In the annals of soul music history, there are a handful of recording artists whose relatively short-lived careers give rise to the stuff of legends. If there is even just a slight element of mystery about their persona - possibly as a result of limited media exposure - the legend can take on an even greater dimension. As is so with the late great Lorraine Ellison, one of the few artists with whom some parallels could be drawn, such is the case with Linda Jones who died in 1972 at the tender age of twenty-seven from complications arising from diabetes. To say that the Newark, New Jersey-born soulstress was on the verge of a major career breakthrough when she passed away at the tail end of a successful stint at New York's famed Apollo Theater would only add fiction to the legend. Rather, Linda was still in the process of cementing a following among R&B music buyers which had started with her now-classic Top 5 R&B and Top 30 1967 pop hit "Hypnotized." Just weeks before her untimely demise, Linda had in fact scored her biggest hit in five years with an unforgettable version of The Impressions' "For Your Precious Love."
It's impossible to assess what might have happened had she not succumbed to a lifelong battle with the illness that cut short a promising career as a distinctively unique song stylist with few peers. What we do have to substantiate the likelihood that Linda Jones would have continued her musical odyssey are two dozen or so recordings that attest to her innate and enduring soul-searing artistry, unparalleled in intensity save perhaps for recordings by Ellison, the now deceased Judy Clay and Ruby Johnson and a small coterie of living divas such as Bettye Lavette and Thelma Jones. Twenty-one of those masters are included here and while we have nothing to draw on in terms of interview material from Linda herself, we do have commentary and observations from producer/songwriter George Kerr who played such a pivotal role in Linda's recording career.
After a stint as a replacement for Little Anthony with The Imperials, Kerr had been a member of The Serenaders, a New York- based group and it was after an audition with Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. that Kerr relocated for a brief time to Detroit where he honed his skills as a songwriter and producer. Upon his return back to the Big Apple from the Motor City, Kerr began shopping song demos. "I met Linda through a friend. At the time, she was working at a pie factory. I listened to her and I liked what I heard. From the first time I heard her, I knew she was unique. She had a whole sound of her own."
Kerr association's with Linda began without much fanfare with the release of the single "Take The Boy Out Of The Country" in 1965 on Atco; the cut is included here along with "Fugitive From Love" and "Hit Me Like TNT" (both on this compilation), issued on Leiber & Stoller's Blue Cat label in 1966. Kerr decided to let Linda try "Hypnotized," a song penned by the Pointdexter Brothers, Richard and Robert (who would go on to have success with The Persuaders in the early ‘70s): "I remember when she recorded "Hypnotized". We were in the studio and she said, ‘let's run it down.' She was really learning the song but I told the engineer to hit the record button," says Kerr. "I got goose bumps on my arm when she sang that song. It was one take, that was it. She wanted to straighten it out because she had sung the word ‘hyp-mot-ized' rather than ‘hypnotized' but I wanted to keep it just the way it was and boy, did she curse me out! I mean, she cursed me out!"
Kerr tried shopping Linda's version of the song for a while without getting any bites. "I lost faith in the record," he says. "I couldn't give it away. I played it for [the late renowned promotion man] Joe Medlin who was working at Brunswick Records at the time and he said he thought it could be a hit. But they had their hands full with Jackie Wilson and other things so Joe sent me over to see Ronnie Moseley who was working at Loma, which was an R&B label that Warner Brothers had just started..."
Moseley - who would enjoy a distinguished career in the music industry at labels like Sussex and RCA in the '70s - took Medlin's suggestion and met with Kerr but "he didn't hear it as a hit. It so happened that the head of Loma, Jerry Ragovoy was walking down the hall at the time and he heard Linda singing "Hypnotized." He asked if he could hear it again and after four bars, he said, ‘this is a hit!' He asked what I wanted and I said, ‘$1500 and a royalty rate of 6%.' We did the deal and I went back down to Florida which is where I was living at the time."
Two months later, Kerr was back in New York and ran into singer Sammy Turner of "Lavender Blue" fame. "Sammy says, ‘where have you been? Jerry Ragovoy has been looking for you..' I called Jerry and he said, ‘the record you gave me is a hit. The booking agency has been calling us every day asking if we can get Linda Jones to do some shows and we're selling 15,000-20,000 copies of this record!' I was shocked. I called Linda and she couldn't believe it! She started screaming and before I knew it, she and I were crying!"
With an advance from Ragovoy, Kerr set Linda up to take photos, buy some clothes and prepare for the road. Signed to the famed Queen Booking Agency, Linda headed out on her first national tour, promoted by Henry Wynn, known for R&B packages that would literally criss-cross the country. "Linda did just two songs - ‘Hypnotized' and Sam Cooke's ‘A Change Is Gonna Come' - and she killed the audiences. That first tour was with Jackie Wilson, and I think, The Vibrations, The Chantels, The Bobettes. She went to New Jersey, North and South Carolina, Philly, Baltimore, DC, doing about thirty one-nighters. She got $1250 a night and she thought that was a fortune. And everywhere she went, the people went crazy. She really did her thing and she was a hard act to follow..."
With her gospel-oriented, highly emotive melismatic style, Linda had audiences mesmerized. When she added "For Your Precious Love" to her then-tiny repertoire, "the reaction was amazing," says Kerr. "That‘s why we recorded it...but that was a little later. With ‘Hypnotized' taking off, Loma wanted an album..." Working with keyboardist Richard Tee on the arrangements and with top notch musicians such as guitarist Eric Gale and drummer Bernard Purdie, Kerr laid tracks for Linda's debut set. The Pointdexter Brothers did all the background vocals and then Linda came in to her vocals: "She was a producer's dream," Kerr remembers. "We only did three takes on the songs and I always ended up using the first one. She was quite something, always so full of energy. The best way to describe her performance in the studio is to say she was in love with the microphone, so at ease. We would turn down the lights in the studio and just listen. Linda did everything with no effort..."
In the fall of '67, Loma followed "Hypnotized" some four months later with "What've I Done (To Make You Mad)" which became a Top 10 R&B hit; a third single "Give My Love A Try" did moderately well. The label issued a handful of other singles: "My Heart Needs A Break," issued in the spring of '68; "What Can I Do Without You" backed by a version of The Beatles' "Yesterday"; and a stunning version of "I Who Have Nothing" (included on this compilation). There was even one single release on Warner Brothers in 1969, a coupling of "I Just Can't Live My Life" and "My Heart (Will Understand)" but after the failure of the latter three singles, it became apparent that the team of Kerr and Jones needed to find a new recording home.
Temporarily, artist and producer got one with Neptune Records, a label founded by the Philadelphia songwriting and producing team of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff and the forerunner to the hitmakers' Philadelphia International Records hit factory. At Neptune, there were just two releases: a coupling of "That's When I'll Stop Loving You" with "I'll Be Sweeter Tomorrow," a song that Kerr had cut on The O'Jays in 1967, which gave Linda mid-sized two-sided R&B chart entry as 1969 turned into 1970; and "Ooh Baby You Move Me" (included on this CD) with "Can You Blame Me," issued as a single later in 1970.
With Neptune winding down its operation, Kerr took Linda to the All Platinum company owned by Joe Robinson and his wife Sylvia (of "Pillow Talk" fame). The producer had already begun enjoying some success with The Whatnauts, released on the New Jersey-based operation's Stang label (home also to The Moments) so placing Linda on the All Platinum imprint Turbo seemed like a logical move. "I did an entire album on Linda for Turbo," says Kerr. "The first single, "Stay With Me Forever" did ok but it was Linda's show-stopping rendition of "Your Precious Love" that started to become a major hit. When we recorded it, we used her road band and I told her to cut it in the identical way she did it onstage..."
Kerr recollects that Linda had been closing out a week-long engagement at The Apollo: "I'll never forget it. She had one more night to do at the theater. The previous night, she stood at the corner of the stage, with one hand on the curtain and she went down on her knees as she sang "For Your Precious Love." She wiped the audience out..." It was customary for Kerr to pick Linda up at her mother's house and Kerr dutifully arrived with Linda's gowns in his car, ready to take the soul star back to The Apollo: "I knew she had diabetes from the start and sometimes, she just wouldn't eat right. This one time, she had taken her insulin and her mother was cooking. Linda was tired so she lay down and asked her mother to wake her when the food was done. When her mother went in to wake her, Linda had lapsed into a diabetic coma. When I got to the house, the ambulance had just left. I jumped in my car and went off to the hospital and when I got there, I asked where Linda was. They told me it was too late. It was too much of a shock for me and when I woke up, I was in the emergency ward myself..."
On March 14, 1972, Linda Jones slipped off into soul heaven. When the funeral was held in Newark, New Jersey, there were lines of fans around the block. After her passing, Turbo Records continued releasing product, issuing three singles including a memorable version of "Not On The Outside," the Moments' 1968 debut hit. In 1994, the UK Sequel label issued an eighteen-track anthology that included a number of previously unreleased tracks and in 1997, the British company uncovered a ‘live' recording made in 1970 around the time of Linda's chart success with "That's When I'll Stop Loving You." For those of us who like our R&B raw and uncut, it was a real treasure...
"If Linda hadn't died, she would have been one of the greatest singers that ever lived," Kerr reflects. "Both Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin have gone on record saying that Linda was one of the greatest female singers they ever heard..." As Al Goodman of The Moments (later Ray, Goodman & Brown) said in a quote for the UK issue of "Never Mind The Quality...Feel The Soul," the ‘live' CD, "...If she didn't turn an audience on, nobody could. We didn't even want to go on stage if Linda hadn't turned the audience on..."
Linda Jones never made it to the mainstream big time; she never toured Europe where she would have found a hearty welcome from serious devotees of deep soul music. In a life that ended way too soon, she made some amazing recordings that reveal depth, intensity and passion.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.