Liz Mitchell: Harlesden's pop icon celebrates the 40th anniversary of Boney M's chart topping Mary's Boy Child
PUBLISHED: 14:20 13 December 2018
Harlesden's iconic disco queen is recalling fantastic, vodka-fuelled memories behind the Iron Curtain as she celebrates the 40th anniversary of her band's top selling yuletide favourite.
Liz Mitchell, former lead singer of Boney M, was belting out the band’s Christmas classic Mary’s Boy Child in 1978, which remains one of the most successful songs ever.
But it was not plain sailing for the songstress whose gruelling schedules helped propel the song – and the band – to global success.
“Some people play the lottery all their life and never win a penny - others play once and hit the jackpot, and that’s how it felt with Mary’s Boy Child,” said the 66-year-old.
“I was in the right place at the right time. It was only decided to record it at the last minute.
“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.”
In 2014 she was awarded a blue plaque on her former home in Wrottesley Road, where her father Norman Mitchell MBE still lives.
Liz attended Chamberlayne Road School, now Kensal Rise Primary, before dropping out of Westminster College after two days.
She was discovered aged 14 while singing over a Sam Cooke song on the jukebox at a café where her parents worked and was later invited to audition for Hair.
She eventually moved to Berlin to join the German cast where she replaced Donna Summer. After joining other bands she returned to England in 1974.
In 1976 she returned to Germany to join a new group being assembled by Frank Farian, which would become known as Boney M.
The band challenged fellow European megastars ABBA in the second half of the decade with massive international hits including Daddy Cool, Ma Baker, Sunny, Rasputin, Rivers of Babylon and Brown Girl in the Ring.
“I was in the studio by the Monday,” said the mother-of-three, “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.”
She added: “Frank is a wonderful producer, and he was very special to me. 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’s 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.”
Two iconic music videos were produced to promote Mary’s Boy Child, both featuring the band in festive white furry coats which proved not so warm when they were allowed behind the Iron Curtain to perform in Russia.
She explained: “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 which were both behind the Iron Curtain.
“Word spread about us in what was then of course the Soviet Union, and we received a personal invite from President Brezhnev to perform there, which no other Western act had previously done.”
They played 10 packed-out shows at the Kremlin in just seven days, discovering later that everyone in the crowd for the first three nights was a politician, who had all had come from the nine time zones across the country just to see them.
“We then had to perform in Red Square in front of the iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral in our white, furry Mary’s Boy Child video outfits - which looked cosy in the video 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 too.”
She added: “My great memory of that time is that we had expensive caviar laid out for every meal.”
Irked by the continuation of the Boney M brand featuring different members, Liz still tours as “The Legends of Disco – Liz Mitchell, the original lead singer of Boney M”, and is performing in South Africa and Canada this Christmas.
Liz added: “It’s been tough down the years as people haven’t known who was behind the sound on the records, and that’s been very difficult for me - but the fans have always stayed incredibly loyal, encouraging me to continue, and I am so grateful to them.
“I’ve been truly blessed to have had the voice that God gave me, which has given me such a wonderful life.”