Thelma Jones has been on the R&B scene since the late ‘60s, and she continues to keep the legacy of her music and the music of her peers--Etta James, Ruth Brown, and Big Maybelle--alive today. On the heels of the reissue of Expanded Edition of her self-titled 1978 Columbia Records release, she shares some insights with SoulMusic.com's Michael Lewis in a revealing conversation.
Interview recorded April 29, 2012
Michael: This is Michael Lewis of SoulMusic.com. Today I would like to welcome a true soul survivor, who began her career recording for Barry Records in 1967 with hits like “Never Leave Me,” “Gotta Find a Way,” and followed that with a true gem of an album, her self-titled 1978 Columbia Records release, which has just been re-issued in an expanded edition by Big Break Records. Good day, Miss Thelma Jones.
Thelma: Well, good day to you.
Michael: How are you today?
Thelma: I’m just lovely. Thank you so much.
Michael: It must just be really exciting to see this great record have this kind of longevity, almost 35 years later.
Thelma: It is absolutely exciting. I tell you, I think one of my friends said it’s in it’s fifth incarnation. I found that veryy interesting, but it is really exciting that people appreciate the music and that it’s still around.
Michael: And still getting to more and more people, in different versions. This time it’s an expanded edition with the B-sides to some of the singles, and also, the single versions of “Second That Emotion,” right?
Michael: This is one of the records that real soul music fans really have cherished over the years, so we’re all excited about that. Lets start, we want to concentrate on this record, but let’s start talking about your early years at Barry, and how that evolved into this deal at Columbia--just the shortened version.
Thelma: Well, lets see, the abbreviated version: I met Hy Weiss who owned Barry through a very well known jazz singer at the time; his name was Arthur Prysock, and so I did a few shows with him, like local things, Newark, NJ, because I lived in New York at the time--just local things around the area. Anyway, he brought me to Barry and that’s how that all started. I’m not quite sure, but I think they may have been partners. Hy Weiss, well, Barry—actually, it was Hi Records because the label was owned by Hy Weiss.
Michael: So after you did several singles with Barry, and had some moderate success with those, I guess the biggest hit was “Never Leave Me”?
Thelma: Yes. “Never Leave Me,” and “Stronger” was a real big hit internationally, in Europe--that’s the one that did very well there.
Michael: So how did you get to the deal with Columbia?
Thelma: I had a very good friend who was a promotion person, and his name was George Chavous, and he recommended me to … you know I can just only remember this man’s first name was Mo, I think he was part of Epic at the time, and he was very, very interested, but when he heard the music, he recommended me--when he heard what I do--he recommended me to Mickey Eichner, who was over at Columbia, because I’m not really a rock and roll kind of artist.
At least that time he had mother’s finest, and Epic had more rock groups. And so he recommended me to Columbia, to Mickey Eichner, and that’s how I ended up signing there. He flew down to Florida and heard--he just sat in on a live local gig--and he signed me from there.
Michael: It was originally a singles deal?
Thelma: At first it was, yes. But then "Salty Tears" was such a big success, we went back and did the album later.
Michael: Okay. Let’s talk about that song. How did that come about because that’s one of the songs that people just love to this day.
Thelma: “Salty Tears” was produced by Brad Shapiro, who at that time was the producer for Millie Jackson, and he thought it would be a good idea to do it in Muscle Shoals at the time, because their sound of music that they produced there was more compatible with what I do.
So we went to Muscles Shoals and recorded “Salty Tears,” and then after Columbia released it, they went back in the studio and did an album, because it was a big success and they didn’t have anything to follow up. So they ended up working with Bert DeCoteaux. That’s how the whole Columbia album came about.
Michael: Was there a reason why they decided to use Bert? Switch to Bert rather than stick with Brad Shapiro?
Thelma: You know, I can’t remember whether Brad wasn’t available at the time. You know, it’s been a while, and at this point I cannot remember why they made that decision. I just know that we ended up working with Bert DeCoteaux because he had success with BB King and …
Michael: The Main Ingredient. I remember that.
Thelma: Yes. Quite a few people, ZZ Hill--so they decided to use him.
Michael: Let’s talk about some of the other songs. I guess the first single that was released from this record was your version of “I Second that Emotion.”
Michael: What made you guys decide to do that?
Thelma: Well, I think that Bert had a vision of doing “Second that Emotion” in a funkier style. Little less pop. So I think that’s how we came up with that. I think it turned out pretty well, too.
Michael: One of the amazing things about the recording is the range, because you have, “Now That We Found Love,” which everybody knows the Ojays’ version, and since then, with the Third World version, the kind of club version, your funky version came through loud and clear. That’s a good one on there also. But you also have kind of more poppy stuff like "Angel of the Morning."
Thelma: Oh, yeah, I really like that. Of course, I think they presented me with quite a few songs and I chose the ones that I liked very much, and I didn’t think in terms of a genre. You know how people have, okay, until that time I had been really marketed as a blues artist because after "Never Leave Me," I’d worked with a lot of the blues greats like Little Milton and BB King and oh, my gosh, just to name a couple.
But they booked me as … Rufus Thomas … in the blues market because "Never Leave Me" was number one in the blues market. But I always enjoyed singing other types of music. And I never thought at that time about categorizing myself. I would just hear a song that I liked and I’d sing it. Usually, it’d have the Gospel or blues feel to it, so that’s how that happened. I heard--what was that song, “I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love,” Carole Bayer Sager.
Michael: Another great song.
Thelma: I just love, yeah, it’s wonderful too. I just love the whole melody and the lyric, and as it turned out, they had a very difficult time marketing me.
Michael: Right, because, you have to think, this was at the height of disco.
Thelma: Yes, and also, it was the height of the disco era. When they released the album, the pop stations picked it up, with songs like “Angel of the Morning” and I’d Rather Leave while I’m in Love,” “You’re the Song I can’t Stop Singing,” and "I Can Dream," which I really love.
Michael: I love that song.
Thelma: That was more easy listening jazz. It was just so many different genres they didn’t know which way to market.
Michael: Seems like they had a lot to work with; they just could figure out quite how to crack it.
Thelma: But of course, later a lot of other people, the people who are doing that now, it’s not big a deal, but at the time they didn’t know. They said, “Well, we’ve got to be in this niche or that niche.”
Michael: There’s still a bit of that going on. People want an artist to be a particular thing, which I don’t think that’s fair. People should be allowed to go where their spirit leads them.
Michael: Where their artist muse leads them. Another really great song on there is “How Long,” Grey & Hanks.
Thelma: I’m trying to think who wrote that song.
Michael: Grey & Hanks?
Thelma: I loved that one. That’s still, I think, a big popular choice of the kids that love the funky music in the UK, one of the club songs.
Michael: Did you perform that when you were in the UK, when you did your shows there?
Thelma: I did.
Michael: I bet they loved that.
Thelma: Oh, yes. I did “How Long” and, oh, yes, I did “Stronger,” believe it or not. The ones that the kids wanted to hear were “Stronger,” of course “Salty Tears,” “Stronger,” and “How Long." And another one that I really loved was “Gotta Find A Way.”
Michael: Right. One of the early singles.
Thelma: In the early years. Of course, the "House that Jack Built."
Michael: Oh, right, "The House That Jack Built." We’ve got to talk about that.
Thelma: Yes. That’s what they wanted to hear, and I’m thinking, oh, my goodness, this is amazing after all these years. I found it quite amazing, anyway.
Michael: Well, it’s more the nature of the music lover in the UK, that they really are into the music, and they know what they want. Another really great thing that I love about this record are the background vocalists on here, Brenda White, Gwen Guthrie, and Ullanda McCullough. They are like the singing angels. They’re my three favorite background singers, and they sound so fantastic on here, throughout the record. You guys did a really great job.
Thelma: They were successful artists in their own right.
Michael: Yes, beyond this, right.
Thelma: Gwen wrote, she wrote,
Michael: "Nothing Going on With the Rent."
Thelma: There was another one that she wrote for BB King, but she was a successful writer and artist in her own write.
Michael: She wrote “God Don’t Like Ugly” for Roberta Flack. I think that’s my favorite Gwen Guthrie song.
Thelma: And Ullanda is a great singer and artist. And all three of them---they did very well on their own.
Michael: Yeah, Brenda White sang with Luther for a long time on all his recordings.
You think you’ll be taking any trips back to the UK?
Thelma: Well, probably, because as long as people love the music … and I probably will go back, especially with this particular rerelease. I’m pretty sure we’ll work over there again.
Michael: And what’s going on here in the states? I know there’s a recent performance I read about on Easter, and I know you regularly perform in the Los Angeles area.
Thelma: Yes, I work a lot at Nola’s famous New Orleans restaurant. It’s just wonderful. You probably are familiar with Cabrini.
Michael: Oh, yes.
Thelma: She books that room. It’s just a lovely atmosphere, because people of all ages come there for the brunch, and it’s usually a lot of the young people that just discovered the music, my music. They come and they’re really interested, and a lot of the stories that I have with Ruth Brown and Etta James and Big Maybelle. So they enjoy that style, and then they bring their parents because they are enjoy it, as well. That’s music from our generation, so we have a wonderful time.
Michael: And what kind of stuff are you singing at that show?
Thelma: Well, I do some of my own music, like “Salty Tears,” but then I do songs like “Tell Mama,” or “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” of course, “At Last,” and just some of the music that their parents remember, like Wilson Picket’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.”
I was trying to think of another one that was a big favorite, “Mama You Treat Your Daughter Mean,” and another, that’s Miss Ruth Brown, of course, you know that. And another one that they love is another Ruth Brown tune called “Every Time it Rains.” It’s not obscure, but people don’t do it as much. They remember “Mama …” and other songs that she did, maybe some of her Broadway work, but they love it. We have a very good time with that, and then, of course, they do “Second that Emotion,” stuff from the CD, the music that I’ve recorded … current music.
Michael: I just have to say one of my very favorite performances of yours was when we did the Phyllis Hyman tribute in 2005, “Here’s That Rainy Day.”
Michael: Oh, yeah, the audience was just spellbound in that song; it was great. I will never forget that.
Thelma: That was at the Catalina. That was a lovely day and I also sing that song in the show, too, because that was one of the songs that Cabrini loved so much.
Michael: Yes, she was there that night. As I remember we had the follow up thing at her little restaurant, her little club. Great. So you’re making me want to be back in LA.
Thelma: You would absolutely love Nola’s because it is … it’s Alameda and Third, I think. The whole area is different now; it’s theaters and upscale restaurants and clubs. It’s just lovely. When you come back …
Michael: I’ll have to definitely check that out.
Thelma: Yes. So people love the food and they love the music, and it’s just great. I love it because you can do any type of music you want to do. You could do jazz, you can do blues. The last time I was there--she’s a back up singer for Ray Charles--Merry Clayton. She came and she sat in … she was gracious enough to sit in for a Bob Dylan tune which was just fabulous. And we had just a lovely time. The audience, of course, loved it. Merry is a legend in her own right.
Thelma: So that was beautiful. It’s beautiful; it’s Sunday, late afternoon. It’s from 11:30 until around 3:00. As I said, people come after church, and they love the food. Everybody loves the maple flavored bacon. Now, I’ve been a vegetarian--now I’m vegan, for years and years and years. They have some fruit. I’ll have a little bit of that, and of course the coffee’s lovely, but it’s fun to watch everybody enjoy the food.
Michael: There’s one other thing that I forgot to mention … getting back to the Thelma Jones Columbia recording: that was the first liner notes written by our founder, my colleague, your friend, David Nathan.
Thelma: Yes! David! Sure was. Wonderful. I think he said it was one of the first liner notes that he did, if not the first.
Michael: It was the first liner notes.
Thelma: Yes, and he did such a wonderful job. And David was here recently, and we spent time together, and I gave him … I didn’t give him a copy, but I brought the CD so he could have a look at it, and he just thought, "My, isn’t this amazing?" … that this is in its fifth release.
Michael: Fifth incarnation.
Thelma: Yes, the fifth incarnation. I think I mentioned earlier that one of my friends said that. It was David!
Michael: Yes, it came through on that Ace reissue with the Barry recordings, but I think that it’s great that it’s having it’s own life as an album reissued on CD.
Thelma: Yes, and it was so lovely the way they did it, and they sort of, to a certain degree, followed up with the artwork, the cover and the CD itself, duplicated the same as the album. It was very lovely the way they did that.
Michael: That’s from our friends Big Break Records, who are in colleague with us because we also--our Soul Music Record label is distributed by Cherry Red in UK, the same as Big Break.
We’re all about, just like you were saying with your show, at Nola, at the restaurant, this has all been about preserving the legacy of this music because it's so powerful, and we have to make sure that people know about it, listen to it, appreciate it, purchase it, and spread the word.
Thelma: You’re so right. I agree. I know … I don’t know if I mentioned this to you before, but that was one of the last things that Miss Ruth Brown said to me, because she thought that it was so important that I continue doing the Rhythm and Blues music. Because she said, “You know, there’s not a lot of people around anymore that have the authenticity that actually lived through the era and then the music is authentic.” And she said, "You’re one of the few people left, so baby, you can’t give up this rhythm and blues."
Michael: You’ve gotta keep going.
Thelma: That’s exactly how she said it. "Come on over to Vegas and see me. Pop in over here."
Michael: I love it.
Thelma: And, of course, we’re both from North Carolina, so we laugh about that. We used to.
Michael: And one last thing, you have a birthday coming up right?
Thelma: Yes, May 4th.
Michael: Alright, Happy Birthday.
Thelma: Well thank you, love. Taurus. The ones that endure.
Michael: Okay, you share a birthday with my best friend.
Michael: And when I told him that I was talking to you today, and let him know that you guys shared a birthday, he got very excited about that.
Thelma: Wonderful, what’s his name?
Thelma: Tymm? Well, Happy Birthday, Tymm. From a fellow Taurian.
Michael: Okay, Thelma, thank you so much for spending some time with us today talking about this fabulous record.
Thelma: Well, I thank you, Michael. I’m so excited and I’m so honored and grateful.
Michael: We’re doing our part to get the word out and have people make that purchase, and listen to some great music. It sounds so--it’s so well produced that it definitely stands the test of time, and you’ll be glad when you get it.
Thelma: Thank you, love.
Michael: Alright, Thelma, have a great day. Bye.
Thelma: You, as well. Bye, love.
About the Writer
Michael Lewis is a long-time associate at SoulMusic.com. His industry experience includes Sony Music, Motown and La Face Records, and a tenure at HEAR Music. He is grateful to contribute to sustaining the legacy of R&B and soul music.