In a world in which relationships ebb and flow, as they are sure to do, it is remarkable to sustain a connection with someone for some twenty-five years. The music industry in particular is prone to ‘here today, gone forever’ liaisons: I can’t begin to count the people I’ve interviewed since 1975 whose names are mere memories. Thelma Jones is not among that pretty large contingent. Remarkably, she and I have maintained a friendship that goes back to 1978 when she gave me the opportunity to write my very first liner notes. The notes were for her one and only Columbia album, a self-titled set that remains one of the treasures of my collection – not merely because I wrote the notes but because the music is simply wonderful. Thelma sounded then, as she does now, spectacular, with her blues-flavored soulful style. Of course, I was familiar with Thelma long before I met her: as a member of the Soul City Records team in London, I had been responsible for the UK release of her original version of “The House That Jack Built,” a 1968 hit for Aretha Franklin.
I remember vividly being in the studio with Thelma, our mutual friend radio personality Imhotep Gary Byrd and producer Bert DeCoteaux in ’78, watching Thelma as she cut a Byrd-penned song that was intended for the album but never made it to the final cut. After I moved to Los Angeles in 1984, I lost touch with Thelma and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out that she too had made the move to L.A., some four years before me. I finally saw Thelma for the first time in action at Loew’s hotel in Santa Monica a year or so ago and she was amazing. She sang “Salty Tears,” one of the prime cuts from her Columbia LP, a song that has become a gem among deep soul lovers on both sides of the Atlantic. She sang some songs associated with Aretha and she did a tribute to the late great Big Maybelle, who was one of her early mentors when Thelma first came to New York from Fayetteville, North Carolina in the ‘60s.
With much encouragement from those of us who consider her one of the most underrated soul singers around, Thelma completed her first CD this year. “Law Of Old,” produced by guitarist John Heussenstamm, is a remarkable showcase for Thelma’s skill as a blues stylist. It is quite different from the more pop/soul-slanted recordings she made for Columbia and the R&B tracks she cut for Barry Records back in the ‘60s (including the still much-loved “Never Leave Me”). The ten tunes reveal a vocal maturity and if there’s any justice, the CD should lead to some work for Thelma with some of the many blues festivals both here in the U.S. and in Europe. Tunes like the title track (which she wrote), “All Tears Fall” and the showstopping “Don’t Drop Me” attest to Thelma’s enduring talent and she seems completely at home singing with the excellent musicians accompanying her on the record, which is actually her second-ever full-scale album.
Quite naturally, the CD’s release is an opportunity to catch up with the ever-genial Ms.Jones. For those who may not know too much of her history, Thelma was happy to reprise some of the highlights of a career that has lasted some forty years. “When I first came to New York in the early ‘60s, I didn’t know much about the industry. I was really excited about recording: I signed with Barry Records which was part of the Old Town Records group. Arthur Prysock was the main artist on Old Town and I remember the sessions were great. The caliber of musicians was great – guys like Bernard Purdie on drums and of course, The Sweet Inspirations singing background. In fact, I went to high school with Estelle (Brown) of the Sweets and they were such a hot backup group. Because my first single “Never Leave Me” had a blues sound to it, I was thought of as more of a blues singer so I did shows with Little Milton and much later, B.B. King who has always been my favorite artist. Back in the ‘60s, I played the chitlin’ circuit on shows with artists like Otis Redding, Jerry Butler, The O’Jays, The Intruders, Walter Jackson, Brook Benton, The Vibrations, James Brown, Howard Tate…”
In all, Thelma cut five singles for Barry: the fourth one was “The House That Jack Built.” As Thelma recalls, “I believe Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records heard my first single, ‘Never Leave Me’ because it got quite a bit of airplay in New York. He paid me a big compliment and in fact, he was going to sign me to Atlantic. The songwriters played him my version of ‘The House That Jack Built’ but I always thought it was too fast. I guess Atlantic felt the same way – I didn’t end up recording for the label and the song went to Aretha, who put it in the groove the way I wanted. I loved her so I wasn’t upset: I’ve always believed that things happen the way they are supposed to…”
What was supposed to happen next was that a Columbia Records promotion man heard Thelma singing a ‘live’ version of the old Shirelles’ hit, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” which had been recorded in a club. “He was a friend of my ex-husband’s and he told a Columbia executive Mickey Eichner about me. That was how I ended up at the label,” says Thelma. “I think they tried to make me more of a mainstream artist…” The experience with a major company was good and Thelma did score some success with her cover of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “I Second That Emotion” which – along with “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love” - was one of the key cuts on her sole album for the label. But the lack of a real follow-up and Thelma’s divorce combined to prompt a move to Florida. In 1980, she moved out to L.A., at the time hoping to hook up with the late Ewart Abner at Motown. “My son was very young and I was singe mom so I focused a lot on raising him and for a few years, I didn’t sing at all.”
In 1982, Thelma resumed performing but not recording: “Actually, I’ve never stopped working. I opened for Four Tops and did a lot of shows with the jazz singer Herb Jeffries. I played clubs, hotels. I worked in Las Vegas and mostly I sang the jazz standards, covers of the more popular R&B stuff and once in a while I’d do songs from the Columbia days like “Salty Tears,” “I Can Dream” and “Now That We’ve Found Love.” Every now and again, I did private parties…”
It was at a a spiritual retreat in Palm Springs in 1996 that Thelma was asked to sing an acappella version of the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace” and guitarist John Heussenstamm (whose credits include work with Linda Hopkins, Kenny Loggins, Deniece Williams and Michael McDonald among others) heard her for the first time. “Apparently, John wanted to know who was singing,” Thelma smiles. “He asked me if I would sing as a special guest artist at a fundraiser and after that, we started putting material together for the new CD. We decided to do pretty much a bluesy kind of album which reflects the roots of where I come from.”
Recording in Laguna, just outside Los Angeles, was “great – it’s a very peaceful area away from the hustle and bustle of L.A. There was no pressure and no stress and the album really expresses who I am. It was wonderful working with live musicians in the studio and of course, I was very excited about having a song of my own on the record.” With a finished product out now (and available at The Soul Music Store), Thelma says she hopes “Law Of Old” will “expand my opportunities for work. Blues festivals are now a possibility and more than anything, I would like to work in Europe and Australia. In fact, performing in London is still one of my dreams!”
Without any doubt, Thelma has paid her dues but with her typically philosophical attitude to life, she says, “I’m just blessed to be around.” It is indeed a blessing: her new CD shows that – to paraphrase The Whispers – Thelma Jones just gets better with time, both live and on record. Now if an enterprising European promoter just wants to reach out, Thelma’s dream of performing before audiences that will doubtless appreciate her innate soulfulness will be fulfilled, sooner rather than later!
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.