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Phone interview recorded March 30, 2011

With some of the sweetest harmonies to ever grace popular music, The Jones Girls were practically industry veterans by the time they were teenagers. Their reputation and talent as accomplished background vocalists earned them a coveted touring gig with Diana Ross, which in turn led to their own recording contract with Philadelphia International Records. Their hits have endured since their first album in 1979, but in 1986 Shirley Jones went solo. She is back with a new album, FEELS LIKE HEAVEN and she revealed to Darnell Meyers-Johnson how the sisters developed their tight harmonies, what it felt like to audition for Diana Ross, the inspiration behind “Nights Over Egypt”, an update on sisters Brenda and Valorie and which group was originally intended to record her number one hit, “Do You Get Enough Love”...

Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for Today I have with me someone from one of your favourite girl groups. She and her sisters provided sweet background harmonies for the likes of Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, Linda Clifford and Diana Ross before branching out on their own with hits like “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else”, “Nights Over Egypt” and “I Just Love The Man”. On her own she hit number one for three weeks in 1986 with what is still a quiet storm favourite, “Do You Get Enough Love”. I am speaking with Shirley Jones of The Jones Girls. How are you, Shirley?

Shirley Jones: I’m doing just fine. How are you?

DMJ: I’m good. I first want to thank you for taking time out to speak with us. I know that you have a new album out called FEELS LIKE HEAVEN, and I want to talk about that in just a bit, but first I want to begin at the beginning. As I said in the intro, you and your sisters were basically the background vocalists to have back in the day, but your grooming as performers really started at home with your mother. What can you tell me about her and what she taught you-all about performing?

SJ: Basically we started out as her backup singers. She (Mary Frazier Jones) was the first black gospel singer that RCA Records signed on their gospel label. We started out singing behind her in church everywhere: all different denominations of churches—it didn’t matter, because she was quite popular. Consequently we learned about singing; we learned about Christ. That’s pretty much how we grew up until I was around twelve or thirteen. We segued into R&B, which of course growing up in Detroit was quite popular, the Motown era. We started doing a lot of background singing for other R&B artists because we were very popular even at an early age—like twelve, thirteen years old—because of the harmonies and from singing background with my mom.

DMJ: And as you just said, you guys were really young when you started doing that and making a name for yourself. Who did you start out singing background for in R&B after you guys were doing things with your mom?

SJ: We started out doing a lot of work for Invictus Records, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and some of those artists were Lamont Dozier, Freda Payne… At that point they even cut a couple of little singles on us that were little local hits, or regional hits. Then I think I was about fifteen when we went to Curtom, Curtis Mayfield’s label. There’s a very, very rare CD out called THE JONES GIRLS: THE EARLY YEARS, and that has all the music from Invictus and Curtom that we were a part of. Linda Clifford was one of their artists over there, and Le Pamplemousse, and we did background on both of those acts. While we were there as artists, we were still doing background recording. Then we moved on to do stuff for just about everybody once we moved out to California: Aretha, Cher, Helen Reddy, up until Diana Ross.

DMJ: You guys were all over the place with so many different artists. At the time was there anybody in particular that kind of stood out as somebody that you guys really enjoyed working with and looked forward to working with?

SJ: McKinley Jackson was the primary musician and arranger for Holland-Dozier-Holland, who we started with in Detroit, and then they moved to California. We moved to California too, so there were so many different people that we would sing behind. All of them were favourites with us because we just enjoyed singing so much and meeting different people and learning. Every time you sing background behind someone you learn a lot of different things: you learn a lot of different techniques; you learn a lot about the business. We were really young, so we were like sponges absorbing everything that we possibly could. So they were all our favourites.

DMJ: Is there a specific art to singing background in particular? As you just said, you guys did it for so many diverse people—Helen Reddy to Aretha Franklin. Is there a specific art to doing that, because I would imagine not everybody could really blend their voices with so many different kinds of voices?

SJ: If it is an art to doing it, I would think that it probably came from the fact that we spent so much time in our early years developing and working on that harmony with my mom, who was the primary teacher for us. And I think that was the art. We were able to kind of adapt our voices. Aretha needed a more R&B sound of course than Helen Reddy, so we were able to change our sound to give the producers what they wanted. But the main feature of our voices was how tight the harmonies were, and I think that that really came from us being siblings.

DMJ: Because you were so young, and now you’re working with all of these big names in the industry, did you guys ever feel a sense of intimidation? Was it ever like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re singing with Aretha and Curtis Mayfield,” and all of these different names?

SJ: Oh yeah, we did. But again, being so young, we got over it and we just enjoyed them. And all of those people looked at us like daughters. They just loved our voices. Most of them knew my mother from singing somewhere. In the gospel field they knew her. My mother used to sing at Aretha Franklin’s father’s church all the time. So they kind of knew us, and consequently we didn’t really look at them as the huge stars that they were, because we kind of grew up knowing them and seeing them all the time on different occasions. The one time that we were intimidated was when we were driving up to interview for Diana Ross to hear us, to see if she wanted us to be her singers or not. Because at that time she was a huge star and we heard that she had been turning down everybody that auditioned for her. So we were a little intimidated on that drive up.

DMJ: I can imagine. And I was going to ask you about how that started, how you guys got together with her, because you toured extensively with her for a number of years. So tell me a little bit about how she heard about you, how you guys heard about her—I mean, obviously she was a big star so you knew who she was, but tell me about how you guys actually got together and sealed the deal.

SJ: Well, we were doing background singing and someone told McKinley Jackson, who was handling us at that time, that Diana had been looking for singers and that she had been turning everybody down. There were several other background singing groups around in California prior to us getting there, and they were real popular, and she had turned them down. Apparently they were the more popular ones and they auditioned first. We were just landing, pretty much—I don’t think we’d been in California a good month when we heard about her auditioning people for this big tour that she was getting ready to take around the world. And he asked us what we thought about doing it and we were like, “Yeah, hey, we’ll audition. We’ll go.” So we kind of went over “Reach Out (And Touch Somebody’s Hand)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, which were her big records back at that time. And as we were driving up, Brenda was so nervous we had to pull over to let her get her stomach right. By the time we got up there they ushered us into this room where her keyboard player was. He asked us did we know any of her songs, and we started singing “Reach Out And Touch” and halfway through it, who walks into the room but Diana Ross. We were like, “Oh, my God.”

DMJ: So you guys weren’t actually expecting to see her?

SJ: I thought that we were just gonna put some stuff down on tape and that they were gonna play it for her, but she was actually in another room. And as soon as she walked in, they said it was because she heard our harmonies and immediately she asked us our names. She was really excited when she found out that we were from Detroit. Within five to ten minutes of the conversation she said, “Do you guys have passports?” and we said, “No, we’ve never been out of the country. And she said, “Well, we’re going to London.” And so that was it. We all just stood there with our mouths open. And she said, “Can you guys be ready to go to London in a month?” and we’re like, “Yeah.”

DMJ: You were hired on the spot, really.

SJ: Yeah. That was probably one of the most memorable experiences, to actually be singing and then she walks into the room. That was great.

DMJ: What are some of your favourite memories of being on the road with her, if you could paint a picture for us in terms of what that was like and how she was towards you-all as a person and as an artist?

SJ: Diana was very protective of us because she knew that it was our first time out of the country. This was the tour where she took her strings, horns, rhythm…

DMJ: A big production.

SJ: It was like fifty people out on the road, and all of them were men except for us and herself and her personal assistant. Once we landed in London, which was the first stop, she was always checking on us at our hotel; always having her personal assistant check on us. And then even sometimes there would be days on the tour when, if it was an off-day or and she didn’t have a whole lot to do, we would hang out with her. She’d call for us and send a car and we’d hang out with her. So she was absolutely, absolutely a fantastic person to work for. And I’d say within maybe … we were doing the States and I think we had done the Europe tour one year—because we worked with her for three years. So sometime during that first year was when—maybe it was the second year—she came to us one day and told us that she thought we were really too good to be singing background behind her or anyone else for an extended period of time. That’s when she offered us our own spot in her show while she did one of her wardrobe changes. She said, “Why don’t you guys get together and learn a song and we’ll put it in the show?”

Gil Askey, who was her music director, helped us pick a song, and we chose “If I Ever Lose This Heaven”. So in time we started doing it—we would come and perform the song everywhere. She’d say, “Hey, my girls—aren’t they terrific?—The Jones Sisters. They’re gonna come and sing a song for you.” And then we’d do the song, she’d run off and change clothes, and that gave us an opportunity to display our talents in front of the audience without her and that’s how we ultimately ended up with Gamble and Huff, because they were in the audience in Philadelphia one night and heard us. And the rest is kind of history from there.

DMJ: So it was really the fact that she gave you guys the stage for that kind of exposure that really paved the way for your eventually getting together with Philly International, it sounds like.

SJ: Yes, she did. Definitely. During that time she was not real happy with Motown—in fact, I think she’d even left Motown at one point during our three years with her. Berry Gordy talked about us signing at one point and doing some things with them, but she was like, “No, they’re not the company for you all. You all don’t need to be with them.” So I think that’s kind of another reason why she wanted us to sing a song; because she didn’t know who we should be with or anything like that, but she just wanted us to get that opportunity to expose our talents to whoever may be in her audience—which most of the time was a lot of very, very well-known people in the industry.

DMJ: And she specifically didn’t want you guys to go with Motown, even though her name was kind of synonymous with Motown?

SJ: Exactly, yeah. They were going through some things during that period.

DMJ: It sounds like she was trying to avoid having you guys go though whatever drama she was going through at the time.

SJ: Yeah, I think so.

DMJ: You ended up recording three albums for Philly International {Editorial Note: They recorded three albums for Philly International after their initial signing. They left the label to record an album for RCA Records. After that release they returned to Philly International to record a fourth and final album in 1984), but let me first ask you how it was working with Gamble and Huff, generally speaking?

SJ: That was a great experience. In fact, we learned so much working for them about how to record, and a lot of that was because of their setup. At that time when we signed with Gamble and Huff they had The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, Jean Carne—these people were all really, really hot. And the setup was tremendous: it was a little studio where you’d get a schedule and you would work with, say, McFadden and Whitehead in their studio. They would present songs to you. We had a schedule every day—we’d work with two or three different songwriters: Dexter Wansel, Cynthia Biggs, Bunny Sigler and of course, Gamble and Huff. And they would present songs and you’d sing them and work them out and start conceptually putting an album together. Then once all of the songs were chosen, once you sat down with all the different producers and writers, then we would sit down with Gamble—mostly Gamble; sometimes Huff would be there—and start putting the album together conceptually. From there we would go into the studio to record, and pretty much no matter what writer or producer had submitted a song, Gamble was always there in the studio with us and learning different techniques and having us bring out different things in our voices; singing certain things a certain way. That was a great period for us because we were able to learn a lot about really recording in the studio.

DMJ: Sounds like it was a great educational experience, almost like going to college, so to speak, for recording.

SJ: Yeah.

DMJ: And what you guys eventually ended up with as a final product was your self-titled debut in 1979. That featured what is still a big song on the radio, “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else”. Could you tell me who was behind that, in terms of production and songwriting, and how that song came together?

SJ: It was Gamble and Huff; they wrote that. And we liked it, but there were several others that we liked more as far as what we thought should be our first single. But you know, disco was really big right then and so out of all the songs on that particular album, that was the closest one to a kind of disco beat, even though it was slower than most of the other songs. We were really, really surprised when it broke out the way that it did on the disco charts as well. Now, years later, you kind of look back and you can see why, with the throbbing bass and all of that; but we were not expecting it to take off like it did. In fact, they actually had “Who Can I Run To” on the B-side because if it hadn’t broken out the way it did, they were immediately going to flip it and go to “Who Can I Run To”, which is my favourite song.

DMJ: Is that one of the ones that you guys wanted to have come out instead?

SJ: Yes.

DMJ: The album itself wasn’t a “disco album” but because that song, “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else”, was so huge, you kind of got labeled as disco artists. Were you guys aware of that at the time? If so, did you have any feelings about that one way or the other?

SJ: We were aware, because at that time that’s what you were singing. They had these huge, massive clubs everywhere, especially in New York and California—what was it, Studio 54? Oh, my God. And we were always singing in those places, but it endeared us to that crowd because of the fact that we people bought the album because of “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else”, but then a lot of the club-goers at that time, they fell in love with us, because once they bought the album and started hearing songs like “We’re A Melody” and all those different songs that were on that first album—“Who Can I Run To”—they just started getting into our harmonies and they wanted to see us perform those songs just as much as “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else” in these disco clubs. And it was great, because they were tremendous, loyal fans. To this day we have a lot of fans that remember us from that era from performing slower songs like “Who Can I Run To” and “We’re A Melody” in disco clubs. But that’s what they wanted from us. And especially after just working with Diana Ross, we had these fabulous gowns on all the time. That was fun.

DMJ: So you guys were really bringing the full package to that whole club era, because from what I understand it was all about appearances and outfits and that kind of thing.

SJ: Oh yeah. A lot of the guys were dressed up more so than we were in these clubs back in the day. It was unbelievable.

DMJ: I think I understand what you mean.

SJ: We were getting a show too, just as much as giving one [laughs].

DMJ: Speaking of the song “Who Can I Run To”, even though it wasn’t really an official single for you guys, years later Xscape re-recorded it in ’95. Why do you think that they were attracted to that song so many years later after you guys had done it?

SJ: I think that Jermaine Dupri was a big fan of Gamble and Huff. A lot of these guys during that time in the ‘90s were getting music and sampling a lot of Philadelphia International stuff. I think because this was one of the songs that was under the radar but a beautiful, beautiful song, he chose that for Xscape. It really helped bring us back out there, because a lot of the DJs during that time were playing our version and comparing it to Xscape’s version, and actually having people call in to say which version they liked the best. A lot of people that didn’t know that we had done it started investigating about The Jones Girls. So many young people know of us, because of Xscape doing “Who Can I Run To”. Our version ended up getting as much play during that time as theirs. And someone even told me at one point that our background voices were actually sampled and that they’re on their version. I don’t know how true that is.

DMJ: Their version really does sound like a very faithful rendition of what you guys had done. I don’t hear a lot of difference vocally with arranging. I can’t say if they actually lifted your vocals and used it, but a lot of it does sound very similar.

SJ: I’ve heard that, but I’ve never delved into trying to find out for sure or anything like that. But yeah, I have heard that.

DMJ: That’s a question for Jermaine Dupri if I ever talk to him. I don’t know if he would ’fess up now all these years later.

SJ: Right. ’Cause I want to get paid if it is!

DMJ: Your next album was AT PEACE WITH WOMAN, and it featured the hit song “I Just Love The Man”. And I would just love for you to tell me about how that song came together, because that song was a huge hit in my house. If I could just share, briefly, my greatest memory about that song at my house is that two of my sisters and my mom used to stand in the middle of the living room and perform that song with all of the spoken parts. I still have that memory of them going through that, and it’s the funniest thing in my mind. So if you could, tell me how that song came together.

SJ: The body of the song, “I Just Love The Man”, another Gamble and Huff song, we had pretty much completed it but Kenny kept saying he wanted to do something else to it. And we were like, “What?” And then one night we were actually kind of standing in the studio and we were just talking about relationships and guys, because we all had different things going on. And Valorie happened to be talking to me about a situation. We were waiting to do some more background on “I Just Love The Man”, because I think I had done the leads and we were working on the backgrounds—and then Gamble said, “That’s what I want right there, like a conversation.” So he wrote down some guide things for us to do and then just sent us in the studio and said, “Hey, you guys just go for it and I’ll let you know if we’re going in the right direction.” We started playing around with it, talking and having a conversation actually in the studio, and he said, “Yeah, that was the right direction.” So consequently we kept it.

DMJ: That was pure genius.

SJ: Yeah, really it was, on the part of Kenny Gamble and us just putting our heads together to come up with that.

DMJ: The next album featured “Nights Over Egypt”, and again, that was one of the songs that was a hit for you then but it is still one of the songs that remains a hit today on the radio. I’ve heard so many different versions of it—jazzed-up versions, instrumentals—everybody loves that song. So if you could tell me a little bit about that too, I would appreciate it.

SJ: Well, that song was written by Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs, and it was actually Cynthia who told us the story on how she went to the library because she wanted to make sure that they had the essence of Egypt in her lyrics: women, fellahin, which we didn’t know meant women in Arabic—and the Giza: they were trying to paint a picture of actually going down the Nile through Egypt. And lyrically she studied that, did all of that and spent a lot of time researching Egypt. And when we first heard the song I was like, “We are not a jazz group. Why are we doing this?” But Valorie, of course, who was blessed with perfect pitch, heard it and immediately wanted—“Oh, no, we have to do this song. This song is great.” And when we did the song, she was the one that really, really fought hard for it to be the first single—which it was not. Actually, it took radio, Quiet Storm, to force that, but this was two singles later. In fact there’s a church in Detroit, one of the mega-churches— what’s his name? Wendell, he’s the minister—we went to the same school. And he teaches this story in his new members’ class about actually going down the Nile in Egypt. They all went on this trip, and someone there had our song, and they said to play it while going down the Nile at night time in Egypt is really a transforming experience. And then several other people asked me, “You guys never went to Egypt?” I said, “No, that’s one of the places we never went.” And they said, “Oh man, if you ever do that and you listen to that song, you can really feel what Dexter and Cynthia—the music and the lyrics and then you guys singing it—it is just such an inspiration.” He teaches that. He tells every new member of class about actually going down the Nile.

DMJ: Did you guys ever end up having that experience? Did you ever go?

SJ: No I have not, but I plan to. In fact, some friends of mine have told me that they’re taking me, just because they want me to experience it and because Africa is one of the places that I do plan to go, where I’ve never been.

DMJ: In ’86 you decided to go solo. You guys had had all of this great success as a group—how did you come to the decision that you were going to do your own solo thing?

SJ: Well, we had a stint at RCA that was not successful after we left Gamble and Huff. I really didn’t want to leave Gamble and Huff, but at that time we had different problems going on with them on the legal side. They let us go and I was really kind of hurt about it, but then RCA picked us right up and of course we did the album with them—the ON TARGET album with Keni Burke and all that. And then after that album didn’t really do anything we kind of needed to take a break, because we had been out working behind Diana and then working as The Jones Girls; we were out there on tour with The O’Jays and Teddy and Luther and Peabo and everybody. Everybody kind of needed to take a break. We needed a break from each other, really. Brenda got married and moved to Atlanta, and Valorie wanted to get in school and do some things around L.A.; but me, of course, I still wanted to sing. Every now and then people would still want us to do background work and we would do that. And then one night Keni called me and asked me what I was doing and had I ever thought about doing a solo project. I told him yeah, that I’d thought about it and it was something I’d always wanted to do, so that’s when he said, “Well, why don’t you come in and talk about it?” So I went in to Philadelphia and we talked about it and started putting some ideas together, and I flew back home. Then about three or four month later he had resurfaced again and so he said, “You ready to try something?” So I said yeah, and flew in there for three months and cut ALWAYS IN THE MOOD, the CD.

DMJ: You did it all in three months?

SJ: I was very, very blessed. Actually, “Do You Get Enough Love” was a song that was turned down by The O’Jays. In fact, I just happened to hear it out of Bunny’s room and I told Bunny, “I love this song.” He said, “You’re kidding me?” I said, “No, I want to do this.” He said, “Well, I actually wrote this song for The O’Jays, but they just told me that they don’t want it on this—they’re not gonna do it.” I said, “Well, I want to do it.” He said, “But I wrote it for some guys.” And I said, “I don’t care, I want to do it.” And I ran into Gamble’s office and I’m like, “Bunny wrote this song for The O’Jays but they don’t want it, but I want to do it.” And so he said, “What song is it?” and he listened to it and he said, “Hey, man, let her do it. If she wants to do it, let her do it.” So they let me do it, and I’m glad they did.

DMJ: Right: number one for three weeks.

SJ: Yeah, it was—it was.

DMJ: Where were you when you found out that it hit number one?

SJ: I was in Chicago, on my way up to interview with the radio station there and take pictures for Jet magazine, and right there getting ready to go into the elevator before we got out of the car, Reggie Barnes said to me—he was one of the promotion guys for Chicago—he said, “You know, I had just talked to Gamble at the last stop”—there were no cell phones then—he said, “And we were just waiting to tell you, but ‘Do You Get Enough Love’ is gonna be number one.” And I was like, “number one?” and he said “Yeah.” And right then I just got on my knees and thanked the Lord, because I was hoping that a solo project would be a success for me but I didn’t dream that it would be number one. So that was a blessing.

DMJ: Was there any bittersweetness to it? Because you reached number one, but without your sisters, and you guys had all of that history and all of your own recordings that never quite reached that success as far as chart level. Did you feel any bittersweetness about it, or was it just pure joy and you were in your moment feeling happy about it?

SJ: In the moment I was just feeling happy about it. The bittersweet part didn’t really come until the first performance without my sisters, because I was immediately picked up to do a tour with Frankie Beverly and Maze. I remember the first night in D.C. at Constitution Hall: I had all these flowers—Diana had sent me flowers—my God, everybody had sent me flowers because they knew I was opening with Frankie Beverly and Maze and this was my first time not being with my sisters in like, forever. It was always Brenda, Valorie and I on tour and that’s really when I missed them, but I knew that this was a door that had opened that I needed to check out what was on the other side. But they weren’t there with me, so that was frightening, it was scary and I was hoping to do a good job, thinking about them. They even sent me flowers; they were happy for me—extremely happy for me. And that was when it really hit me—not so much when it went to number one, but the first performance without them.

DMJ: You ended up coming out with another album—in ’94 from what I understand when I was doing my research for this—called WITH YOU, but that album was only released in the UK and not here in the States. Do you know why it was never released here?

SJ: The guys that did it didn’t have a whole lot of experience on breaking records here in the States—they were English guys. And so consequently I put it in the contract that they had five years from the time I recorded it in… I think it was ’95, actually, because The Jones Girls had done one previous to that in ’93 called The Jones Girls COMING BACK, which was only played over there too. Both of them did very, very well in Europe and the guys wanted to break it over here, but they never did and so consequently I own those projects now. And the team I’m with now, we’ve been—and they’re terrific CDs, both of them—so we’re talking about taking some of the best songs from each one and maybe doing an album a little later on down the line.

DMJ: Okay, so there’s a possibility that we still may hear some of those songs.

SJ: You may, right; you may.

DMJ: That would be great. A lot of the fans are still asking about whether there will ever be a Jones Girls reunion. Many of them are unaware that your younger sister Valorie passed in 2001. Can you share with us what happened?

SJ: Val was always kind of sickly, with asthma and different things. And it blindsided us too when she passed away, because it was totally unexpected. It was an aneurysm. She had a son, like I did. She and I both had one child each that are four months apart, and they were like brothers. So when she passed away, myself and Brenda helped my mom in raising him, with him ultimately coming here to Atlanta after my mother got sick to stay with Brenda and I. And he’s now back in Michigan and he’s an up-and-coming rapper. He plays piano—he’s really, really good, and I’m helping him to make his name for himself. P.J., that’s her son. But no, Brenda and I have talked on several different occasions about doing something together, and who knows. Right now I’m just totally focused on keeping the sounds of The Jones Girls alive and letting people know that hey, all that music… in my show I do all of them: “I Just Love The Man”, “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else”. And I have some absolutely terrific singers out of D.C. that give me the harmonies.

DMJ: I noticed that on YouTube—I saw a recent performance from last year with you on YouTube and the sound is the same, and I was like, “Who’s back there singing with her?”

SJ: Yeah, those girls. They’ve been with me for three years now, and they are terrific—they are. And even when I do my performance tracks, I use the original Jones Girls backgrounds. So I’m just keeping the name out there. And Brenda, who has now moved back to California—we were both here in Atlanta—it’s a little difficult for us now to do too much talking about it, but we are going to talk about possibly doing something for next year, she and I.

DMJ: And how is she these days? Is she doing any performing?

SJ: She’s doing fine. She just became a grandmother. She has this two-year-old, absolutely gorgeous grandbaby—my little grandniece, that is—Lily, and she is taking up all Brenda’s time right now. And then her daughter is a nurse practitioner, and she was at Grady here in Atlanta for years but she got a really terrific offer in L.A., so of course she moved there to take care of the baby while her daughter’s working most of the time. So that’s her life right now, being grandma.

DMJ: That’s a blessing.

SJ: Yeah. And we’re thinking about doing some things, and talking about it too. If we did, it would be a nice thing for us to do that.

DMJ: I think the fans would love it. What I noticed is that your voice still sounds great all these years later. Some singers have not maintained the vocal quality that they once had. Is there anything that you’re doing to keep your voice healthy? To keep it still sounding basically the same as it did so many years ago?

SJ: Well, I never abused my voice or my body with smoking or any of that kind of stuff, because I always wanted to sing and I wanted to sing forever—I want to leave here singing somewhere. And then one thing I did that a lot of people are like, “You still have a vocal coach?” I say, “Yeah.” And he’s tough—he’s really tough on me. He’s a dear friend of mine and he lives here in Atlanta, and for years I’ve had him. Sometimes if I feel like vocally I’m not there—especially with my highs—I go to him, and he’s recorded all these different vocal exercises for me to do that I do every single day: I vocalize every single day, be it singing a song or just working my voice out.

DMJ: So that’s the key.

SJ: Yeah, and I’ve done that forever, just working and working my voice out and challenging my voice. And consequently every song I sing, pretty much, except for maybe one or two, I can still sing in the same keys of thirty years ago. And I feel blessed about that, and happy, and I love that. But that’s been the key, just vocalizing every day.

DMJ: And if there’s any aspiring singers out there, I heard this guy who’s a well-known vocal coach say basically what you said: that the key to preserving your sound, if you’re already at a high-quality level of performance, is to keep working at it. You just can’t be comfortable in the fact that you sound great today and not do anything with it.

SJ: Exactly. It’s just like exercise is for the body: it’s a muscle. You have to work out; you work your voice out. You exercise and keep it in shape. So that’s what I do every day.

DMJ: And you have the new album out now, FEELS LIKE HEAVEN. Tell me a little bit about that. We haven’t heard from you in a while, so let us know what we can expect in terms of the songs and the sound and what you’re doing these days.

SJ: I’m real proud of it. It’s sweet music—really beautiful, kind of smooth-jazz R&B. That’s what I call it. Every song on there except for the remake of “I Had A Talk With My Man” I co-wrote along with Charles Matthews, who is the producer, who is also Jerry Butler’s music director—and he’s been his director for twenty-five years. And we put it together to get people to know: hey, I’m back out there. So we’re doing that; it’s doing good. Right now you can get it through CD Baby, and some of the mom-and-pop stores in various cities have it too. And I’m on a swing through the South with Calvin Richardson and this girl Lacee with Team Airplay people and doing a lot of performance tracks and letting people know about the CD and selling it and buying it that way. And then with the new “Nights Over Egypt” remix which radio is getting ready to jump on in the next couple of weeks; and we’re adding that to the CD. It’s on the next run of CDs that are being printed up now. It’s an added single to the FEELS LIKE HEAVEN CD, because we’re expecting the “Nights Over Egypt” remix to really do its thing and get me back out there, because who better to remix and redo “Nights Over Egypt” than myself? So we’re excited about that. And it’s got a nice little funky groove on it too that hopefully will help people to know that hey, I’m back out here trying to keep the name out there and the sounds out there.

DMJ: Does it feel like heaven to be back out?

SJ: Yes it does, absolutely—absolutely like heaven. And I’ve done my job with my son: he’s twenty-two now and in his third year of college at school, so I’m real happy. I’m in a good space.

DMJ: Now will the album be available at any point on iTunes and Amazon?

SJ: Yeah, it’s on iTunes, it’s on Amazon and And the “Nights Over Egypt” remix will be available on iTunes in three weeks, I think.

DMJ: What’s one of your favourite songs from the new album?

SJ: One of my favourites is “Imagine”. It gives you that kind of real spacey, relaxing feel of “Nights Over Egypt”—real kind of effervescent. And it just puts me in a really nice, relaxed space when I hear that song. That is one of my favourite songs.

DMJ: It’s one of those things where after a hard day you can just kind of sit back, relax, throw that on and have your little glass of wine or something.

SJ: Yeah—Calgon, take me away [laughs].

DMJ: Sounds nice. Lastly, before we go, I wanted to ask you: a few years ago you did a CD/DVD project with Cherrelle and Jean Carne—“Ladies Night Out”. Will you be doing anything like that in the future? Any kind of collaboration-type projects?

SJ: Actually, Jean and I have a song, “Whatever It Takes”, that is going to be released. We did it when we were in London, back in July. It’s coming out, I believe in April—if it’s not April, it’s May. It’s a real nice collaboration that she and I did that’s going to be on Expansion over there, and I think they’re going to try to put it out over here as well.

DMJ: Is that going to be on an album somewhere eventually?

SJ: We’re hoping. Jean and I are really, really, good friends and we may do something. Once it comes out, if it makes enough noise for them then of course they’re going to want us to come and do an album—because I go over to Europe at least a couple of times a year and so does Jean. So listen out for it, it’s called “Whatever It Takes”.

DMJ: Tell us about where we can find you online. Are you on Facebook, Twitter, anything like that?

SJ: Yeah, I’m on Facebook and I have my website, you can always reach my through that, which is The—T-h-e—

DMJ: And that’s where we can get updates?

SJ: Everything.

DMJ: Will you eventually be touring? I know you’re doing the South right now and little promo things, but will you eventually be touring nation-wide?

SJ: Yes; in fact, we’re working on a couple of things now—a couple of groups have asked me to do some things with them, so we’re trying to formulate that and put all of that stuff together. My calendar is… we’ve got to get it updated, but I’m doing some stuff from now through July. I know I’ll be in Philadelphia July 21st at the Dell East—which is an outdoor theatre there. And then I’ll be in D.C. from June 30th to July 4th doing this thing for the Smithsonian—their outdoor festival. And I’ll be on a panel there, talking about being a female in the business for over thirty years. So I’ll be performing every day from the 30th to the 4th and then I’ll be on the panel with Al Bell and Ed Eckstein and several other people. And I’m talking in particular about being a female in the business.

DMJ: And that’s a whole other conversation, ain’t it?

SJ: Yes [laughs]. Then I’m hooking up with a lot of different groups that are talking to me now about doing some stuff. So if they go to, I promise the calendar will be updated and the dates and things will be on there.

DMJ: Okay, that sounds great. Is there anything you want to mention that we haven’t talked about before we go?

SJ: No, I just want people to know that every performance, if you hear about me coming through, just know that I believe singing is my life. I believe that’s why I was put here. And I just absolutely love singing for audiences, because I feel like when I’m out there singing and I see the smiles on people’s faces and know that I’m taking them away from whatever their daily lives are: that’s why I try to remember that in every performance; that hey, these people have spent money, they’re gotten dressed up to come and hear something from the past and a little bit from the present, and just relax and take them away from their problems—or if they’re not having problems, hey; just the fact that they’re there—

DMJ: Just have a good time.

SJ: Yeah, they’re there to have a good time. And that’s what I enjoy doing, and that’s what I intend to do for the rest of my days here.

DMJ: Well, that’s a great way to end this conversation. I just want to say that I do appreciate your time. We’re going to be looking online to see what you’re doing; when you’re going to be in our area. And again, I just appreciate your talking with us.

SJ: Well, thank you so much for having me, and be blessed.

DMJ: You too. Thank you very much. Take care.

SJ: All right, take care. Bye-bye.

About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report ( Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on and iTunes.
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Queens of American Soul: IndigO2, London, 16th July 2010
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