By Jamie Brotherton
Once dubbed the Northern Queen of Soul, Gloria Jones is a standout artist. This magnetic performer with a dynamic voice has maintained a steady career spanning more than 40 years in gospel, Northern Soul, R&B and pop.
Jones also originated the song, “Tainted Love” in 1964, which the synth duo Soft Cell later covered in 1982 — and whose version zoomed up various Billboard charts both in 1982 and 1999.
Jones was one of the first female writers and producers for Motown, alongside Pam Sawyer. She wrote and produced for acts including the Jackson 5, The Supremes and The Commodores. “If I Were Your Woman,” the song Jones wrote for Gladys Knight & the Pips, was nominated for a Grammy in 1971.
Jones also enjoyed an association with the iconic Marc Bolan and his hit band, T. Rex (1973-1977), in which she sang backup vocals and collaborated with Bolan on numerous recordings. Offstage, Jones and Bolan fell in love, and she became the mother of his Bolan’s only child.
Today, Jones remains a force in the music industry. She has served as musical supervisor for films and re-released her 1973 album “Share My Love” in 2009. She currently is building the Marc Bolan School of Music and Film in Sierra Leone, Africa, with their son, artist Rolan Bolan.
How did you begin your music career?
Gloria Jones: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, for the first seven years, and my Uncle Bob was my baby sitter and a beautiful jazz musician; he used to rehearse in my father’s church. When I was a little girl, he was practicing on his saxophone, and I started playing on the chair as if it were a piano.
Then at the age of 4, my dad asked if I would sing a solo at church. They thought it was just going to be like a little child getting up there; instead it was really emotional, very similar to that of Michael Jackson, having that natural ability. I never knew this until my uncle shared this with me a few years ago.
At age 14, I was with a gospel group for four years, The Cogic Singers, that I formed with Frankie Karhl and Billy Preston. I remember when Billy returned from the Little Richard tour in Germany and had met The Beatles, who were going under another name at the time. He kept talking about this group and said, ‘They are going to be so big.’
To be honest, we were humble, churchgoing, gospel-singing kids. Our life was going to gospel programs, buying a hamburger and having a malt. That was really the sincerity that we took with us in the record industry.
How did you begin your association with Motown?
Jones: Hal Davis discovered us at the church. I would say he was the original sound for Michael Jackson, by teaching him how to present the song with the inflections; he really helped him to become a recording artist. Brenda Holloway, her sister and I started doing background sessions, and we had a really unique sound that was sort of crossing over into the rock world; it brought attention to Hal Davis, and he introduced me to Ed Cobb.
I thought I was signing with Motown, but they really weren’t into that hard Gospel sound; it was more The Supremes. Even though I was with Cobb, I was still doing background work for Motown, and then I began writing with Pam Sawyer. That is how I was able to get the contract to become a songwriter and producer for Motown.
What was your experience at Motown and to work with luminaries as Berry Gordy and The Jacksons, etc.?
Jones: When we were writing at Motown, it was about the best man winning, and Mr. Gordy would say, “The song that you wrote — is someone going to buy a sandwich or are they going to buy your record?” He wanted you to hit the top. I have to tell you, to have been able to be under such a wonderful person, someone who actually saw my gifts as a songwriter and who gave me the opportunity and chance, because here I am, a young girl at 21, 22 years old, and you’re on the elevator and you’re hearing your music on Muzak — where else would that happen? Mr. Gordy is the kindest, most humble and creative person. He loves the art, and he enjoyed young people. He wasn’t that much older than us, but he enjoyed young people and he loved seeing us create and work at the piano. He is a true artist himself.
Motown was just a wonderful atmosphere. When I look back on it, we were all young. Michael Jackson was only 11, but he was telling everyone he was 8. I admired Mr. and Mrs. Jackson so much, because they trusted us and let us come into their home to work with their sons, who are talented musicians.
When Michael recorded “2-4-6-8” he had those beautiful, big eyes that he gave to the world, but he was just a little boy out there playing in the hallway. We were going over the lyrics with him, but he just couldn’t wait to play. Since Pam and I were both young mothers, we knew how to balance, and he had fun with us. We were like, ‘OK, Michael, just give us three more lines, and then after that, you can go and run, do whatever you want to do.’
We would go to their house to present our songs, and Michael was so mischievous. He loved to tease Pam, and she used to tell me, ‘Michael is so cheeky.’ We really had fun and appreciated the whole family.