Grace Jones: The New Dahling Of The Disco Set
November 1977, in person interview, Island Records’ office, New York City
By David Nathan
“Yes, I do feel I'm sexy. I'm basic, I'm natural, I'm a woman and I love my body!” So says Jamaican-born Grace who began as an actress and model in New York and Paris. Now she's fast building a reputation as Disco Queen.
PERHAPS one of the more unusual success stories of 1977 revolves around a young lady, born in Jamaica, raised in the U.S.A., who became a top model in Europe and is currently the rage of the disco scene, as well as having made inroads into the pop charts in close to a dozen countries.
The lady we're referring to is Ms. Grace Jones who has been tabbed variously — as the "New Disco Diva", "Amazing Grace" (hardly the most original!) — and who's been flooring audiences with what can only be termed a showstopping revue in major U.S. cities.
Drawing on her extensive experience as a model, utilizing her knowledge of make-up and what to wear, Ms. Jones has put together a show that has literally had everyone screaming for more — and she herself admits that although singing has been a basic desire and ambition for as long as she can remember, she's only really been performing on a professional level for a relatively short time. In fact, the lady first entered the recording studios in 1974 and completed her first album in Philadelphia earlier this year.
But firstly, the roots: "I was born in Jamaica and my family — on my father's side — are heavily into politics, banking, those kind of things. On my mother's side, they're quite a good deal more religious! Anyway, I left the island when I was around 12 and came to live in Syracuse, in New York — and I loved it. It was something totally different from what I was used to and I dug it." It would seem that Ms. Jones always nurtured a desire "to be different" and recalls a period of one year which she spent "as a glamorous hippie! Which was fine, because it prepared me for a lot of things''.
Her initial entry into the entertainment and creative sector came when she began studying drama. But prior to that, "I was an athlete at school — I held the record at high school for the long jump," explains this six-foot statuesque lady, "and I would probably have gone off into that if I hadn't gotten into acting and modelling."
Her very first professional stage appearance was in Philadelphia and for Grace, that was "my ticket to freedom. Once I left Syracuse, I didn't want to go back! I did this musical comedy there — it was real strange, crazy. But I loved it and once I did the play, I was hooked." The teacher with whom Grace had been studying drama felt somewhat responsible for Grace being in Philly (since he too was from Syracuse) and accordingly suggested that she might consider a career in modelling when the play finished its run. "I'd never thought about it, honestly! But we took some pictures and next thing, I was off to New York."
But not before Grace had done a stint as "a nudist in Philadelphia. Which was good because it helped me to accept myself, accept my body — I used to think I had horrible legs — and accept people, the world". In New York, in 1971, Grace immediately began contacting various modelling agencies and although she had some success, she encountered considerable frustrations. "At the time, people wanted Black women who looked average — they weren't looking for people who looked different. And I did! I had strong features, I looked exotic. And then, whereas I loved to wear my hair short, they would want me to be wearing wigs and all of that! And I didn't want to conform, I wanted to be myself, develop my own look."
In addition to the frustrations Grace was meeting as a model, she also experienced trying times when auditioning for parts in different movies. Finally, she landed a part in "Gordon's War", after she was asked to act as though she was angry. "Believe me, that was no problem because by then, I really was fed up with not getting accepted for parts so it came real easy! And I got the part." This was 1973 and Grace notes: "There were other parts offered but they had such little depth. Most of the good parts were going to men," she concludes.
Grace found something of an outlet for her career frustrations by "going out practically every night and having a good time! But I'd wear really way out things, I wanted to be unique, different and I'd experiment with a lot of clothes. It's like I do play with everything, you know," Grace says teasingly, "but I play good". And there isn't much you can add to such a statement!
By this time, several people had suggested to Grace that she might find greater acceptances in Europe and after waiting for another movie part that didn't materialize, Grace decided to just up and go. "I went the cheapest way possible which was on Icelandic Airlines via Luxembourg. When I got there, I decided to hitch hike to Paris. I didn't know a word of French and I only had about $200 with me but I guess I was brave. I probably looked really weird, like Greta Garbo or something! Anyway, I started trying to get a ride to Paris only to find out I was trying to go in the wrong direction!"
Abandoning the idea of hitching a lift, Grace opted for the train and on arrival in Paris headed for a hotel recommended to her by a friend in New York. "I found Paris to be completely different from anything I'd experienced. Straight away, I went over to an agency I'd been told about but they told me that they didn't really need any Black models." Not to be stopped in her tracks — Ms. Jones is hardly the kind of lady that anyone would stop in her tracks! — our heroine started hanging out in the right places, being seen on the right streets at the right time and it wasn't too long before some of the top fashion magazines became aware of her. "I used to go out there with Bryan Ferry's girlfriend, who's also a model — and we'd really get made up and we'd look really different. We'd literally stop the traffic because we just didn't look like anyone else people had ever seen!"
After securing the front cover of "Elle" magazine, Grace found herself in constant demand as a model, noting "that the timing was perfect. There hadn't been a big black model in Europe since Danielle Luna". Although she didn't speak a word of French at the time, Grace says she spent a lot of time communicating "by laughing! That always did the trick!" and before long, she found herself on the front cover on several fashion journals in both France and Italy.
It was during her first year in France that Grace became seriously involved with music. She relates: "I was at a brithday party for a photographer and I heard the record "Dirty Ol' Man" by The Three Degrees. Well, at the time, I wasn't really hearing any music because I was staying in a hotel. When I heard it, I just freaked out and jumped up on the table and started singing!"
Fortunately for Grace, the girlfriend of a record company employee was present, heard Grace and told her boyfriend about the lady. That was her first entry into the recording studios and she recalls: "We did a demo of "Imagine", the John Lennon song and "Dirty Ol' Man" but we just had a piano player working with me and he really couldn't get the Three Degrees' song at all! But anyway, "Imagine" seemed to really work and I took some vocal lessons to smooth out the rough edges."
Following the audition, Grace recorded "I Need A Man" on her first session in Paris but she recalls: "It was really difficult because there was a problem: although I'd learned to speak some French by this time, it was tough trying to explain what I wanted to the musicians. In fact, it took us over six sessions to get it right and then, when we did, I had a fever of 104 degrees! I guess I was just desperate by that point!"
When the record was released in France, it did very well and Grace notes that "television really helped that because combining my modelling activities and the record, they had a ready made story and we got a lot of exposure on television."
In addition, the record started to take off in other European countries as well as resulting in a visit to Japan where Grace made her professional singing debut in front of an audience of 20,000 people. "I went there at the request of one of Japan's top designers and it was really a combination of singing and modelling some of his clothes". Grace recalls that she cancelled a date as second bill to sing with Raquel Welch in Paris to do the Japanese performance "because I was top billed on that one!" Deciding adamantly that she wouldn't record again in France Ms. Jones took a weekend trip to London in late '75 and worked with a gentleman by the name of Pip Williams. "It took us just two days to do two sides — "That's The Trouble" and "Sorry" and, originally, "Sorry" was supposed to be the topside."
Notably, Grace also contributed musically to both songs as a co-writer. Upon release, both sides did well again in France and Grace insisted that if the company she was recording for wanted more product, they would have to do a deal in the States so that her records would be released there. "The company just felt that the competition was so strong here that they didn't want to deal with it. But in the end, they sent a representative over and they met with Si and Eileen Berlin who were just starting their Bean Junction label."
Fortunately for Grace, the company hired the services of mixing master, Tom Moulton, who re-mixed both sides for release in October of 1976. "After Tom had worked on them, we really had two "A" sides," Ms. Jones comments. "And the next thing I knew, I got a call asking me to come in to do some promotion because the record was taking off." Major radio station WBLS in New York had immediately started playing the record and with the disco movement giving strong support, Ms. Jones found herself with a hit record. "What was really strange too was that the record didn't cross from disco to r&b and then to pop, it just went straight to the pop charts and that's pretty unusual."
After returning to Europe — where she had, in the meantime, appeared in two movies and sung the theme song for another in which she appeared as herself — Grace found herself with a hit record there and since she hadn't been back into the studios ("we were supposed to finish an album last year but you know how it is when people keep changing the ideas and so on") Bean Junction. working as an independent in the States, decided to release "I Need A Man" which subsequently took off almost immediately. "That record was released in April of this year and the company again asked me to come in to do some promotion. By this time, we realized that Bean Junction had been doing everything themselves, which had been fine, but we'd kind of outgrown the situation. In other words, we need major distribution for our future products. Well, although we had other offers, none of us wanted to just go with whatever came along. We wanted the right deal and we wanted the freedom that the right deal would give us."
It seems that at about the same time as Grace had been advised Island Records might well be the right place for her, the company itself was getting ready to approach her with an offer. "And it seemed like it was just supposed to come together like that! I knew we needed something special — because I regard myself as a special kind of artist, I know a lot of people probably got upset and even jealous when "I Need A Man" happened because they might have felt that the first record, "That's The Trouble" was a fluke. And especially if they've been out here for years, paying their dues as singers. But they don't realize that I paid my dues way back when I first struggled, trying to get into modelling and acting. And I realize that by a lot of other standards, I'm still maybe an amateur. I'm no Loleatta Holloway or Melba Moore. But I feel that given time, I can work at it. You know, it doesn't take a few minutes to get your vocal chords used to singing constantly — it's something that can takes years of hard work, and it's wrong for people to expect me to be totally there already. But what I've been trying to do through my shows is present excitement and entertainment and I think that more than makes up for the experience I haven't yet had as a vocalist."
Certainly, any vocal flaws that Ms. Jones feels she may have to overcome haven't prevented her debut Island album, "Portfolio" from taking off instantly. "We recorded the balance of the album in Philadelphia and I felt that since Tom (Moulton) had done such a good job on re-mixing the other songs, he should produce the rest of the album, and it was his idea that we do both "La Vie En Rose" and the medley of Broadway tunes on the album. In addition, he did what you might call major surgery on "I Need A Man" by re-recording the rhythm and transplanting one of the vocal takes that I'd done in France originally on it — not the one that was originally issued, either."
Anyone who's either witnessed Grace's live performances or seen some of the more daring press photographs she's taken would naturally get the impression that the lady has created something of a sexy image for herself! "Of course, my dear! Yes, I do feel I'm sexy. I'm basic, I'm natural, I'm a woman and I love my body! I'm aware of myself — that's something that comes from things like athletics that I got into when I was at school. But sure, that's definitely one of the things that comes off — that sex image!"