“It’s been a lot of years, huh?” So says Motor Town singer Shirley Jones – who accompanies her words with a wry, philosophical chuckle – as she reflects on her long recording career. It began almost forty-five years ago when, as a teenager, she sang alongside her two sisters, Brenda and Valorie, as The Jones Girls. After a clutch of non-charting 45s for different companies in the early to mid-’70s – among them, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Music Merchant imprint, Paramount, and Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label – the Jones siblings signed with Gamble & Huff’s iconic Philadelphia International label in 1979 and scored US R&B hits with ‘You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else,’ ‘I Just Love The Man,’ and ‘Nights Over Egypt.’ In the mid-’80s the group disbanded and Shirley – the eldest of the trio – stepped out to start a solo career that yielded a US R&B chart topper, ‘Do You Get Enough Love,’ in 1986.
The Jones Girls reunited in 1992 for the album, ‘Coming Back’ – which was especially popular in the UK, where it was recorded – but then fell off the radar again (sadly, the youngest of the siblings, Valorie, passed away in 2001). Shirley served up her second solo album, ‘With You’ in 1994 only to disappear for over a decade until she reappeared in 2010 with an indie label inspirational album, ‘Feels Like Heaven.’ Five years on and the singer, now sixty-one, is back with a fabulous new single, the slinky dancer groove, ‘Because You Love Me,’ released on the UK label, Expansion. In a recent interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, the chanteuse talks her about her new record, vividly recalls her days in The Jones Girls and reveals that younger members of the Jones family are entering the music business…
What’s it like to have a record out again (‘Because You Love Me’) after such a long layoff?
It’s been great. It feels wonderful to have a single out and especially to work with (producer/composer) Errol Henry again, who did the last big project that we had done, my sisters and I, over there in the UK, the ‘Coming Back’ CD. It was really wonderful working with him again after all these years.
How do you gauge him as a producer?
He is the absolute best. I consider him along with another person – McKinley Jackson, who managed us for many years ago – as a musical genius. They know how to arrange vocals as well as instrumentation for that full, vibrant sound in recordings and I absolutely love that about him. So I think he’s an absolute terrific producer and he’s going to be doing the entire album so that’s how much I think of him.
You pre-empted a question that I was going to ask… So there is going to be a complete album to follow?
Yes, there is and we’re working on getting me back over there (in the UK). My schedule is pretty booked up for the first couple of months of the year and we’re working on getting me back over there because we want to record it over there. I love the sound over there. I love the musicians over there and we want that flavouring. We’re ready to take this album and bring this kind of English soul back here across the pond to the US instead of vice-versa (laughs).
‘Because You Love Me’ is a gospel-flavoured song isn’t it?
Yes it is. We call it inspirational. It’s feel-good music that inspires you. It’s about love but it’s about pure love this time instead of relationship love which I sang about every which way you can during my thirty-something years in this business.
Is that going to be the theme of the album that follows?
I hate to put it in one little box but I will say yes, this album – ‘Because You Love Me’ – is going to be more inspirational with more uplifting lyrics than relationship love. But I still consider it secular in a way because it’s being marketed on soul stations as well as gospel stations. It’s just feel-good music because music is universal and it transcends everything anyway and as long as it’s got positive lyrics and good music and makes you feel good, so that’s what we plan to do with the rest of the album.
As with some of the tracks you did when you were in The Jones Girls, your new song has a positive message, doesn’t it?
Yes. Like ‘Do You Get Enough Love,’ asking that question… and ‘Nights Over Egypt’ was talking about more ethereal types of love. ‘At Peace With Woman’ was saying that there won’t be peace on earth until men and women get together… So we were always aware, my sisters and I, of the types of songs that we wanted to sing at all times.
Going right back to the very beginning, when did music first attract you and grab your attention?
Oh my goodness. We started out gospel. My mother was the first black gospel singer that RCA signed here in the States. They actually signed her the same day they signed Little Richard many years ago. So we started strictly gospel as her background singers. We were known in the Midwest – in the Detroit, Chicago, and Ohio areas – as Mary Frazier Jones and the Jones Sisters for years. But course, once we became early teens – twelve, thirteen – we were always listening to the radio and growing up in the city of Detroit you couldn’t help but admire Motown; the Temptations, the Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. They had a Motor City Revue every Christmas Day and different artists would be on those shows. Every kid in Detroit would put on their new clothes that they got for Christmas and go down to the Fox Theatre. So at twelve and thirteen I really started listening to secular soul music and then a lady at Fortune Records (Betty Robinson) came to my mother and asked if we could record a couple of songs in the secular field and once we started that the word got around. Holland-Dozier-Holland started recording on us. We started doing backgrounds for them and then we signed with Curtis Mayfield’s label (Curtom) in Chicago. I think I was fourteen or fifteen.
How did you get to sign with Holland-Dozier-Holland?
My mum. People that we knew, they knew our reputation as singers and our harmonies. We actually started out doing background sessions for Holland-Dozier-Holland for singers like Freda Payne because they just loved those harmonies that my mother rehearsed us on daily. We went to the Detroit Conservatory of Music as well but my mum was our main teacher for those tight harmonies we rehearsed daily. We were so terribly young. My mum was like: if something is happening do it because you’re not going anywhere without me at that time because we were so young, so innocent, but it was just something they tried and they played it on the radio in the local area, Detroit. And from there, I think, a couple of people heard about us and that’s when Curtis Mayfield heard about us and wanted us to join his label when our contract was up with Holland-Dozier-Holland. They were in the process of moving everything to California anyway.
When did you and your sisters start singing and harmonising together?
It was just Brenda and I and my mum at first because Valorie was so bashful and so young and didn’t want to do any of that. She just wanted to be the baby of the family and then finally she joined us and once she joined us my mum was teaching her her part and Valorie happened to be born with perfect pitch. She came up with all those adventurous harmonies on ‘Nights Over Egypt’ and ‘At Peace With Woman.’ She was the one who would make sure that everybody had the right note. So that was her expertise in the Jones Girls family. Some nights it would be her ear that would keep us in the studio till four or five o’clock in the morning – it was usually either me singing too sharp or too flat (laughs).
As sisters your voices blended incredibly well, didn’t they?
Yes, but it’s the same way with our speaking voices too. People would call my house or Brenda’s house or Valorie’s house and say ‘oh you guys sound so much alike.’ That generally happens in family groups: the tones are pretty much the same so I think that that had a whole lot to do with the harmonies in our singing.
What was Curtis Mayfield like to work with?
He was the sweetest, kindest man – just a genius really to me. We would be in the studio and he would guide our voices and he knew exactly how he wanted to produce us. He did most of those productions himself, he and a guy called Charlie ‘Boy’ Simmons. He’s also the co-writer with Joe Jefferson and Richard Roebuck on ‘Who Can I Run To,’ which is my favourite Jones Girls’ song actually. That’s definitely my favourite.
I just love it. It’s the lyrics. It’s asking a question that you wouldn’t normally find in a song. To me the lyrics are brilliantly written. And then the music too – so much so that the group Xscape redid it and it became a massive hit for them here in the States. It helped to give my sisters and I a shot of adrenaline when it came out in ’95 over here because a lot of older people knew that we had done it first. Actually, I remember asking Kenny Gamble back then: “please don’t put ‘Who Can I Run To’ on the B-side of ‘You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else’ because that should be the next single but he didn’t listen and they released it as the B-side. That record sold a million copies.