Hondells rode high with 'Little Honda' by Jerry Osborne, Special to The Chicago Sun-Times
Q. In the 1960s or '70s, the Hondells had a song about a little Honda motorbike. They sang of taking a ride and "having more fun than a barrel of monkeys." I would like information on this record so when I play it for my granddaughter we can have more fun than a barrel of monkeys, too.
A. The title is easy -- "Little Honda," -- and it became a Top 10 hit in the summer of 1964.
Written the year before by Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love, "Little Honda" first appeared on the LP, "The Beach Boys -- All Summer Long."
Sensing its hit potential, Capitol also wanted to issue "Little Honda" as a single, but Brian thought it was not as strong as some of the others in the can. Brian's rejection of it got the attention of Gary Usher, an occasional composition collaborator of Wilson's. Together they wrote "In My Room; " "Ten Little Indians; " "County Fair" and others. Gary knew "Little Honda" would be a huge hit, and he was absolutely right. For lead vocals, Usher recruited Chuck Girard of the Castells. He then added a talented group of studio musicians for the session. Among the players having more fun than a barrel of monkeys on "Little Honda" are Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine and Richie Allen. Keeping with the Honda theme, Usher named his assemblage the Hondells. Also recorded at that session was another tune co-written by Gary Usher titled "Hot Rod High," a terrific entry into the 1963-64 field of car songs.
Surprisingly, the first batch of promo copies (Mercury 72324) sent to radio stations clearly indicated "Hot Rod High" as the A-side. Since "Hot Rod High" was popular with disc jockeys and listeners alike, it would be couple of weeks before the B-side, "Little Honda," got discovered. Though both tunes received air play, "Little Honda" -- a dead-on copy of the Beach Boys' version -- soon dominated and roared right up the charts, peaking at No. 9. As for Brian Wilson's concern that their version of "Little Honda" wouldn't be strong enough, his fears were unfounded. Established stars that they were, the Beach Boys would likely have done even better with "Little Honda" than the newcomer Hondells. It probably would have ranked among the Top 5.
Meanwhile, the Beach Boys single on the charts at that time, "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)," also peaked at No. 9 -- exactly the same as "Little Honda" by the Hondells. One month later, Capitol shifted gears and issued a four-track extended play 45, "Four By the Beach Boys" (Capitol R-5267). The lead song on the EP is clearly "Wendy," but their energetic "Little Honda" also got played, exposing their original to Top 40 music lovers who didn't already own the album "All Summer Long." The other two tracks on the EP are "Don't Back Down" and "Hushabye." All four songs are from the "All Summer Long" LP (Capitol 2110), itself a Top 5 seller and one of that summer's best offerings.
Q. There is one line in "Little Honda" that has baffled me for over 40 years. With regard to the little Honda, it sounds to me like the words are "It climbs the hills like a mattress 'cause my Honda's built really light." A mattress may be good for some things, but climbing hills is probably not one of them.
A. Perhaps the Hondells' hit sounds a bit more like "mattress" than the Beach Boys, but both recordings state "It climbs the hills like a Matchless."
Matchless is one of Great Britain's first and most renowned motorcycles, with a line of commercial bikes that began more than 100 years ago. If you didn't know that brand name, even if you had figured out they were singing "matchless," you still would have been mystified as to its inclusion. IZ ZAT SO? On May 2, 1966, the Beach Boys were special guests on the Andy Williams TV show, where one segment called for them to sing "Little Honda," with Andy joining in on the chorus. Talk about a stray in the herd! But because this hit mentions Honda exactly 27 times, the Williams people thought the song might be regarded by some as a 2-minute commercial for Honda motorcycles, unfortunately not one of the show's sponsors.
So it came to pass that the audience that night heard a rare version with some unconvincing lyrics, such as "I'd better turn on the lights so we can ride my cycle tonight." Proving music's persuasive power, I'll now confess that my first bike was a Honda S-90 -- bought in the summer of '64 mainly because of the Hondells and Beach Boys.
Jerry Osborne is a syndicated columnist. Write to him c/o Chicago Sun-Times, Features Department, 350 N. Orleans, Chicago, IL 60654, visit his Web site, www.jerryosborne.com