The Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom celebrated the great female background singers in rock’n’roll and R&B history who lived just outside of the spotlight. Unfortunately, the entertainment business is star-oriented and what fame these women achieved has been quite fleeting, intermittent and certainly not commensurate with their talents and contributions. For Gloria Jones, one of the stars in the film, not only was she an unsung background singer, but she was also a gospel and soul artist, a songwriter, a producer and an actor.
Gloria Jones’ biggest claim to fame came by accident. She recorded the original version of ‘Tainted Love’ as a B-side in 1964 and the powerful track was instantly forgotten – if it was known at all – for almost a decade.
But the record became an underground sensation and staple of Northern soul nights in UK clubs in the early 70s. Its frantic rhythm and relentless beat made it a perfect song for the scene, which revelled in uncovering lost and unknown gems recorded during the 60s and early 70s heyday of American soul music.
In 1981, Jones got a vicarious boost when the British synth-pop band Soft Cell covered ‘Tainted Love’, taking it to the top of the UK charts. After being released in the US a year later, this version spent almost a year on the US charts, peaking at No.8 and focusing new attention on the original version and Gloria Jones. She’d even join Soft Cell’s Marc Almond on stage to perform the song – but it didn’t translate into lasting stardom.
Gloria Jones was born Gloria Richetta Jones in Cincinnati, in 1945, and when her family moved to Los Angeles seven years later, the young Jones began learning to play classical piano and sang gospel music at her local Church Of God In Christ.
When she was 14, she helped form her first gospel singing group – no doubt pleasing her minister father – and what a line-up it turned out to be! The group included organist Billy Preston; future gospel superstar Andraé Crouch and his twin sister Sandra Crouch; a pair of future Motown artists, Sondra “Blinky” Williams and Frankie Kahrl; and Edna Wright, who would become the lead singer of 70s soul trio Honey Cone.
The group named themselves The Cogics (after The Church Of God In Christ) and recorded an LP, It’s A Blessing, released in 1964 on the Vee-Jay subsidiary Exodus Records, which included the future gospel standard ‘It Will Never Lose Its Power’.
Motown’s secret weapon
Even before that album, Gloria Jones was singing background vocals in recording studios around LA, including Motown’s West Coast branch, where she began writing, producing and arranging songs. That led to a production deal with Ed Cobb, who wrote and produced Jones’ first singles for Vee-Jay’s Champion label, starting in late 1964 with ‘My Bad Boy’s Coming Home’, which featured ‘Tainted Love’ on the flip side. A 1966 single ‘Heartbeat Part 1’ got some chart action, reaching the ‘Bubbling Under The Top 100’ section of the Billboard chart and earning some television spots on Dick Clark’s Where The Action Is.
Jones’ first solo LP, Come Go With Me, came out on Capitol’s Uptown label that same year. With no hits to her name, she began touring as a background singer for major acts like Joe Cocker. In the late 60s she also joined the LA production of Hair, during which she met Marc Bolan of T.Rex, who were on the verge of stardom as early avatars of glam rock. The two had instant chemistry.
All the while, she continued working at Motown, forming a writing and producing team with Pam Sawyer. Major Motown acts – Jackson 5, David and Jimmy Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Commodores – recorded their compositions, and the duo wrote hits for Four Tops (‘Just Seven Numbers’), Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross (‘My Mistake’). But their biggest success would be ‘If I Were Your Woman’ for Gladys Knight And The Pips, on which they collaborated with Clay McMurray and received a Grammy nomination in 1971.
Jones and Sawyer then wrote and produced what journalist and Motown historian Adam White has called “one of the most stunning performances ever recorded by Marvin Gaye”, an unreleased triumph, ‘Piece Of Clay’. Recorded in 1972, it remained in the can until 1995 when it surfaced on a Marvin Gaye box set, The Master. It has recently re-emerged on the “lost album”, You’re The Man.
Who knows how Jones’ writing and producing career might have flourished had this record been released? But she had already moved onto other projects that included recording her own album for Motown, the adventurous Share My Love, on which she wrote and co-wrote eight of its nine tracks. Integrating classical, rock, soul, reggae, flamenco and more, Jones’ hard gospel voice delivered a tour de force.
Just as the album was released in 1973, however, Gloria Jones decamped to England to join Bolan (who she’d call her soul mate) as a background singer and keyboardist with T.Rex. Without touring to support Share My Love, the record flopped commercially. Years later, critic Rashod Ollison called it “a lost masterstroke of the era, a dazzling showcase for a passionate artist who, with no regrets, chose love over fame”.
Bolan encouraged Jones to re-start her solo career, especially after ‘Tainted Love’ began filling dancefloors. He produced her strong 1976 album, Vixen, which combined soul and rock elements in another eclectic outing, including two different versions of T.Rex’s ‘Get It On’, an achingly slow version of Bessie Banks’ ‘Go Now’, the Motown-ish ‘Would You Like To Know’ and an updated version of ‘Tainted Love’.
The following year, Bolan died in a car crash with Jones at the wheel, leaving her with their son. She returned to California to record the album Windstorm and dedicated it to him. After the boost she received from Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ cover, she recorded periodically, including a reunion album with The Cogics in 1984.
More recently, Gloria Jones has been involved with establishing and building The Marc Bolan School Of Music in Sierra Leone, teaching music to youth of that West African nation. But her appearance in 20 Feet From Stardom finally put her and her background-singing cohorts in the spotlight, allowing them to reflect on a time when stardom seemed close at hand.