(pictured: Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff)
How did you get with Gamble and Huff in the first place? Did you feel that you had gone as far as you could with Curtom?
Well, we cut a lot of tracks and most of them are on a CD called ‘Keeping Up With The Joneses – The Early Years’ which I didn’t know even existed until a few years ago, and there’s a lot of Curtom and Music Merchant songs on it. It’s a bunch of things that they had in the can from back in those days. After Holland-Dozier-Holland had moved all of their business to California, we reconnected with them and they flew us in to do backgrounds. We were still in school and couldn’t move out to California because by this time I was in my first year of college and Brenda and Valorie were still in high school so we could only go on weekends or we would go for a week when were out of school to do the backgrounds.
It was during that time that you hooked up with Diana Ross – how did that happen? (pictured left, The Jones Girls with Diana Ross).
Our then manager, McKinley Jackson, told us that Diana Ross was looking for some singers. She’d been turning everybody down and he said would we be interested in trying to go with her? We were like yeah, of course: that was our dream, to be the Supremes. When we were younger we would dress up like them and my mum would make us little outfits like the Supremes wore. At that time were with (manager/producer) Dick Scott who had us and the Dramatics. He was grooming us and had us singing around the Detroit area with people like Gladys Knight and the Four Tops. He would put on the shows and they would always take one of his groups to open for these acts, who were huge. So were fans of Diana’s from way back . We said yeah to McKinley and agreed to audition for her. She immediately said: can you guys get passports, because we’re going to London (laughs). So that’s how all that started. When we got back to the States to start a tour she said you guys are too good to sing backgrounds behind me or anybody else for too long. You know I change clothes a lot in my show so I want you to find a song to do when I’m off stage getting changed and I’m going to introduce you to my audiences with that song. We chose (the Leon Ware-Pam Sawyer song) ‘If I Ever Lose This Heaven’ because it had a lot of harmonies.
So how did you come to the attention of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff?
We were in Philadelphia singing with Diana and Gamble & Huff and Patti LaBelle all happened to be in the audience that night and came backstage and asked if we were interested in recording. And, of course, we were and that’s how we hooked up with them.
What were Gamble & Huff like to work with?
At that time they were running Philadelphia International like Berry Gordy was running Motown. All the writers had classrooms with a piano in and we would have a schedule where we got with this or that person. They’d play the songs to us and then we’d sit with Gamble & Huff after basically singing on these little recorders in each of the writers’ offices and we would tell them what we wanted to record in the studio. One of things that I really liked about them was that they respected us even though we were very young – we had been in the business a very long time – and generally, they would let us select the songs that we wanted to record. They did not push any songs on us at all. I think all of those guys respected the fact that we had been in the industry for years, especially as background vocalists and one of the things that we used to laugh about after-the-fact was that we should have gotten a piece of a lot of those songs because the backgrounds – all of them – were created by my sisters and myself. The backgrounds made a lot of the songs.
Yes, they were integral to the music weren’t they? Another key figure for the Jones Girls production-wise was Dexter Wansel. What was he like to collaborate with?
Dexter was the same. He and Cynthia Biggs, his writing partner, became our close friends and to this day we’re very close. When ever I’m performing in Philadelphia the whole family – Gamble, Huff, Dexter – they all generally come to my shows and it is always fantastic seeing those people because not only were they my favourite producers but we also hung out. So whenever we went to Philadelphia recording we hung out with them at their house and became really good friends as well.
McKinley Jackson, who was your manager, also produced you. What was the experience of working with him like?
Oh, wonderful. We grew up with McKinley so he knew us as children. He introduced us to Holland-Dozier-Holland. And then he and I were like dating for years and so yes, he was our manager at the time. He’s musical director for Otis Williams’ Temptations so he’s doing very well now. He’s an old man now ‘cos he was much older than me when we all together and he’s a great person.
What was it like recording at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia? How did the sessions proceed?
The rhythm section would do their thing separately. We always went in to do just the vocals. They always did theirs first but primarily MFSB, they were like Philadelphia’s version of Motown’s Funk Brothers because they were on all the songs.
Arguably your most iconic song is ‘Nights Over Egypt’ from 1981’s ‘Get As Much Love As You Can’ album. Can you remember when Dexter Wansel first played it to you?
Yes I do. I remember it so well because we sat there and at first Brenda and I didn’t think that it was the right song for us. By this time we really good friends with Cynthia Biggs (Dexter Wansel’s lyricist and songwriting partner) and she started talking to us about how she wrote this song and she spent a lot of time in the library making sure that the words that we were going to eventually sing were correct. And then we tried a different version with a lead (vocal) but we started liking it when they just said let’s just try all harmonies, no lead singer, like we had done on ‘We’re A Melody’ on that very first Jones Girls’ album. The whole time Valorie kept saying we ought to do this song. She wanted it to be the first single off the ‘Get As Much Love As You Can’ album. If they’d have listened to her that album probably would’ve done a whole lot better. Nobody was paying the attention to her that they should have been. It’s one of our biggest songs around the world and Brenda and I didn’t really hear it at first but we grew to love the song once we knew what Cynthia was talking about lyrically and the way that they produced it with these beautiful harmonies. That’s why I think Valorie loved it so much because of her ear – she could hear it would be great with these different, very difficult, harmonies.
In 1983 you left Philadelphia International for RCA records. What prompted your move?
We weren’t getting what we really wanted from Gamble & Huff anymore. We felt that we were being put on the backburner and so joined a friend of ours, Robert Wright, who was head of soul music at RCA. Our contract was up and rather than re-sign with Gamble & Huff we decided to just venture out to RCA. That record, ‘On Target,’ was good but Gamble & Huff released ‘Keep It Comin” at around the same time with songs that we had done with Keni Burke previously. We had had those songs in the can that we had done and they happened to release them, maybe at around the same time or a little after ‘On Target’ from what I can remember.
‘On Target’ had a completely different sound and brought you up to speed with what was happening with the new electronic dance music on the urban scene. How did it feel like working with Fonzi Thornton and Robert Wright, the producers and writers of ‘On Target’?
Oh, that was fun. Fonzi’s a great guy, a fun guy, and we had known him from trips to New York and then Luther Vandross too, because they were best friends. He and Robert Wright, it was fun working with both of those guys.
‘Keep It Comin’ seemed to derail your RCA career at that point…
Yes it did, it sold better than ‘On Target’ and because of that we never did another album for them. In 84/85 there was a lot of internal stuff going on in with the group too. Basically Brenda had fallen in love and was going to move to Atlanta and Valorie wanted to experience college, because she was the only one who hadn’t had an opportunity to go to college. Also, we weren’t working with Diana anymore, though we had worked with her for years. We just felt that we should take a break for a while and that’s what we did. But I was bored and then one day Gamble rang me. He said what about you doing a solo project? I said sure and that’s how we segwayed right on into the ‘Always In The Mood’ CD that brought me back to Philly. We hired Bunny Sigler for that and, of course, Gamble & Huff and then Gamble gave me the best opportunity of my life, of my writing career, when I wrote ‘She Knew About Me’ with him and Huff so I was excited because we sat in his office late at night writing those songs.
You had a number one hit with ‘Do You Get Enough Love.’ How did that feel?
I was talking to a friend of mine about it the other day. I said to them I remember exactly where I was. I was going into the radio station in Chicago, Illinois, and by the time we got up there to do the interview with the DJ, Kenny Gamble called the station and said to me: do you know that your record’s number one in Billboard? I said what?! I was so excited. You know when some things happen in your life and you know where you were? Well, I remember that, yes.
But it took another eight years for your second album to come out, didn’t it?
Yes, that one (‘With You’) I did over there in the UK. I didn’t do a second album for Philadelphia International and Kenny Gamble because their relationship folded. Everybody was put on hold for a long time as they downsized the company. They were pretty much really going to decide if they were going to stay in the music business or not. So I got lost in all of that madness that was going on during that time but because ‘Do You Get Enough Love’ was a number one hit and ‘Always In The Mood’ was a big album over here I was able to do what I love doing, which is work. So I did that up until ’92. I got married and had my son, Cameron, in ’88. He’s 26 now.
And is he following you into the music business?
Yes he is. Rap’s huge over here and in fact he has a rap group. He’s 6’7″ though. We went to college on a basketball scholarship because his dad is one of the Harlem Globetrotter’s and he’s very tall. So he’s followed his dad into basketball but now he’s doing music and his group is up-and-coming. I just recorded something with Valorie’s son. As you know Valorie passed away a few years ago and I raised her son, Phelps. He’s a couple of years older than my son Cameron. He’s an excellent musician and producer. So he does songs for Cameron’s rap group. They’re called DMG – Debonair Music Group – and Phelps Jones (aka PJ). We just did a remake of ‘At Peace With Woman’ that has rap in it. There’s a lot of violence against women going on and I thought that this is the time to remake it, which we did do, and I wanted to have it coming from a young man’s perspective, so my son and PJ did it. They did an excellent job with the beat and the lyrics. It may or may not be on my next album but it will definitely be coming out at some point because it carries such a strong message from these young men.
The Jones Girls reconvened in 1992 for ‘Coming Back’ didn’t they? What circumstances led you to come to the UK to make an album?
Myrna Williams, who was managing us at that time, knew a ton of people there and we had had a couple of sold out shows at the Dominion Theatre in 1991…
I was at one of them.
Really? My mum came on stage and really stole the show (laughs). Rich Satnarine and Phil Nugent had just started a record label, A.R.P., and were big fans of our music. Myrna said to them the girls aren’t signed to a label in the States; they’re not really singing together that much anymore and Shirley’s doing her thing. They said it would be great if we could get them to record for us. She told us that she thought that that would be a great move for us so that’s what we decided to do. We came over with the kids – at that time we brought all of the kids, who were like four years old or somewhere in there at the time – and they rented this home for us. We were there for about six weeks. That’s when we met Errol Henry and a couple other of the producers. We were blown away by their musicianship and how those guys had studied our sound because actually that album to me is one of my favourites because those guys really had everything going like Gamble & Huff did. They were able to get that sound, so that’s why I love that album so much.
It was reissued last year on Expansion.
Yes, because the record label had five years from when it was issued originally to get a deal and get it released over here in the states or the rights reverted back to me. Ralph Tee (head of Expansion Records), who’s a good friend of mine, asked me when I was over there (in the UK): I’ve been thinking about reissuing ‘Coming Back.’ Do you know who I can get in touch with about re-issuing it because ARP records doesn’t exist any more. I told him well, I actually own that. He said really? I said yeah, and so we worked out a deal and he reissued it.
Looking back on your career, what’s been the biggest highlight so far?
My number one record (‘Do You Get Enough Love’). Also, us working with Diana Ross and working with Gamble & Huff. The most recent highlight was the way that this new record got recorded. I was over there on 4th July in the UK doing a soul weekender at Hayling Island. They had brought me over for the performance and I did not know that Hayling Island was about 100 miles outside of London. Steve Ripley (Shirley’s PR in the UK) had said that he would like me to do a song while I was here and I said okay. He said: Errol Henry says he has a song that he wants you to do while you’re here so I said great, I’ve got a couple of days off so if they make the arrangements I would love to do it only because I knew Errol’s work from before. Prior to coming over I said I need to hear it so I can rehearse and I need to read the lyrics but I never got them and it was kind of like okay, how am I going to do this in the timeframe that I’ve got because I had other interviews and stuff to do. Even on my off day a promoter had set up some stuff for me and lo and behold they figured it out. They came and got me and took me to (ex-Faces member) Ronnie Lane’s mobile studio, which I found out had so much history. It was fascinating how we were able to connect and gel that quickly. Errol played the music for me first and the reason that he did that was because he didn’t know how I was going to take the lyrics that he had written. When he played the music I said that’s a beautiful song and when he started singing the lyrics, I said oh my goodness, I have got to do this because it’s almost like me going full circle; starting first in gospel music and now recording a song that is so uplifting and inspirational and gospel in its own way. And that’s how we did it. I did the lead and all of the backgrounds in about three-and-a-half hours – that’s how much I loved it. So that’s my highlight right now. I’m moving forwards now at this point in my life. I think the world wants to hear inspirational, uplifting music and that’s what I plan to keep putting out there.
Will you be doing some live shows in the UK?
Definitely. I’ve been coming over there a lot. I’d done the O2 with Jean Carne and Gwen McCrae and I’ve played with Patrice Rushen. I’ve also done the Jazz Café and have been all over the UK. I’m already talking to a couple of promoters over there so hopefully I’ll be over there to finish the album and to be doing some shows while I’m there as well.
‘BECAUSE YOU LOVE ME’ IS OUT NOW ON EXPANSION AS A 7-INCH SINGLE AND DOWNLOAD.
SHIRLEY’S NEW ALBUM FOLLOWS LATER IN THE YEAR.