Although Thelma Jones’ career started in 1967, when she released her first single The House That Jack Built on Barry Records, it wasn’t until 1978 that she released her debut album Thelma Jones. Produced by legendary producer Bert DeCoteaux, who previously, had produced Marlena Shaw, Linda Lewis and The Main Ingredient Thelma Jones is an album of quality soul  music. Incredibly, it wasn’t until 2006, that Thelma released the follow-up to Thelma Jones, Low of Old. Thankfully, after being out of print for far too long, Thelma Jones will be rereleased on 12 March 2012, on BBR Records. On Thelma Jones, are ten tracks, including cover versions of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ I Second That Emotion, The O’Jays’ Now That We Found Love and Angel of the Morning written by Chip Taylor. Also included on the album is Thelma’s earlier single Salty Tears, which was originally released on Columbia. Before I tell you about the music on Thelma Jones, I’ll tell you about Thelma’s career and the making of Thelma’s debut album Thelma Jones.

Thelma Jones was immersed in music from a young age, singing gospel music, when her family moved from North Carolina to New York City. Together with the rest of her siblings, Thelma toured the gospel circuit as The McDaniels Singers. Working with some of the biggest names in gospel, it looked as if Thelma was destined for a career as a gospel singer. However, when Thelma sang at the famous Apollo Theatre’s amateur night her career path changed. In the audience was James Hazley, who convinced Thelma to let him manage her. As well as managing Thelma, James and Thelma became an item, with the pair became romantically involved. Straight away, James Hazley managed to get Thelma her first record deal, with Barry Records.

Now signed to Barry Records, Thelma released a string of singles, cutting the original version of The House That Jack Built, later made famous by Aretha Franklin. During her time at Barry Records, Thelma immersed herself in the technical side of music, being coached by Big Maybelle, with whom Thelma remained friends until Big Maybelle’s death in 1972. Although Thelma recorded enough material to release an album for Barry Records, they seemed only interested in releasing singles. After hearing one of her Barry singles Never Leave Me, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records heard Thelma’s music and decided to sign her to Atlantic. However, this would prove to be an opportunity lost for Thelma.

With a new contract signed, her new label  Atlantic, decided to send Thelma to the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, where she’s record her first material for her new label. However, after a difference of opinion between Thelma’s manager James Hazley and Bobby Lance, Thelma’s contract with Atlantic was cancelled. Having left Atlantic, Thelma would sign with Columbia in 1975.

Having signed to Columbia, Thelma would return to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios to record her next single Salty Tears. This was a much more positive experience than first time around, with Salty Tears giving Thelma a minor hit. After this, it would be two more years before Thelma’s debut album would be released in 1978.

To produce Thelma’s debut album Thelma Jones, producer Bert DeCoteaux was hired. He produced nine of the albums ten tracks, with Salty Tears previously produced by Brad Shapiro. A strong collection of material was chosen, written by some of the most talented songwriters. This included three cover versions on Thelma Jones. Second That Emotion was co-written by Smokey Robinson, while Gamble and Huff cowrote Now That We’ve Found Love and Chip Taylor Angel of the Morning. Sam Dees contributed two tracks, Lonely Enough To Try Anything and I Want What You Want. Van McCoy was another of the big name songwriters contributing tracks to Thelma Jones, with Stay Awhile With Me co-written by him. 

With the songs chosen, recording began on Thelma Jones, with a tight and talented band accompanying Thelma. This included Funk Brother Bob Babbit playing bass, drummer Jimmy Young, guitarist Lance Quinn and backing singers Gwen Guthrie, Brenda White and Ullanda McCullough nine new tracks were recorded at the Mediasound Studios. Now that the album was recorded, Thelma Jones was set for release in 1978.

Eleven years after her debut single was released, Thelma released her debut album Thelma Jones. Sadly, Thelma Jones wasn’t a commercial success, failing to find favor with American record buyers. Similarly, the first single released from the album I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love wasn’t commercially successful, although the second single would prove more popular. This was Second That Emotion, which reached number seventy-four in the US R&B Charts. After this, Thelma wouldn’t release another album for twenty-eight years. However, Thelma but would continue to prove a popular live act, while her debut album Thelma Jones was known as a hidden gem among soul aficionados and connoisseurs, and a hidden gem that I’ll now tell you about.

Opening Thelma Jones is a cover of a track made famous by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Second That Emotion. This was the second single released from the album and only one to chart. Thelma’s version of Second That Emotion is quite different from the original, with the track having a funky arrangement. The rhythm section, keyboards and guitars give way to Thelma’s powerful, but soaring, soulful vocal. Straight away, you’re smitten by Thelma’s take on Smokey’s classic, with her vocal accompanied by a trio of equally soulful backing vocals. There’s a real joyful, feel-good sound to the track. It’s hugely catchy, with the funky arrangement suiting the track. Although keyboard and the rhythm section are key to the track’s success, it’s Thelma’s vocal that steals the show, grabbing centre-stage. What a way to start Thelma Jones, and if the rest of the album is as good, then this will be something special.

For many years I’ve strongly believed that Sam Dees is one of the most underrated songwriters and singers. Here, he contributes one of my favourite tracks from Thelma Jones, Lonely Enough To Try Anything. It sees the tempo drop, with the backing vocalists and slow drums and guitars opening the track. Even then, you realize that something very special is about to unfold. It does, when Thelma’s delivers Sam’s lyrics with a heartfelt and emotive delivery. These lyrics paint the picture of a man haunted by sadness and insecurity, almost desperately seeking love and acceptance, but not mature enough to be able to. Meanwhile, backing vocalists add dramatic and emotive backing vocals, while one of the best arrangement on the album reveals itself. Chiming guitars, rhythm section and subtle horns augment keyboards as Thelma brings to life the lyrics, combining drama with her heartfelt, moving delivery. Not only is this a beautiful song, delivered with feeling and passion, but one that demonstrates Thelma’s talent and versatility as a vocalist, and Sam Dees talent as a songwriter. 

Over the years, I’ve heard various versions of The O’Jays Now That We’ve Found Love, written by Gamble and Huff. One particularly abominable version I once heard still haunts me. Regrettably, I heard it a couple of weeks ago and I’m still traumatized. Thankfully, Thelma’s version serves as the perfect antidote. Here, the tempo is quick, 122 beats per minute, the uptempo arrangement blessed with an uplifting, joyful and hook-laden sound. Incorporating rasping horns, lush, cascading strings that are added to the rhythm section, chiming guitars and trio of backing vocalists, Thelma’s delivery is confident, powerful and almost diva-esque, giving an old classic new life. There’s a sophisticated disco sound to the track, one that has a timeless, contemporary sound. Of all the covers of this track, this is by far my favorite version, one where Thelma Jones pays homage to the genius of Gamble and Huff.

Angel of the Morning written by Chip Taylor has been covered by numerous artists, including Dusty Springfield, Melba Montgomery and Nina Simone. Here, Thelma delivers a mid-tempo version, against an arrangement that welds sizzling guitars, percussion and punchy drums, while a flute and keyboards augment the sound. There’s a carefree, jaunty sound to the arrangement, while Thelma delivers the lyrics beautifully and thoughtfully, in a similar carefree style. Not once does she resort to the amateur dramatics of lesser singers. Instead, with her trio of backing vocalists accompanying her, she delivers Chip’s lyrics in a style that demonstrates the quality of her vocal and the lyrics, while the arrangement breezes along behind her. The end-result is an assured and impassioned version of Angel of the Morning from Thelma.

I Can Dream is a song co-written by Leon Ware and Harold Payne. Previously, Leon Ware collaborated with Marvin Gaye, while releasing several solo albums. As well as being a talented arranger, producer and artist Leon is also a talented songwriter, as this track proves. Set against an arrangement that has percussion and lush strings at its heart, while guitars, rasping horns and rhythm section and augment their sound. Here, Thelma’s delivery is a combination of control, emotion and beauty. While the arrangement almost floats and glides along, her voice is subtle and beautiful, accompanied by a myriad of strings, percussion, guitars and horns. Later, Thelma’s vocal grows in power, as she gets across the emotion and longing in the lyrics. With a combination of great lyrics, one of Bert DeCoteaux’s best productions on the album and of course Thelma’s beautiful, heartfelt delivery, this is a track to treasure and cherish.

The tempo increases slightly on How Long, while the style changes incorporating soul with elements of funk. Add to this Thelma’s confident, impassioned delivery, and you’ve the recipe for another quality track. Here, the sounder is bigger, with a funky rhythm section, rasping horns and guitars joined by flutes and dramatic, punchy backing vocals. There’s an edge to Thelma’s voice, as she dramatically asks how long her man will stay angry. Adding to the drama of Thelma’s vocal are the backing vocalists whose voices soar as they sing “how long,” enveloped by blazing horns and the rhythm section. This is really effective, and is a masterstroke from producer Bert DeCoteaux, helping to make this one of the highlights of Thelma Jones. Not only that, but like all good music, the track has a really contemporary sound, which makes the song hard to date.

Van McCoy cowrote Stay Awhile With Me, a track that combines heartache, longing and drama. Again, the trio of backing vocalists are key to the song’s success, combining and complimenting perfectly with Thelma’s vocal. Thelma’s voice is dramatic, powerful and impassioned as she sings about “offering you my love,” against an equally dramatic, moving and powerful backdrop. This includes the rhythm section, subtle guitars and the lushest of cascading strings. Add to this the backing vocalists, and you’ve the recipe for a stunning and really moving, but sad song, where Thelma lays bare her soul for all to see. 

A song that will be familiar to many people is I’d Rather Stay While I’m In Love, co-written by Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen. Again, this is a track covered by many artists, but here Thelma transforms the track against one of the best arrangements on Thelma Jones. Delivered against a slow, string laden arrangement, where the rhythm section provide the song’s heartbeat and guitars chime Thelma’s delivery is a mixture of emotion, power and pathos. Rasping horns drift in and out the track, while backing vocalists contribute lovely, subtle backing vocals. They’re a contrast to the power and emotion of Thelma’s delivery. Overall, the track is a fusion of everything good. With one of the best arrangements on the album, subtle backing vocals and the sadness and emotion of Thelma’s vocal, this is a beautiful cover version of an oft covered track.

After a number of slower tracks, Thelma ups the tempo on the second Sam Dees penned track on Thelma Jones I Want What You Want. It has the same quality as the other track Sam wrote Lonely Enough To Try Anything. Here, the quicker tempo turns the track into a joyful, uplifting and almost spiritual sounding track. Infectiously catchy rhythms, cascading strings and blazing horns accompany the powerful, joyful backing vocalists, while Thelma grabs the track by the scruff of the neck and totally transforms Sam Dees’ song. This she does with aplomb, turning the track into a joyous, uplifting track with a really feel-good sound, that’s impossible not to get swept away by.

Closing Thelma Jones is Salty Tears, Thelma’s debut single for Columbia, recorded in 1975 and produced by Brad Shapiro. Although the track has a slightly different sound, Thelma’s vocal is just as good as on the preceding tracks. The arrangement features piano, lush, sweeping strings and the rhythm section, while Thelma’s voice is deep, powerful and laden with emotion. Later, rasping horns enter, joining the strings, adding the atmosphere and emotion of the tracks. Unlike the other tracks on the album, backing vocalists aren’t used. Instead, Thelma’s vocal takes centre-stage, on a track full of emotion and sadness.

It’s not often I’m so taken by an album as I am by Thelma Jones. From the first to last track, it’s an album full of some stunning music, from one of the most underrated singers of the past fifty years. Truly, there isn’t one poor track on Thelma Jones. With Thelma’s versions of Smokey Robinson’s Second That Emotion, The O’Jays Now That We’ve Found Love and Carole Bayer Sager’s I’d Rather Stay While I’m In Love she reinvigorates these songs, breathing new life into them and they’re amongst the best cover versions of these tracks that I’ve heard. Add to these tracks two great songs written by Sam Dees, with Lonely Enough To Try Anything heartfelt and moving, while I Want What You Want is joyous and uplifting. Meanwhile, I Can Dream, co-written by Leon Ware is hidden gem, one to cherish and treasure, while Stay Awhile With Me, co-written by Van McCoy is impassioned and powerful. Why an album of the quality of Thelma Jones wasn’t a commercial success seems incredible. Truly, Thelma’s debut album Thelma Jones is very definitely an overlooked, hidden gem of an album. Anyone who loves either soulful, jazzy or funky music will adore this stunning album. As if the ten tracks on Thelma Jones aren’t enough, there are a trio of bonus tracks included on BBR Records remastered rerelease due for release on 12 March 2012. This includes a third gem from Sam Dees, Love Look What You Got Me Into and You’re the Song (That I Can’t Stop Singing). The single version of Second That Emotion is the third bonus track included on Thelma Jones. Along with Quentin Harrison’s informative and in-depth sleeve-notes, BBR Records have done a wonderful job on the reissue of Thelma Jones. The remastering is of the highest quality, bringing to life the brilliant music from Thelma Jones on her wonderful debut album Thelma Jones, which is a must have for all lovers of good music. Standout Tracks: Lonely Enough To Try Anything, I Can Dream, Stay Awhile With Me and I’d Rather Stay While I’m In Love.


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