 28 including our sign language interpreters.

How many are in the group now?

We're just five singers and our sign language interpreter and our bass player. When Ysaye Barnwell retired, we were like, “We can do four singers and we can also do bass. We can do different styles our own way. As you know, Ysaye created her own genre. She wasn't a bass singer when she started, but she created this vibe, this bass energy in the singing quartet. We were thinking, “What do we want? What could we do that would be a little different?” The consensus was,” Let's just have a bass player.” The person doesn’t have to play on everything. But there's some places where we want a little bit of extra funk and a little bit of extra drive.

And we landed a most amazing gentleman. He was younger at the time. In 2014, Romeir Mendez joined us. We call him our “Honey Man.” He's on stage with us during the show. He has solos. He plays the ocean drums. We get the right key. Sometimes that's a little challenge. He hits a note, “boop” and we start, and it's just marvelous. It's nice to have this young man with us because we have grown children and having him and Rochelle Rice, who is our fifth singer is great. Rochelle is quite phenomenal and has a wonderful career of podcasting, soloing and teaching in the Washington DC area. It’s really cool to have younger energy with us. I can't say younger because 37 or 38— it's younger, but it ain’t young. You know what I mean?

Slightly younger than we are. What can we expect for this 50th anniversary performance at Town Hall?  Is there anything new we should be looking for. For a first-time attendee, what should they expect?

You know what? Come with an open heart. Sometimes because of the way that we program, each singer takes a turn and we decide as we're going along. Someone may have this list or at the soundcheck somebody's voice is off. Somebody says, “I don't feel like singing that today.” You get the idea. Or we might think, “Oh, why don't we add this?” so it's hard for me to say exactly what will be there. But it will be an experience. You will have memories. You will hear music that you love. Not all of it, because we ain’t got that much time. You know what I'm saying? There is just not that much time to sing all of what everyone wants to hear.

Oh, of course.  While I have all my favorites that I'd love to hear, I will love whatever's coming out of this ensemble.

We’re going to bring it. We’re going to bring the fire, and we want the audience to be ready to sing with us and have a good time. We always want people to be open, to bring an open heart, a live spirit, and be ready to just go. The music takes you just away. So come on, let's go.

Listen, I'm in the front row on the 24th. I’ve got my ticket.  You will see me there.  Bringing all of that. I've been to a few Sweet Honey in the Rock concerts and they are always an experience for sure.  Tell me now, what's the next 50 years look like? Are younger singers joining or looking to become part of Sweet Honey in the Rock?  Are you nurturing a younger generation to continue with Sweet Honey in the Rock?

That is really a wonderful idea. We talk about it. The closest we get at this point is if we are able to go in a college and do a residency, work with a classroom, work with a choir. I'll just say that the three-year trajectory on our journey in this 50th anniversary “Road to 50” is all the different stories and memories that bring us to November of 2023, and that we've been here 50 years.

In 2024 it will be “Happy Birthday” all year long for that year. Then the next year, 50 and beyond is 2024 to 2025. Where is Sweet Honey going? We hope to find a way to always be in the lexicon of arts, social activism, music, voice, Black women’s power, Black women's sound. The grounding of so much of what happens in this country is with Black women. We're entrepreneurs. We own our own businesses. We own our own music. We want young people to know that so that they can do that. We belong to unions—support your union. We write and produce our own music.

We want more relationships with people that we love and adore. We want to be more in the mainstream media so more people know about us. For “50 and Beyond” we'll see where we are going based on where we are and where we've been.

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.