It is the undoubted ear-worm anthem of the festive season – a calypso Christmas carol that became an unexpected chart topper.
Yet the extraordinary story of how Boney M’s version of Mary’s Boy Child became one of the best-selling singles of all time is less well known than its catchy lyrics.
Far from thinking that it would go on to sell more than two million copies, the band’s lead singer Liz Mitchell recalls it being a last minute decision to record the song she had sung as “a girl in pigtails” in church.
Along with her bandmates Marcia Barrett, Maizie Williams and Bobby Farrell, during one gruelling studio session in 1978, Mitchell had more than 50 attempts at recording the track made famous by Harry Belafonte.
The hard work paid off and the group, which would end up selling more than 150 million records globally from 1976 to 1986, created a truly memorable track that has more than stood the test of time.
When Jester Hairston, the black American songwriter who originally composed the biblical tune, found out how well the Boney M version had done, he reportedly said: “God bless my soul. That’s tremendous for an old fogey like me”. He was 78 at the time.
Now approaching her 70th birthday, Mitchell shares his sense of wonder at how well that gospel song – and others like Rivers of Babylon and Brown Girl in the Ring – has endured for more than four decades.
She puts it down to the “innocence” of verses referring to “Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ” being “born on Christmas Day” and the uplifting refrain of the “Oh My Lord” chorus.
Comparing the chaste words to some of the “violent” lyrics in modern-day rap songs, Jamaica-born Mitchell says: “There is certainly something so clean and pure about those songs. We used to sing Brown Girl in the Ring at the playground back home in Jamaica. At the moment, there’s such little hope in the lyrics we hear. I do worry about the message and where the message is coming from.
“If the heart of the story is dark then that’s a message that the kids will receive. People are so aggressive.”
The bubbly figure beaming back at me across Zoom could not be further removed from the belligerent and hostile culture she describes.
A born-again Christian who first started belting out some of Boney M’s now best known tracks from the congregation of her church in Clarendon, Jamaica, where she grew up, she had no plan to enter the music business – let alone be the voice of three of the UK’s all time top 20 singles.
As the band’s main vocalist, she was at the heart of an extraordinary phenomenon which saw the four-piece disco act dominate the UK and European charts alongside fellow continental megastars Abba.
“Music plays a part in all of our lives, whether we want to be singers or not,” she chuckles. “I never thought of myself as being a singer, to be honest with you, until it actually happened.”
Liz was just 11 when she was sent on a plane to Britain in June 1963 to be reunited with her parents, who were among the Windrush generation.
“I just remember it being very cold and not knowing anyone,” she recalls.
Her father Norman and mother Lowes had travelled ahead and left Liz in the care of her grandparents while they established themselves in Harlesden, north London. Norman, now 100, and Lowes, 94, still live nearby.
By September, she had been enrolled into a state comprehensive where she soon gained a reputation for her soulful voice as she would sing with her girlfriends in the school cloakroom.
“Someone heard me one day and said: ‘Oh, you really can sing, can you help me with my audition?’ And then this audition turned out to be my audition as well and the rest of it is all history.”
Liz, who had not only been brought up on gospel music but also the likes of the Beatles and Aretha Franklin, ended up accompanying the friend for an audition for Hair, the musical.
Against the wishes of her parents, who begged her to “get a proper job”, she joined the chorus line for the show’s 1970 run in West Germany, where she performed alongside fellow wannabe Donna Summer.
“Donna wasn’t famous at that time,” she recalls. “We were just young people trying to make it.”
Liz spent the next five years plying her trade across Europe, including attempts to introduce reggae and songs later covered by Bob Marley to audiences.
She had returned to London to join secretarial school and had just about given up on the hope of a music career when a chance phone call lured her back to West Germany to join a new group being assembled by German record producer Frank Farian, now 80 and living in Miami.
Over the course of three days, she laid down the vocals for Sunny, Boney M’s breakthrough hit.
She spent months alone with Farian performing all the vocals on the hit songs before meeting up with the other three members to learn the dance routines before taking the act on tour. “He felt that we had something immediately. We went into the studio and lo and behold, by the summer we had a number one.”
Within two years, Boney M were not only dominating the charts but being asked to perform all over the world – even taking to the stage in Moscow at the height of communism following a personal invitation by President Brezhnev (although the band’s hit song at the time, Rasputin, was banned from the playlist by the Soviet authorities).
“1978 was the pinnacle. We had five number ones that year,” Liz recalls. “When we went to Russia, we did 10 shows in seven days, and press conferences galore. We even recorded a video for Mary’s Boy Child in Red Square, in front of the basilica. Russian fans would tell us that Sunny brought out the sun for them. It was because our music was clean, there was nothing to be frightened about, we weren’t going to hurt anybody with our music.”
Yet behind the scenes, things weren’t quite as harmonious as they appeared on stage. Rivalries built up between members of the band. Having initially been recruited to lip sync, squabbles quickly broke out over royalties, with the record company assuming control of the songs. Farian would go on to court controversy with his 1990s band Milli Vanilli after admitting that they were just a pair of attractive front men miming music by a group of anonymous session musicians. The revelation cost Milli Vanilli’s 1990 Grammy Award for Best New Artist and at least 27 lawsuits were filed in the US under consumer fraud protection laws.
As Liz puts it: “I always got on very well with Frank. The only thing I used to say was what I did not give and could not give to Frank was my soul. You know, the music carried my soul, and he could not even claim that if he’d like to. That belongs to me. But I’ll never know who got all the money. It certainly wasn’t me.
“When the Milli Vanilli story broke, people started saying Boney M didn’t sing their own songs and I thought, no, you can’t do that to me. I sang all the lead vocals.” Farian later stated: “All members [of Boney M] could be replaced, except Liz”.
Liz had also gone through her own personal struggles, having been unprotected as a young global pop star, becoming “born again” in a bid to “find a clean way to move forward in my life”.
She admits: “I think I got on their nerves a little bit at the time with my Bible; I was a bit of a Bible basher!”
In 1979, she met Thomas Pemberton, who was working as a model, before marrying a year later. He went on to become her manager and they have two sons, Aaron and Twan, and daughter Adero – now all in their 30s.
She would go on performing in the band for a further six years until it split in 1986. From this point, different versions of the group were formed by members, some with the co-operation of Farian, others without, but it was Liz who remained the constant. She is still performing to this day, as Boney M’s songs remain enduringly popular, particularly in Europe. Not that Liz can pick a favourite.
“I always say, I could not choose a favourite child. They’re all so important to me, these songs, they’re like children.”
For more information on Liz Mitchell’s shows, go to boneym-lizmitchell.com