Song that will live for ever more because of Boney M
ONE COOL BAND: Boney M in front of St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow, in 1978
By late November 1978 Boney M had established themselves as one of the giants of disco. With their gold lamé suits and leopardskin posing pouches the quartet had scored Top 10 hits with songs such as Daddy Cool, Brown Girl In The Ring and Rasputin – but the best was yet to come. The track they released for that year’s Christmas became the UK’s fastest-selling single and to this day is the 11th bestselling song of all time with sales of 3 million. It was, of course, Mary’s Boy Child.
As the yuletide classic celebrates its 40th anniversary the group’s original lead singer reveals how it took punishing vocal sessions in the studio to propel it to global success.
Liz Mitchell, 66, admits she still struggles to believe just how successful the track has become. “Some people play the lottery all their life and never win a penny,” she says.
“Others play once and hit the jackpot and that’s how it felt with Mary’s Boy Child.
“I was in the right place at the right time. It was only decided to record it at the last minute and although singing a track in the studio more than 50 times in one session – including lead, backing vocals, harmonies and all the oohs and aahs – was very hard work, we created something very special which has endured over the past four decades.
“Every year people of all ages come up and tell how much the song reminds them of precious family time together at Christmas. It’s truly magical.”
Mary’s Boy Child was originally recorded by the “King of Calypso” Harry Belafonte in 1956 and first became the UK’s festive No 1 in 1957.
The Boney M version – full title Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord, after producer Frank Farian added a new section – was recorded seven weeks before Christmas 1978, being rushed out to shops 40 years ago this week before going to top the charts for four weeks, making it the 1978 Christmas No 1 and staying in the top spot for the first weeks of 1979.
Two music videos were produced to promote the single, both featuring the band in white furry coats.
Liz Mitchell today
While they looked cosy and warm Liz discovered just how unsuitable they were for winter weather when they received an invitation soon after to perform in Russia.
“Our record company’s pressing plant in West Germany couldn’t keep up with demand for our records so they asked for help from a pressing plant in East Berlin and then another in Poland – both behind the Iron Curtain.
“Word spread about us in what was then the Soviet Union and we received an invite from President Brezhnev to perform there, which no other Western act had previously done.
“We played ten packed-out shows at the Kremlin in just seven days and only discovered later that everyone in the crowd for the first three nights was a politician.
They had all come from the nine Soviet time zones just to see us.
“We then had to perform in Red Square in front of St Basil’s Cathedral in our white, furry Mary’s Boy Child video outfits, which looked cosy but were actually paper thin, meaning we had no protection from the minus 30C temperatures.
So the locals washed our hands in vodka, telling us it would keep out the cold, while advising that drinking it would keep us warm on the inside.
“We were introduced to President Brezhnev but to me he was just one of the endless list of dignitaries we had to shake hands with and my great memory of that time is that we had expensive caviar laid out for every meal.
Boney M group in the 1970s
“Moscow then was a very dark place compared with today where the neon lights make it probably the brightest city in the world.”
It was a remarkable experience for a young woman who grew up in Harlesden, London, after arriving from Jamaica with her family in 1964.
She vividly remembers her first impression of England: “Everything was grey, foggy and wet.”
Three years later she auditioned for a part in the counter-culture musical Hair.
At that first audition Liz – then aged 15 – was considered too young but the casting agent kept her in mind and three years later gave her a part in the German production.
Liz duly moved to Germany to replace her friend and fellow future pop star Donna Summer in the cast.
She went on to join local group the Les Humphries Singers but at the age of 22 decided to play it safe and return to London to attend secretarial college.
“I was worried my chance of show business success had come and gone and that it was time to go back to London and find a proper job,” she explains. “But back home I received a call asking me to return to Germany to perform and after a show in Berlin one night I met Frank Farian, who was putting together a new studio group.
Boney M album cover Mary’s By Child Oh My Lord
That turned out to be Boney M. “I was in the studio by the Monday, recording what would become tracks on the first Boney M album Take The Heat Off Me and for the next decade I would go on to perform the vast majority of lead and backing vocals on our seven albums.”
Their early recordings were so successful that Boney M went on to challenge Abba for the title of biggest pop group on the planet in the late 1970s.
Apart from Mary’s Boy Child, the group had massive international hits such as Daddy Cool, Ma Baker, Sunny, Rasputin, Rivers Of Babylon and Brown Girl In The Ring.
The sound on the records was entirely the work of Liz, second singer Marcia Barrett and producer Frank, and it was a winning formula which helped Boney M sell more than 150 million records worldwide before splitting in 1986.
Although Boney M was a four-piece act, Liz was the only member of the group who can be heard on all the hits.
“Frank is a wonderful producer and he was very special to me,” she says.
“He was the one who found the magic and recognised what my voice could do. And I’ll always be grateful. Marcia is also a wonderful person and we were the ones in the studio singing multiple lead and backing vocals for hours on end.
“There has not been enough clarity over the years in terms of who did what in Boney M but fortunately Frank Farian has since stated that all members of the group could have been replaced except for me. And I like to think that when it comes to the music Liz Mitchell is the sound of Boney M.”
Boney M singer Liz Mitchell
Liz married her manager Thomas in 1979 and the couple, who live in Berkshire, have three children: two sons Aaron and Twan and daughter Adero.
And she still tours as The Legends Of Disco – Liz Mitchell and this Christmas will be performing in South Africa and Canada.
She says: “The fans have always stayed incredibly loyal, encouraging me to continue. I am so grateful to them.”
Liz adds: “Wherever we play around the world we are always sold-out with fans of all ages many of whom were not even born when we having hits in the 1970s. And in 2018 it’s wonderful to be celebrating the music of 40 years ago.
“I’ve been truly blessed to have had the voice that God gave me, which has given me such a wonderful life.”
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