The Sliwin sisters are sitting at a coffee table, just introducing themselves, when they pop the question:
Do you want to hear us sing?
Joan looks at Alex. Alex nods. And, suddenly, a Delray Beach living room is transformed into a cathedral of soaring harmony, as their perfectly pitched voices join on a childhood favorite, the McGuire Sisters classic: “Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime. …”
They sound joyful and sweet. Like honey.
Or Honey Ltd, as they were known for a brief time in the late 1960s, when the Detroit-bred sisters were part of a girl group quartet being groomed for stardom by cult producer Lee Hazlewood. Moving to Los Angeles, they cut records with the town’s hottest musicians, appeared on TV’s top variety shows and traveled from Vegas to Vietnam, singing and shimmying in their leggy, Bob Mackie miniskirts.
But Honey Ltd. turned out to be a prophetic name. Within two years, the group disbanded after one single failed to dent the Top 40, and their album disappeared from sight. End of story, right?
Except that here we are 45 years later, and Honey Ltd. is back for one more buzz around the beehive.
Its long-forgotten album — a swinging collection of psychedelic post-Summer of Love pop, with amazingly inventive vocal arrangements and harmonies — was recently released in the United States by an indie label specializing in Hazlewood’s music.
One reviewer likened the group to a Laurel Canyon Crystals, or the Mamas without the Papas. Another described Honey Ltd.’s sound as “stirring, sock-it-to-me soul.” Its producer hails it as a lost ’60s masterpiece.
And it’s led reporters from Detroit to London to the Delray Beach homes of Joan Sliwin Glasser and Alexandra Sliwin Collins, who view their latest turn in the spotlight with a humble, but grateful appreciation.
It’s been fun talking about old times, they say, but what they really love to do is sing.
Track 1: Detroit rockin’
Joan and Alex were always singing, from pop ditties in their family basement to hymns in the Catholic church choir. The proper daughters of a surgeon and interior decorator, they grew up in Detroit two blocks from Motown’s “Hitsville U.S.A.” headquarters and three doors down from the Franklin family.
Yes, Aretha Franklin, though Joan and Alex’s mom, speaking like a surgeon’s wife, would often mangle the name of the Rev. C.L. Franklin’s famous singing daughter: “She’d say, ‘Guess who I saw today? Urethra,’ ” said Alex with a laugh.
From the beginning, the Sliwins had a sisterly bond that extended to singing and playing piano. One day while attending Wayne State University, the sisters were gabbing with two friends, Laura Polkinghorne and Marsha Jo Temmer, in the school cafeteria. They knew that each could sing. But together? The cafeteria went crazy as their voices pealed across the room.
“We just immediately had an uncanny ability to move all over the place with our harmonies, a very strange cohesive energy,” explained Temmer in the liner notes of the new Honey Ltd. disc.
They quickly connected with music manager Punch Andrews, who named them the Mama Cats and put them to work singing cover songs in Detroit clubs. Backing the group was The Mushrooms, led by a long-haired guitarist named Glenn Frey. Often on the bill was a popular regional singer named Bob Seger.
The sisters had no idea they were becoming part of rock ‘n’ roll history. It was so matter-of-fact that to this day they can remember little about singing background vocals on Seger’s early classics, “Rambin’ Gamblin’ Man” and “Heavy Music.” They also recorded two singles on Andrews’ Hideout label written for them by Seger: “My Boy” and “Miss You.”
Joan recalled that Seger had “a presence” and was destined for something.
But the women weren’t as sure about their path. Detroit was too familiar. If they were going to make it big, all signs pointed west to Southern California.
Track 2: California dreamin’
Dropping out of college, the women hit L.A. for a short time in 1967 and for good in 1968. Bunking at Temmer’s grandmother’s house, they tanned and shopped by day, leaving plenty of time to prowl the Sunset Strip at night. It was a great time to be in Los Angeles. They saw all the bands — the Doors, Love, the Leaves — at one club after another.
“You know the song ‘California Dreamin’?” asked Alex. “Well, we were.”
But they didn’t have the money to hang forever. So, one day they hitchhiked to the Strip for their first audition at a company called LHI — Lee Hazlewood Industries. After producing and writing Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin” and other hits for Duane Eddy and Dean Martin, Lee Hazlewood had earned his own record label.
Despite being a little stoned, the women were ready for their moment, having worked hard to develop original songs written by Polkinghorne and craft distinct harmonies to accompany them.
“By the time we walked into Lee Hazlewood’s office, we were tight,” said Alex. “They signed us on the spot.”
They also got managers to spread the word about the town’s new sensations. Hazlewood, with his twangy voice, called them his “L’il Darlings” but officially renamed them Honey Ltd. (“He wanted it to sound British,” said Alex.)
For a while they were everywhere: Two-page spreads in music magazines, appearances on prime-time shows hosted by Andy Williams, Joey Bishop and Jerry Lewis. They filmed a Japanese candy bar commercial and offered back-to-school beauty tips to teen magazines (“We didn’t even write those!” said Joan.) They attended promotional parties at Hazlewood’s house with the Monkees and the Bee Gees (“very proper, very brotherly,” recalled Alex.)
In the studio, everything was top-notch. Working with Hazlewood was a dream, they said. “He was so laid-back, no nervousness,” said Joan.
The musicians were Phil Spector’s legendary Wrecking Crew, who played on all the California studio hits of the ’60s. Polkinghorne and Temmer’s songs, plus some covers, were expanded into swirling, psychedelic pop and soul orchestrations. Adding to that were the powerful vocal arrangements, which were always done by the group.
“We’d sing it over and over again until it was right,” said Joan. “We didn’t know how to do anything but our own sound.”
The first single “Come Down” only reached about No. 62 on the charts, recalled Alex. But there was little time for disappointment. Their TV appearances had caught the eye of Bob Hope, who had an idea that would revolutionize their lives.
Track 3: Vietnam to Vegas
First, Hope invited Honey Ltd. to appear at a USO benefit in Southern California. When he stepped on stage with them, he announced: “These girls don’t know it yet, but they are going with us to Vietnam.” Hope might not have known they’d recorded an anti-war song, Laura’s “The Warrior,” but he included them on his ’68 Christmas tour of Korea, Japan and Vietnam with Ann-Margret and Dean Martin’s Golddiggers.
“The Honey Ltd.,” as Hope called them, would perform for troops numbering 25,000 or more. Go on YouTube and watch the rapturous reception that four beautiful women in Mackie miniskirts can get from a bunch of lonely, homesick soldiers.
“You felt like you were the Beatles,” said Alex.
They came home more anti-war, but supportive of troops, especially the wounded ones they visited in hospitals. And to this day, those soldiers haven’t forgotten. Two years ago, the Vietnam Veterans of America gave Honey Ltd. a medal for its contributions to troop morale.
“We bump into people who were there and they say how much it meant to them,” said Joan, her eyes welling with tears. “I get choked up. It was an honor to go, but it meant more to them than we could have imagined.”
They still recall the surreal feeling of choppering around a war zone with Hope, who treated them like a kindly uncle, but perhaps the strangest encounter was on a battleship off the coast. A top officer — “a guy with all these ribbons,” remembered Joan — walked up to them and said “Maybe you know my son.”
“It was Jim Morrison’s dad,” said Joan.
Returning home, they kept recording and an album was planned. But Hazlewood wasn’t having any success as a label chief. When it became clear that revenue was needed, their managers booked Honey Ltd. into Caesar’s Palace. Soon, they were opening for Eddie Fisher and performing corny medleys with top hats and collapsible canes.
In 1969, they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s popular Sunday night TV show. The group had just recorded an inventive cover of the Laura Nyro song, “Eli’s Coming.” They wanted to introduce it to America. Instead, their managers pressured them to do their Vegas shtick.
“It wasn’t our thing,” Joan remembered. “We wanted to do the new music, the scene that was happening.”
Soon after, Three Dog Night released its hit version of “Eli’s Coming.” To this day, Joan and Alex wonder if some backroom deal wasn’t cut to keep their song from breaking out.
Alex didn’t even appear on the Sullivan show (she was replaced by a blonde Golddigger.) She had met a promising young musician named John David Souther in Los Angeles, and decided to get married and quit the group. The rest saw little future in it, too.
After all the buildup, Hazlewood and Co. easily let them out of their contract and Honey Ltd. was no more. Or so it seemed.
Track 4: Country rockin’
Joan, Polkinghorne and Temmer quickly refashioned themselves as Eve, and made another album for Hazlewood’s label in 1970, “Take It and Smile.” Despite a pleasing, rootsy sound, the album didn’t yield any hits, either. One of the songs did make it onto the soundtrack of the cult car chase film, “Vanishing Point.” (“I still get a $2 check for that,” said Joan with a laugh.)
During this time, the sisters also played a small role in the formation of music’s next big thing — the Eagles. Frey was Joan’s boyfriend (“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one,” Joan says of their fluid relationship), and had followed her from Detroit to L.A., staying at her apartment and hoping to break into the West Coast recording scene.
Naturally, Joan’s boyfriend was introduced to Alex’s husband, and Souther and Frey formed a band called Longbranch Pennywhistle. They released one album, with Joan’s inside cover drawings and a dedication to both sisters as their inspiration.
After that album didn’t take off, Frey soon created the Eagles with Don Henley, and Souther would be like an ex-facto member of the group, co-writing several of their hits, from “Best of My Love” to “New Kid In Town.” Would it have happened without the Sliwin sisters? Probably, but their part has been overlooked in histories of the band.
The ’70s and ’80s saw the sisters going where the work was, and performing everywhere from L.A. to Nashville. Alex can remember bumping into George Harrison at recording studios. Joan worked with Loretta Lynn and made it to the Top 10 in 1982, when she sang on Seger’s hit single “Shame on the Moon.”
Alex got divorced from Souther, dabbled in songwriting and musical theater, married again and had a daughter, Molly, who is grown now. Joan wed — ironically enough — a former Hazlewood label musician, Michael Glasser.
The sisters never stopped singing and keeping in close touch with other members of Honey Ltd. Polkinghorne (now known as Laura Creamer) has been performing with Seger for years, while Temmer sang and danced with Tina Turner on tour.
In 2004, after several years out of the business and living in New York, Joan and her husband decided to move to Delray Beach after visiting relatives here. Alex followed a couple of years later on a promise from Joan: “If you move here, we can sing!”
Today, they still live doors down from each other in the same Rainberry Bay community. Joan — dark-haired and more talkative — is retired, and helping her husband work on a film about dangerous chemicals on military bases. Alex — lighter-haired, and a bit quieter — still works part-time for the administration of a Boca Raton restaurant.
They keep in shape swimming daily in the community pool, and love shopping and dining excursions on Atlantic Avenue. Unlike other sisters, they rarely argue.
“We’ve always gotten along well,” said Alex. “We were kind of reared as twins … one grade apart.”
Track 5: Like Honey
Maybe they don’t need to be doing this at their age, which they charmingly decline to provide (“Everybody can do the math,” said Alex), but performing is what they know. It’s what they’ve always done.
So about two nights a week, Alex and Joan slip into their stylish, matching dresses and sing to backing tracks of the ’50s and ’60s. And they’re still like honey. Like Honey, in fact, is the name of their musical duo, and they perform all over South Florida from restaurants to private parties to condo auditoriums. They especially love performing for veterans, even just singing the National Anthem at a community event.
On a recent Saturday evening, they are working a classic car show in Abacoa, belting out familiar Motown and girl group hits. At first, customers are paying more attention to Frank Sinatra’s limo, and the vintage Thunderbirds and Packards.
But these women are pros. Their voices project. And as Alex sings a sultry, soulful version of ex-neighbor Aretha’s “You Make Feel Like A Natural Woman,” people slowly drift over to the amphitheater. They sit and listen. Maybe there is only an audience of 25, but they’ve made some new fans.
Jean Lopane, president of PBC Classic Promotions, which puts on car shows every month, has hired the sisters for six years. “I just love their energy, their professionalism and I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like the way they sing,” she said.
During a break, Joan and Alex talk about getting an agent and doing more condo theaters. They realize that business isn’t their strength. They don’t sell Honey Ltd. albums at gigs or sing songs from it because they don’t have the proper musical tracks. Joan said audiences want to hear familiar oldies, anyway.
But it might be the right time to promote their past.
Track 6: A song of sisterhood
For a group with a short shelf life, Honey Ltd. has long been on the cult radar of music enthusiasts. Somebody purchased one of the original Honey Ltd. albums, which even the sisters don’t own, on eBay a few years ago for $1,975.
And in July 2012, Joan and Alex heard that a respected, boutique label in Seattle, Light In The Attic records, was planning to bring them back into the spotlight after 45 years.
Hunter Lea co-produced this summer’s reissue of “Honey Ltd.: The Complete LHI Recordings” as part of the label’s ongoing release of Hazlewood productions. He extensively searched Hazlewood’s archives to find all 13 tracks (two without vocals) and wished he could have found more.
“When you look at lost recordings, they aren’t always as good as you hoped. They’re lost for a reason,” said Lea. But not this time. “You take amazing songs and unique vocal talents and give them an unlimited budget and a great producer and this is the result. They made a magic record.”
Nonetheless, the questions linger: Why didn’t it sell? Why didn’t they make it big?
Lea blamed short-sighted management for pushing them into Vegas shtick instead of nurturing their songwriting. And he said Hazlewood was overextended as a producer, singer and record label manager, which doomed the group to not getting the attention it deserved.
“I’m just glad they made the album. It captures a moment in time.”
Joan and Alex are thrilled to have their music back in circulation. (And there may be more: Honey Ltd. songs are part of a Hazlewood box set coming out near the holidays. And Lea thinks the Eve album will be reissued by Light In The Attic, as well.)
“It feels great and so surprising,” said Alex.
Added Joan: “It’s heartwarming to think somebody still relishes something we did so long ago, during a wonderful time in our lives.”
More important than the music is the friendship between the group members. Not a week goes by when they don’t talk to each other. They have reunions all over the country to catch up.
“We’re all sisters in the spiritual sense,” said Alex.
You might think that going from performing for large audiences and recording with music superstars, to working for a handful of people at a car show might be a disappointment. But Joan and Alex don’t act regretful.
Friendship. Music. Sisterhood. Together, it’s formed a full life.
“If you love doing something and you keep doing it life reveals itself to you and perfects itself,” said Joan in a philosophical moment. “The joy is in the doing.”
Especially if you’re doing it with your sister.
“When I’m not singing with Joan,” said Alex, “I feel as though I’m missing an appendage.”
OUR PERSONAL JOURNEYS TEAM
Larry Aydlette has been a reporter and editor at the Palm Beach Post since 1985. He began covering county, city and state government, became an assistant news editor, then Entertainment Editor, Senior Editor for Features and Entertainment and is now Culture Editor. He has been a music and art critic for The Post, and his arts reporting has won state and national feature writing awards.
Gary Coronado is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in photography. In 1996, he took his first photography course at a community college. Later, he began freelancing for the Orange County Register in California, and relocated to South Florida in 2001. He has been on the photography staff of the Palm Beach Post since August 2003.
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