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Issue 1084

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Feature

THELMA JONES: âEVERYTHING THATâS OLD IS NEW AGAINâ

Thelma Jones B/W
Thelma Jones B/W Thelma Jones

The expression âpaying duesâ is one that is familiar to almost anyone whoâs ever read an article on the pioneers of rhythm and blues music. As someone who has been writing about the genre for over forty decades, itâs a constant and consistent theme that has permeated many a conversation.

If youâre unsure about what âdues payingâ looks like, think Aretha Franklin when she was at Columbia Records before she signed with Atlantic, Bettye Lavette waiting five decades for her first national U.S. primetime television appearance (finally achieved in 2005 when she performed on âThe David Letterman Show.â

Thelma Jones knows a thing or two about the subject. The Fayetteville, North Carolina-born singer with the powerful, soulful voice first came to public recognition in the mid-â60s, recording for Barry Records, achieving a modicum of success with the bluesy âNever Leave Meâ and her original version of âThe House That Jack Built,â resurfacing in the mid-â70s at Columbia Records with a splendid one-off album and the classic soul ballad âSalty Tears.â

Since then, Thelma has recorded little â one fine blues-flavored album entitled âLaw Of Old,â which came out a few years ago. Based in Los Angeles, sheâs worked on the West Coast building up a solid following and paying said dues. I could trot out all number of clichés here like âgood things come to those who wait,â âif you hang in there long enough, something goodâs gonna happen to youâ or âonly the strong survive,â all of which may apply here. Suffice it to say that within the past six months, Thelma has definitely experienced some positive movement in her career, suggesting that those dues may finally be fully paid!

Long a champion of hers â since our history goes back to the 1968 release of âThe House That Jack Built,â on Soul City Records in London, the label I co-owned with Dave Godin and Robert Blackmore and continued with my writing liner notes for Thelmaâs 1977 Columbia LP â it didnât take much for me to mention Thelmaâs name to a British DJ (Brian Goddard) Iâd known since my late â60s clubbing days in London. Brian in turn suggested I get in touch with promoter Paddy Grady regarding interest in bringing Thelma to the U.K. for what would be her first-ever visit, the fulfillment of a long-held dream of hers. Over time, Paddy and I communicated and finally, at the end of May, Thelma and I headed off to Northampton to appear at Paddyâs Soul Weekender.

Coincident with all that activity, I had been in touch with Ace Records in Britain about the possibility of issuing a CD of all Thelmaâs Barry and Columbia material. The news that she was coming to England helped hasten the process and just a couple of days after she wowed audiences at the Park Inn in Northampton, Ace put out âSecond Chance, The Complete Barry and Columbia Recordings,â a superb twenty-two track collection with liner notes by â who else? â yours truly.

Just weeks before a performance at Los Angelesâ yearly street fair Sunset Junction with Millie Jackson and The OâJays, Thelma reflected on her British visit and the release of the CD of her work and moreâ¦

DN: How did you feel about the Ace compilation?

TJ: Of course I was very excited! In fact, I was ecstatic. Iâve always thought all of the work Iâve done was very good; I never thought it got the exposure. Itâs great to have all the recordings on one CD. I was quite surprised Ace did it, especially after the Japanese had reissued the Columbia Records album on CD a few years ago.

DN: What were your thoughts as you listened to the CD?

TJ: When I work with any music, itâs a journey. I invest a lot emotionally in the songs I do. Listening to it took me down memory lane, to where I was when I recorded the material and it was quite pleasant. I always liked âGotta Find A Wayâ because it gave me a chance to express the blues, âSecond Chanceâ was a good pop song which gave me a chance to expand musically. I was impressed with arrangement and how the song was written - it has a beautiful story. I do think everything sounds better now. I was very impressed with how well done the records were and with the Columbia recordings, how there were so many different styles. âHow Longâ so funky. I liked âAngel Of The Morningâ and âStay Awhile.â The Sam Dees song âLonely Enough To Try Anything,â I love that one and âI Can Dream,â (co-written by Leon Ware) is one of my favorites â it has that easy listening jazz kind of sound. The one that I was pleasantly surprised to hear again was âYouâre The Song I Canât Stop Singingâ because itâs so different from the rest of the material.

DN: Letâs talk about your visit to the U.K. and specifically, your appearance in Northampton at the end of Mayâ¦

TJ: It was a life-altering event for me, on a spiritual level. I was thrilled to work with the live band and the background singers â they were so loving and friendly as were the audience. I was overwhelmed that people would me in their hearts for so many years. I looked out and saw people were singing along and what that said to me is âwe love the music.â One person told me he wondered what my voice would be likeâ¦and it was the first time I had performed most of the songs in front of an audience. The biggest surprise was the reaction to âHow Longâ and âGotta Find A Wayâ â I was amazed at that â and moved by the response I got to âSalty Tears.â It reminded me of when I first appeared at The Apollo Theater in New York in the â60s. It was along way from my experience with the church choirs I sang with where you moved with the spirit! Then working at The Apollo with a bandleader and musicians and having a structured actâ¦I remember turning around and being in awe. Well, it was almost the same feeling in
Northampton when I turned around and saw the band and the singers. It was quite amazingâ¦almost like I went back in time.

DN: What did you walk away with from the experience in Britain?

TJ: Spiritually, it confirmed that time and space are just an illusion! I wondered, âafter all these years, whoâs gonna remember me?â The way the people responded showed me they loved the music. It was very beautiful and uplifting the way people connected with me on the level I hoped they would. I got a note from one man who expressed what he had been through and how the music was healing. Another young waiter who had never heard of me was touched by the music. The whole experience of performing in Northampton was divinely wonderful!

DN: And your impressions of the country, since this was your first visit?

TJ: I loved England! I really felt at home. I havenât felt that way about any other place Iâve been. It was invigorating even though I donât usually like rain and colder climates. The countryside was beautiful and being in the middle of a city, being in the heart of London and seeing trees, hearing birdsâ¦it was just fascinating! I would love to go back and Iâm focusing all my energy on that.

DN: OKâ¦so UK promoters and agents take heed! Whatâs next for you?

TJ: Well, on August 19th, Iâm performing at Sunset Junction here in Los Angeles and thatâs like coming full circle since I worked with The OâJays at The Apollo many years ago. I will be performing with (noted bass player) Arthur Adams and his musicians - itâs very exciting. Iâm also looking at doing a new album in a nightclub sort of setting and it will be straight ahead rhythm & blues. I denied for so long what my voice was like â I wanted to sound light and airy. But Iâm more like Little Milton and Otis Redding and they were not pop and light! Iâm finally coming to grips with my musical gift and what Iâm like â and that Iâm really a rhythm and blues artist! (The late) Ruth Brown said it too: she told me, âYouâre one of the few authentic R&B peopleâ¦you lived through it and thatâs who you are!â And she wasnât wrong!
Words David Nathan (First Published on soulmusic.com)

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