Interview with: Gloria Jones – Queen of Northern Soul, Motown songwriter and humanitarian

Gloria JonesGloria R. Jones, also known as the Queen of Northern Soul in the UK, was the original singer of the 1964 recorded Tainted Love, which later became a number one worldwide hit for the British duo, Soft Cell.

Daughter of a minister, Gloria was born in Cincinnati Ohio and moved to Los Angeles, California at the age of seven. Inspired by her jazz musician uncle, where she became enveloped in the local music scene. At age 14 and still at school she formed successful gospel group The Cogic Singers (also known as “The Teenage Wonders”) with Frankie Kahrl and Billy Preston. After recording the album It’s a Blessing and remaining with the group for some four years, in 1964 Jones was discovered and signed by the producer and songwriter Ed Cobb and recorded her first hit record, “Heartbeat Pts 1 & 2,” which was recorded later by Dusty Springfield amongst others.

After recording other songs for Uptown Records (part of Capitol and EMI) Gloria studied piano, and acquired an advanced classical degree primarily in the works of Bach. In 1968 she performed in stage play Catch My Soul (a rock and soul version of the play Othello) which included cast members Jerry Lee Lewis, The Blossoms, and Dr. John. In the winter of 1968, she joined the Los Angeles cast of Hair. After being asked to write for Motown Records by Pam Sawyer, she composed songs for such artists as Gladys Knight & the Pips (Grammy nominated), Commodores, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross and The Jackson 5.

Gloria first met singer-songwriter and guitarist Marc Bolan of English rock band T. Rex in 1969 while performing in Hair. After working together (including producing the VIXEN album and the International Disco Hit “I haven’t stopped dancing yet” for Gonzalez), they became romantically involved and had a son Rolan in 1975 when Gloria relocated to the UK permanently. Marc Bolan was killed in a car crash in 1977 while driving home with Gloria after a night out in Mayfair. After returning home to the United States, Gloria released the album Windstorm in 1978, which was a dedication to the memory of Bolan. Jones stayed in the music industry for several years after and has since worked as a musical supervisor for films.

Gloria has now dedicated her life to creating and raising funds for the Marc Bolan School of Music & Film to inspire the children of Sierra Leone, West Africa – her current home. The Light of Love Foundation aims to raise funds so that the Marc Bolan legacy can live on in a country where children are orphaned, under privileged, vulnerable and disadvantaged. Young people will have the opportunity to come together to develop their skills and talents in the heart of the community. All funds raised will be shared with The British Red Cross, as they continue to combat the Ebola crisis.

How did you feel being in the public performing eye at the young age of 14? How did it influence you as a person and what are your view on professional child performers?

I grew up performing in the church so I was very comfortable and used to it – it was part of my way of life. There has always been much behind the scenes gossip about child performers. What many people of this generation are not aware of I believe, is that we were actually very educated and aware as children and young adults in the fifties. My father was a church minister. I knew what was the right or wrong way for an adult to behave from a very early age. My parents would sit me down and say – if someone touches you like this then that is wrong. Then you must tell us. And you must not stay silent. Rape was not so commonly known and talked about but in the music industry specifically, rules were made and not broken. The record companies would chaperone you all the time. At 14 I tried to convince my guardian to take me to buy an ice cream soda after one of my performances but he was so regimented in his instructions that he refused and took me straight back to my hotel – no exceptions made. I think the difference between times then and times now is that back then, people stuck to right rather than wrong because they believed in doing good and behaving properly, rather than because the law said so.

You actually left the gospel and pop scene for a bit and studied classical music and Bach. What prompted this decision and did you ever want to pursue classical music as a performance field?

My mother worked five jobs at once (including as a housekeeper and cook) to be able to afford to pay for my piano and lessons. She was so dedicated to my music. I started at the age of seven and by seventeen I had taken part in many competitions and in my final exam I scored 97 percent. The renowned Eastman School of Music made me a scholarship offer to train there but I was not allowed to go and had to stay at home. My father said – if you leave, who will play our church piano? It was a different time…

You have written countless brilliant and successful songs. How do you write a song? Do you have a process?

Motown was a wonderful family that gave us all the freedom to create. However, we were also given assignments – songs with specific themes to write for particular artists. They would make it a healthy competition – who can write the next hit song? Usually I would collaborate with Pam Sawyer (who hailed from Essex in England) and we would start with the lyrics. For Michael (Jackson) we wrote One day I’ll marry you – the institution of marriage and love from a child’s point of view. Another time we listened to him playing outside and shouting nursery rhymes – so we sat down and wrote Two Four Six Eight. Motown was quite strict in their musical guidelines because they wanted to remain a hit factory. If I went off course their usual chord structure they would tell me off. No Gloria, you can’t go up on that phrase, you have to stay down. It was frustrating sometimes. I decided to write If I were your Woman – an experimental song in thirds – definitely against the usual Motown rules and not very much liked by the Motown orchestra then! And that was the song that gave me a CashBox # 5, which vindicated my decision…….

What do you think it is about Motown that just clicked with the public and music audiences? What is your favourite memory from those times? How do you think the music industry has changed since the 1960’s and Motown? What do you think has positively developed and where do you see problems?

It was the baby boomers generation – but there was a lot of unhappiness due to political and social situations. People needed somewhere safe to let go. Motown was essentially the heartbeat of the young people of America. It was the counter beat to any negativity happening in the world. We were healing as much as creating joy.

One of my favourite memories from that time was working as the first ever Female Music producers together with Valerie Simpson and Pam Sawyer. We went up to Detroit to meet with the Funk Brothers and talk about producing their music – a somewhat risky idea considering the fact that we were female and might get some backlash. So we decided to turn up in hot pants to win them round with our female qualities…and it worked!

The music industry never changes – all that changes is the types of music being produced. It’s all about the money and always has been. Nowadays artists are also much more aware of their copyright so they tend to be more shrewd with contracts, especially if they co-write songs. With Tainted Love I ended up changing part of the melody to suit the placement of my voice better. This essentially meant I was a co-writer of the song but at nineteen what did I know? So I missed out on a bunch of royalties.

You were in the original Los Angeles production of Hair the musical – how do you think performing as a character in a musical is different to being a pop singer and performing in concerts?

They are both very different mediums. Theatre means being disciplined – no Improvisation like in music concerts. More responsibilities on the stage, as well as responsibility towards your fellow cast members. You have to stick to direction, placement on the stage, etc. In music concerts and as a rock star – you’re free. You can ride on the emotion and energy of an audience and just go with it and see where it takes you.

You have also worked as backing singer and were part of 2013 Oscar winning documentary film Twenty Feet from Stardom. Did you approach your backing singing work in a different way

As a backing singer you have to realise that it is not about you. It’s about being part of a whole production and fitting into this with your voice and skills. You are a product – not an artist. I used to get called up by Ike Turner to come and sing backing for Tina because of my very specific vocal tone – it matched Tina’s very well. They call you in for your specific sound to create a bigger picture.

You are the inspiration and driving force behind The Marc Bolan School of Music, which was first planned in 2010 to bring music and the arts to the children and community of Sierra Leone. Tell us what inspired you to do this, the stage you are at with the project, what the school will provide, your funding plans and how readers can get involved and help? What is the message you would like to spread?

The Marc Bolan School of Music will provide hot meals for young people, a medical facility, schooling, a community centre, as well as exposure to music and instruments. It is a full facility and spiritual home in the name of Marc Bolan as much as a learning institution. We are a fledgling project as such currently but local architects have now drawn an initial design of the building. Essentially, my drive behind this project is that I want to help rebuild the destroyed community and heart of Sierra Leone. We are highly thankful for any fundraising and other contributions (such as musical instruments) and I am about to host a concert in London: BOLANESQUE 2015 is due to take place on Tuesday, 15 September at Café de Paris, London and is a celebration of the Music of Marc Bolan and the Music we made together. (Tickets can be purchased here.)

Living in Sierra Leone, based on your first hand experiences, what do you think us outsiders do not see about this country, its people and the problems they currently face?

The poverty level and the traumatisation of an entire country. Even though the epidemic is over as such, the aftermath continues. The biggest problem the community faces is clinging on to hope. How can they keep believing? You, as outsiders, must not give up on them. Keep a continual presence, a continual stream of hope. The Marc Bolan School of Music is our way of keeping the community alive in all respects. These are young people who are highly keen to learn music – but when they finally reach our current building after a ten mile walk from their homes they are often too exhausted to do anything but gratefully eat the food we provide for them. Then of course they have to walk another 10 miles back home. We often start with fifty children but taking any of them through until the end is rare – if we can keep two or three going and not lost them then we have achieved something.

What are your future ambition? Do you plan to build further schools in other countries of a similar nature? Will you continue your film music supervisor career?

We are looking to eventually build a franchise of our school project across many countries in Africa. We are also looking to arrange for buses to take children from their homes to the school so they are able to take in all their teachings and be awake and alert when they get to school.

Who is your inspiration? What do you think makes an inspirational woman?

Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown and Gary Lloyd who directed the world premiere of 20th Century Boy (a musical based on the life of Marc Bolan).

To find out more about Gloria Jones and how to get involved with The Marc Bolan School of Music please see http://thegloriajones.weebly.com/ and http://www.marcbolanschool.com/.

Jennifer Reischel
About the author

Jennifer Reischel is the Business Development and Communications Manager for Entertainment Media Group, which includes the St. James Theatre in Victoria. Completing a theatre degree at Mountview Academy Jennifer first pursued a career as an actor performing on stage and screen. Migrating into writing and penning the award-nominated guide book “So you want to tread the boards”, Jennifer became a theatre critic and feature contributor for The Stage, as well as launching the global video audition website The Stage Castings. Additionally, Jennifer has acted as a judge for the Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian Competition of the Year, cast plays for Soho Theatre and hosted industry events workshops in the West End and at the Edinburgh Festival. Twitter: @jenreischel. Website: www.performingarts-auditionguide.com

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