Although they never had much success in America, the Euro-disco group Boney M. were a European phenomenon during the ’70s. After German record producer Frank Farian (born in 1942) recorded the single “Baby Do You Wanna Bump?” (which was successful in Holland and Belgium).
He created Boney M. to support the song, bringing in four West Indian vocalists who had been working as session singers in Germany — Marcia Barrett (b. October 14, 1948, St. Catherines, Jamaica), Liz Mitchell (b. July 12, 1952, Clarendon, Jamaica), Maizie Williams (b. March 25, 1951, Monserrat, West Indies), and Bobby Farrell (b. October 6, 1949, Aruba, West Indies, d. December 30, 2010, St. Petersburg, Russia).
“Daddy Cool” reached the U.K. Top Ten in February 1977, followed in April by a remake of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny.” In July, “Ma Baker” just missed the U.K. number one spot, and “Belfast” hit the Top Ten in December. In 1978, Boney M. were at the height of their popularity with “Rivers of Babylon”/”Brown Girl in the Ring,” which became the second-biggest selling single in U.K. chart history. “Rivers of Babylon” also was Boney M.’s only U.S. Top 40 hit.
Boney M.’s album, Nightflight to Venus, also topped the U.K. charts. In October 1978, “Rasputin” became another U.K. Top Ten hit, followed by the seasonal chart-topper “Mary’s Boy Child”/”Oh My Lord,” which became the fifth-biggest selling single in U.K. history. In March 1979, “Painter Man” hit the U.K. Top Ten, followed in May by “Hooray! Hooray! It’s a Holi-Holiday.” In September, the album Oceans of Fantasy hit number one. Their music continues to sell well in Europe, with a compilation hitting the U.K. Top Ten in 1994. Farian went on to create the late-’80s dance sensation Milli Vanilli. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi.
Boney M. is a vocal group created by German record producer Frank Farian. Originally based in Germany, the four original members of the group’s official line-up were Jamaican-born singers Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett, Maizie Williams from Montserrat and Bobby Farrell from Aruba. The group was formed in 1976 and achieved popularity during the disco era of the late 1970s. Since the 1980s, various line-ups of the band have performed with different personnel.
German singer-songwriter Frank Farian (real name Franz Reuther) recorded the dance track “Baby Do You Wanna Bump” in December 1974. Farian sang the repeated line “Do you do you wanna bump?” in a deep voice (entirely studio created) as well as performing the high falsetto chorus. When the record was released as a single, it was credited to “Boney M.”, a pseudonym Farian had created for himself after watching the Australian detective show Boney.
I turned on the TV one day and it was the end of a detective series. I just caught the credits and it said Boney. Nice name, I thought – Boney, Boney, Boney… Boney M. Boney, Boney, Boney M. Nice sound. Simple.
After a slow start, the song became a hit in the Netherlands and Belgium. It was then that Farian decided to hire performers to ‘front’ the group for TV performances. The Katja Wolfe booking agency found model-turned-singer Maizie Williams (originally from Montserrat) and her Jamaican singer friend Sheyla Bonnick for him, along with a dancer known only as “Mike” for the first gigs.
Also during 1975, a girl named Nathalie joined but was soon replaced by Jamaica-born Claudja Barry. Then Bonnick and Mike left, and Maizie Williams brought in Bobby Farrell, a male exotic dancer from Aruba. Singer Marcia Barrett (also from Jamaica) joined the group, which then went through another change in line-up when Claudja Barry left in February 1976 to pursue a solo career as a disco singer. Finally Liz Mitchell, former member of the Les Humphries Singers, stepped in. The line-up was finalised with Liz Mitchell, Maizie Williams, Marcia Barrett, and Bobby Farrell.
Take the Heat off Me
Boney M.’s first album, Take the Heat off Me, was released in 1976. It contained tracks that Marcia Barrett had already recorded with Farian, including the title track and “Lovin’ or Leavin'”, both of which were previously recorded in German by another Farian act, Gilla. As Maizie Williams’ voice wasn’t considered suitable for recording purposes by Farian, and a try-out with Bobby Farrell performing “No Woman No Cry” didn’t work, Farian decided to use only Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett along with his own studio-enhanced voice to create the Boney M. sound.
The album’s commercial performance was initially lukewarm. However, the group rigorously toured discos, clubs and even country fairs to earn a reputation for themselves. The group’s big break came when, at the end of summer 1976, German television producer Michael ‘Mike’ Leckebusch (of Radio Bremen) requested the group for his show Musikladen.
Boney M. appeared on the live music show on 18 September 1976, after 10 pm and in their daring stage costumes, where they performed the song “Daddy Cool”. The song quickly went to no.1 in Germany, with the album following the success of the single. Another single, “Sunny” (a cover of the 1966 Bobby Hebb song) gave the group their second no.1 hit. The group’s popularity had also grown throughout Europe, with “Daddy Cool” reaching no.1 in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and Austria. Both singles were also Top 10 hits in the UK, which would become one of their biggest markets.
Love for Sale
In 1977, Boney M. released their second album, Love for Sale, which contained the hits “Ma Baker” and “Belfast”. The group embarked on their first major concert tours with a live band of musicians called ‘The Black Beauty Circus’ (given their name after Maizie Williams’ first band, ‘Black Beautiful People’). Love for Sale was certified Gold a year after its release in the UK. Both singles from the album reached no.1 in Germany and the UK Top 10.
Nightflight to Venus
1978 was the group’s biggest year. They released a new double A-sided single, “Rivers of Babylon/Brown Girl in the Ring”, which became a massive hit all over Europe, reaching No. 1 in several countries as well as becoming one of the biggest selling singles of all time in the UK. It also became their most successful single in the United States, peaking at No. 30 on the U.S. pop singles chart. Following this came their biggest-selling album, Nightflight to Venus, which spawned further hit singles with “Rasputin” and “Painter Man”.
Continuing with their success, they released “Mary’s Boy Child – Oh My Lord”, which was the 1978 Christmas number one single in the United Kingdom and became another of the biggest selling singles of all time there.
Also during 1978, Boney M. made a much publicized promotional visit to the Soviet Union, one of the very few Western acts along with Elton John to do so, although tracks like “Rasputin” were not released in the Soviet Union due to their lyrics.
While it had never been a secret that Bobby Farrell never sang on the group’s records (Farian did the male vocals in the studio), in 1978 it became public knowledge that Maizie Williams did not sing on the studio recordings either since “her voice wasn’t suited for this kind of music”, as Farian stated in an interview with German teen magazine Bravo. Since this had become common practice within the disco genre of the late ’70s, few people cared – unlike when Farian did the same thing with Milli Vanilli in the late1980s.
While only two of Boney M.’s official members actually contributed to the band’s records, all four members of the group, including Williams and Farrell, performed the vocals live at Boney M. concerts. The band’s live sound was also augmented by several backing vocalists, which served to enhance any vocal deficiencies the group may have had compared with the studio productions.