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.
How did you first meet and become associated with Marc Bolan?
Jones: In 1969, Marc was on A&M Records, and I was in the Los Angeles cast of “Hair” and was invited to a party for T. Rex. That was the first time I actually met Marc.
The second time was when I was on tour with Joe Cocker, and we had performed a big concert at The Crystal Palace with The Beach Boys. We went to the club the Speakeasy, Marc’s white Rolls Royce was out in front, and we were walking into the club with Joe Cocker, and Marc (jokingly) said, ‘Hey, you better be careful, those girls might rob you.’ Joe Cocker said, ‘No man, these are my singers, and they’re going back to America tomorrow, so I’m taking them out.’ The third time was in Beverly Hills, and Marc was going to be performing at the Winter Wonderland in San Francisco.
I was actually just going to contract the girls for T. Rex, and then I said that I would go on tour, but this would be my last, because I was going to come off of the road after a long run, so that’s how it happened.
When we look back 30-something years ago, we look and see change; now interracial couples is nothing, but at that time, it was different. Then, musically, we were coming out of the psychedelics and more into rock, mixing, and this is where Marc’s music was going, into the mixing of rock and soul. This is where Boy George came out with his style. I remember this kid used to stand in front of Marc’s office in England. He was incredible. Like David Bowie, he and Marc were young together and friends; they always enjoyed talking to one another. I can remember when David said he was going into R&B music and that is when he did “Fame.” Marc was funny telling me, ‘Well, I’m just going to go back to just doing what I do.’ That’s what Marc was like. Now you have Oasis, and the sound that is coming out now; we have grown musically.
What was the real Marc Bolan like, and how did he challenge you artistically?
Jones: He was very humble, gracious and very appreciative for what he had accomplished, because he was a young boy in London that actually came up out of the ropes of the business. He was a child model, a songwriter, an actor — he really, really paid his dues. He was very much dedicated to his craft, and he really pushed me. My whole thing with the industry originally was for survival and to take care of my family; that was basically all I was concerned about. When Marc Bolan came into my life, he gave me a sense of freedom and was the first person to tell me to be free and to enjoy writing and singing. Marc brought in the art side to it and making it fun again for me, and T. Rex became fun.
Personally, I never overstepped my boundaries with Marc. The only thing in our home is we tried to live as normal as we could. We laughed a lot and listened to records, and we would go to the zoo every week. We were kind of like teenagers.
I have to tell you this — people didn’t like that he wanted to change his style, and that is what really hurt him, because he had thought that they would go with him through whatever he felt, but then he realized this is a business. He was a very genuine person. I hear stories of young guys that would have a flat on the expressway, and they looked up and Marc had his chauffeur just stop to help them to get them on their way. You hear a lot of great stories where he befriended lot of people.
What projects did you enjoy most with Marc?
Jones: I really enjoyed all of them. I think the earlier songs of “City Port,” “Stagecoach,” “Cry Baby,” those were like the beginning of our new journey and new sound, because Marc really believed in sound, and that’s why he recorded with such artists as Ray Parker Jr.; Sylvester Rivers; Ollie Brown; Ed Green, drummer for Barry White; and Scott Edwards, bass player for Stevie Wonder.
He worked on a level with these types of incredible musicians. He played on “City Limits” with Ike and Tina Turner. I’ll never forget. I called Ike and said we’re in town and he said, ‘We’re in the studio; you guys come down.’ Marc took his guitar; Tina and I were listening to the song while Marc and Ike were working out their guitar part. Ike said to Marc, “Play what you feel.” That’s when Marc put that “chink, chink” you hear on there. Ike and Tina also really admired him, and they appreciated a lot of the rock acts.
How Marc changed things is that he mixed, and he got in there and would try new things; he had guts. It’s not about being selfish with music; it is about keeping it free and open for change, and that is one thing that Marc had, he was about change … look at us now.
Please tell us about the Marc Bolan School of Music and Film.
Jones: Marc had vision, and he believed in the arts, and that is one of the reasons for the Marc Bolan School of Music and Film. He was going into film. He had always been interested in videos; in fact, he was really one of the first artists to do a music video in high tech in Paris, France, at the time when video first started. Rolan has been really encouraging me to get back into the industry, and I am really working on his behalf regarding the Marc Bolan School of Music and Film.
We felt that if the children are able to create, they are able to make a living at it, then they should know how to produce films, as well, and then learn how to promote their own events. Rolan came to Sierra Leone three years ago, and he met the young people in the small town, which is like a university town, really young people, and he was speaking with them and met a few of the children who were child soldiers during their civil war.
He shared with me and said, ‘Mom, I really want to do something for this community and these young people.’ So we’ve been speaking about it. Now we are in the final stages of registration. What we decided to do, and Rolan suggested, is start with two classrooms and see how it works. Next year we will build the school. The film school will be one part that is very important, and we’ll really influence a lot of ideas and a lot of lives, because the children are able to film their lives through the camera. Then you’re really going to get something here, and Marc would have loved it. His only concern would be to make sure the children come out learning the music.
What are some of your current projects?
Jones: We have some wonderful things that we are doing. With The Light of Love Foundation, we are planning a world music festival for the children to reach out all over the world. I hope by the grace of God next year I will be calling to tell you that you are a guest. And, I would like for the children in Africa to compose a song for the children in Haiti as a tribute. It’s really all about the children and our youth. They are the generation that’s going to carry on all of the world, and we need to be concerned about them. The children are very violent in the world now, and what we need to do is to lighten it up, so these children can learn love and peace. They really need a purpose, because I don’t think that the young people today have a purpose anymore.
How do you reflect on your career thus far?
Jones: In December of 2009 I produced a song for UNICEF Europe, “Come Make a Little Step of Peace” by Pascal G. I went to the gala, and there were people that came up to me, some my age, some older, some younger, telling me how much they have appreciated me musically in their lives. I was absolutely honored. To be able meet people who’d actually seen me perform on TV in the ’70s — when something like that happens, you realize your worth, and that you have touched a lot of lives through your music. My mission is to keep soul music alive and to positively touch the lives of people who listen to my music. What I learned over in Africa is that you speak from your heart, have faith, and everything comes.
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