Monday, May 30, 2011

The Soul Of Thelma Jones

All Photos: Alan Mercer  Make-up: Rudy Calvo

Thelma Jones has had a long and illustrious recording career. She began singing while still a child with the family gospel recording group, The McDaniel Singers. 'Little David Play On Your Harp' and 'God Put A Rainbow In The Sky' were two recordings released at that time featuring Thelma as lead singer.

She later moved to R&B when she recorded the original version of 'The House That Jack Built', made famous by Aretha Franklin recording a cover version, along with 'Mr. Fix It', 'Souvenirs Of A Heartbreak' and 'Oh, Oh Here Comes The Heartbreak' for Barry Records.

Her following release was 'Salty Tears,' a great tearful ballad that really put Thelma on map. The self titled album 'Thelma Jones' was originally recorded for Columbia in 1978 (re-mastered and re-released in 2005), and contains Smokey Robinson's 'I Second That Emotion'.

She has followed up with several more recordings, the last being the critically acclaimed CD 'Law Of Old' in 2002.

As a live performer, Thelma has captivated audiences the world over with her electrifying vocal stylings. She is equally comfortable singing Gospel, Blues, Soul/R&B or Jazz. "It's the song that counts," says Thelma, "a good song is a good song in any genre."

I have seen Thelma Jones perform live several times and she always delivers a class act!  She is now performing with the Sons of Etta James and Jimmy Z, filling the shoes of the legendary Etta James.  Thelma has always been associated with the greats like her friendships with Big Maybelle and Ruth Brown, or opening for B.B. King, so filling in for Etta seems like a natural. 

I have photographed Thelma a couple of different times with Rudy Calvo doing the make-up for the gold shots and the pink top.  I was also able to capture some live shots that I am sharing here as well!  Not only is Thelma Jones a top act to see and listen to, she is also one of the nicest, and most grounded of all the soulful divas!   

AM:  Thelma, why don't you tell me about your latest gig working with the Sons of Etta James. 

TJ:  I'm in a band with Donto, who plays the drums and Sameto, who plays the bass.  They have worked with Etta for many years now.

AM:  What's the official name of the group?

TJ:  The name of our group is 'Sons of Etta James featuring Thelma Jones and Jimmy Z,' who was the sax player in Etta's band as well.

AM:  What do you like about working with them?

TJ:  The thing that's really lovely about it is I still get to do my own music, but I also get to do the music of a real legend, who I have loved forever.  When I got my first recording contract for a song called 'Never Leave Me' back in the Sixties, the song that won them over was 'All I Could Do Was Cry' which is an Etta James tune.  It's funny after all these years that I'm working with her band. 

AM:  How did you hook up with them?

TJ:  An agent contacted (Music Journalist) David Nathan in Europe and told him the band wanted to work but Etta wasn't feeling well enough to do it.  David suggested that they contact me so that's how it all came about. 

AM:  How does it feel replacing the great Etta James?

TJ:  I told her sons I was taking this gig as a sacred trust.  Etta and I are contemporaries from the same era.  She is someone I have loved and admired for so long.  I am filling in until she gets better.  Anything is possible.  Look what happened with Aretha! 

AM:  I love the idea of you working with this band.  Is there going to be a tour?

TJ:  That's what we're working on now. 

AM:  Your background is that you came from gospel and turned secular.  Did you always consider yourself a gospel singer?

TJ:  I started singing gospel in church when I was five years old.  Everybody in my family could sing but nobody chose to do it as a career.  My brother and sister and I formed a group and we kept winning talent contests.

AM:  Do you remember what you sang?

TJ:  I don't remember what we sang but it was the pop music of the day.  It was a big deal in our town of Fayetteville, North Carolina.

AM:  How did winning change your life?

TJ:  Shortly after winning we moved to New York.  We continued singing but then we split up our living situations with my sister living with one aunt and my brother somewhere else and I ended up with a very strict aunt who was involved big time in a church.  So I ended up singing gospel again.

AM:  Did you embrace gospel for real this time?

TJ:  I was being groomed as the next Mahalia Jackson. I did quite a few gospel recordings and was on Gospel Time TV with James Cleveland.  I got back into secular music after my sister dared me to get on stage and T-Bone Walker heard me and said I needed to go to the Apollo Theatre for amateur night. 

AM:  Was the Apollo audience a tough one?

TJ:  They were very sweet to me, even when I did the amateur hour.  I thought they were screaming because they were gonna throw something at me, but they loved me.  I ran off stage!  Big Maybelle was often the headliner.  I remember going in her dressing room and she was so sweet.  She had her assistant help me find gowns. 

AM:  You are affiliated with some legendary women like Big Maybelle.  What was she like?

TJ:  I loved her.  She was wonderful to me.  You see I didn't get the stage schooling that artists with Motown got at that time.  They sent everyone to school to learn how to be on stage.  I stepped right out of gospel and I had a hit record with 'Never Leave Me' and I was performing at the Apollo Theatre.  I didn't know how to adjust a microphone.

AM:  You are also associated with another R&B legend Miss Ruth Brown. 

TJ:  Miss Ruth was from North Carolina and I always loved her music.  My Mom was in love with Ruth Brown's music.

AM:  Did Ruth give you any advice?

TJ:  Ruth told me I could not give up rhythm and blues music.  Too much blood has been shed for it.  Back in the Fifties white kids loved her music but they had to have a rope split the room so blacks could be on one side and whites on the other.  She then told me I was one of the few people around today that has the authentic sound.  I don't know how she knew I was weary of it and wanted to give up. 

AM:  Thelma all your music is so timeless.  I don't care what year it is from.  'Salty Tears' could be a hit today.

TJ:  When I was in Italy for a Soul Music Festival this young man who used to be the lead singer for 'Kool and the Gang' told the audience they might not know who I was but he did and that 'Salty Tears' could be a hit today! 

AM:  Are you doing any of your old numbers in your show now?

TJ:  Right now I'm only doing 'Gotta Find A Way' and of course 'Salty Tears' and "Here Comes The Heartbreak' and "The House That Jack Built.'  'How Long' is the cut they love in Europe. 

AM:  Have you ever felt competitive as an artist?

TJ:  No, it never made sense to me.  I knew we were all individuals and that God expresses himself through all of us in a unique way so I was never competitive. 

AM:  But you have not been as active these past few years.

TJ:  I pulled back from music because I personally became disillusioned with it.  You could not really earn a decent living in Los Angeles in music and it's still that way today.  I do it now because I love the music and I feel like you can touch and inspire people without preaching. 

AM:  Don't get too used to being home because you are going to be traveling a lot now.

TJ:  Yes and Europe is amazing!  If I could tell you how the people in England responded! 

AM:  Tell me about some of the other people you have worked with.

TJ:  I worked with B.B. King.  He was always so sweet and unassuming.  He had ladies in every town showing up backstage and they would bring him food!  I loved working with him. 

AM:  I just love your album on Columbia. 

TJ:  I really enjoyed making it but at the time they didn't know how to market that music.  The white audience went for it more than the black audience.  It was fun and it's nice to say I had an album on Columbia darling! (Laughing)

AM:  What are your goals now?

TJ:  My focus is to reach out and touch people.  I want to carry on this journey and be uplifting to people through my music. 


  1. Alan,
    You did it again , a wonderful blog with Thelma Jones . Very insightful , she is one amazing talent , and is not ready to slow down any time soon. What an amazing career she has had so far , worked with so many talented people along the way . Most of all she appreciates her fans of her music. The pictures are remarkable , that smile of hers is contagious . I wish her the best on her tour , and hope I have the chance to hear here perform live someday . Thanks again for sharing a great chat with the amazing Thelma Jones , I loved it , always looking forward to more from you Alan, your blogs are my favorite , HUGS ~ John B

  2. Kate Rossi StuartMay 31, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    Wow! What gorgeous photos, Alan!! This is another great read! I enjoyed reading it very much!

  3. Love it, love it, love it! You're the best, Alan.

  4. Another great interview with wonderful photos, Alan. Nice to hear Thelma reminisce about the great ladies who have influenced her. I wish her well touring with Etta's sons.

  5. What a life Thelma Jones- what a wonderful life growing up singing. It's an amazing story. The images are beautiful. Alan you're masterful & I love you,

    Tommy Monroe

  6. hi there !

    very powerful photos of her singing... and then the photos that capture her sweetness, her lightness, her wonderful smile... truly inspiring photos and very thoughtful interview.... the interview and the camera capture a wide-range of emotions in a very subtle way... excellent !

  7. Thelma Jones is one of the very best true Soul singers around. It's great to see you feature her in your blog, wonderful interview.