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Grace Jones

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After immigrating to the United States, Grace Jones studied theater at Syracuse University before launching a career as a model. Jones’ statuesque and flamboyant look proved to be a hit in the New York City nightclub scene, which led to a recording contract with Island Records in 1977.

After her first album, Portfolio, in 1977 and a series of hit dance singles, Jones became a virtual legend with nightclub audiences. Although her music always stayed right in step with the latest trends, it was more accurately Jones’s appearance and performances that catapulted her to fame. A strikingly handsome Afro-Caribbean woman, Jones deliberately accented her sculptured features with a shaved head, dramatic make-up, and outlandish clothing. She cultivated an image so unusual to mainstream American audiences that it led to a variety of rumors and questions about her identity.

She also cultivated the behavior that made her an icon for the late 1970s nightclub audiences that anticipated the rise of New Wave and punk music and fashion. The games that Jones played in particular with gender roles and sexuality brought her solid success with gay male audiences, as well as the title “Queen of the Gay Discos.

Jones’s image began in a large, religious, middle-class family in Spanish Town, Jamaica. She and twin brother, Christian, were born on May 19, 1952, to the Reverend Robert Jones and Marjorie Jones - both the offspring of powerful Afro-Caribbean families. Jones described the environment in Rolling Stone: “My father’s side of the family was heavy into politics. The bank and the library--real government stuff. We were kept away from them because my mother’s side was very religious.” The religion – Pentecostal - was so strict that Jones was required always to wear dresses with high necks and long sleeves. Not surprisingly, she sees this upbringing as the beginning of her later rebelliousness. The discipline increased when Jones’s parents moved from Jamaica to Syracuse, New York, and she was left to the care of her grandparents. She described those years in a 1985 Los Angeles Times interview with Robert Hilburn: “As a little child I wasn’t allowed to do anything. No television, no radio, no movies, nothing. I wasn’t even allowed to straighten my hair or wear open-toed shoes. Even when I moved to Syracuse to live with my parents when I was thirteen, I had to go by strict rules.”

By the time she was 17, she was studying theater at Syracuse University. Before the first semester was over, Jones decided to pursue her interest in performance through different channels. First she moved to Philadelphia where, for a few months, she held odd jobs at theaters and nightclubs. In the early 1970s she moved again, this time to New York City, where she “began to be seen nightly in the city’s shadier discos.” New York also provided her with her first break - a modeling job with the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency. When one last move took her to Paris to join her brother who was already a model there, Jones succeeded as a top international model. The career that began with a cover for Essence in the early 1970s soon led to covers for Elle, Vogue, and Der Stern.

For Jones, however, the modeling career was only a stepping stone to the stage and film work that she had always wanted. Her “discovery” came in 1974, when while dining with friends, Grace got so carried away when she heard “Dirty Old Man” by the Three Degrees that she jumped on the restaurant table and sang to the record. Her captivated audience applauded. One of the models with her was so impressed by the impromptu performance that she told her boyfriend, who just happened to be a record producer. The first record was produced by a small French label that couldn’t market the work well. In 1977 Jones signed instead with Island, an important British label, and cut the album Portfolio, which launched her career as a disco performer. By 1980 she had released three more albums - Fame, Muse, and Warm Leatherette, as well as a string of singles that were successful on the dance charts:  “I Need a Man,” “Do or Die,” “La Vie En Rose,” and “Love Is a Drug.”

In the late 1970s, when Jones met and eventually married French artist Jean-Paul Goode, she moved away from the provocative performances that had made her a favorite at New York nightclubs like Studio 54. Under Goode’s management, the “Queen of the Gay Discos” began giving concerts intended to broaden her audience. The 1981 release of Nightclubbing and a 1982 tour, promoting both Nightclubbing and new material for Living My Life, the album she would release later that year, introduced audiences to the new Grace Jones - less shocking, more “aesthetic.” Goode carefully redesigned Jones’s stage show, replacing the animals and whips with a series of “Tableaux Vivants” - living pictures.

Although her concerts received mixed reviews, some critics appreciated the new quality of the show, others clearly missed the exhibitionism. Nightclubbing kept Jones right in sync with the dance music trend, just as her earlier albums had. “Pull Up to the Bumper” reached Number Five on the charts, the biggest hit Jones had ever had; “Nipple to the Bottle,” from Living My Life, became one of the dance hits of 1983. According to Melody Maker, “Jones’s Nightclubbing album changed the path of dance music.”

Despite persistent ambivalence on the part of critics who wanted musical quality out of Jones, she had in fact moved into a realm of greater seriousness among her peers. Chris Blackwell, the president of Island, still handled the production of her albums; his co-producer for Nightclubbing, Alex Sadkin, had worked with such successful New Wave bands as the B-52s and the Plastics. Several songs were penned by respected New Wave musicians, including David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” and Sting’s “Demolition Man.” Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, probably the most sought after rhythm section in reggae music, worked with Jones for the second time on Nightclubbing.

By the mid-1980s, Jones was enjoying the peak of her fame. She seemed to be turning up everywhere - astride a blood-red Honda in a TV commercial or curtsying to the Princess of Wales at the London premiere of A View to a Kill. Probably the most important consolidation of Jones’s fame came with her two major film roles in Conan the Destroyer (1984) and A View to a Kill (1985). Unlike Jones’s first film appearance in Gordon’s Wars (1977), these were high visibility roles:  the first was the sequel to the immensely successful Conan the Barbarian; the second, one in the long series of James Bond films dating from the 1960s.

It was soon after the release of Slave to the Rhythm in 1987 that Jones’s career began to falter. Although the album did well enough, other problems beset the singer. Vamp, a 1987 horror movie in which Jones plays a vampire/stripper, had no success with movie audiences. Consequently, from 1987 to 1990, Jones was scarce on the public scene, except in news stories that focused on distress in her personal life. Her attempt at a comeback in the late 1980s, including a move to Capitol Records and then Manhattan, the release of Bulletproof Heart in 1989, and a limited concert tour, failed to fan the waning flames.

In a 1991 interview for The Advocate, Jones added a different perspective to the stories about what had happened to her career in the late 1980s. The performer who had first found her fame, her most adoring audience, and many of her good friends among gay men, lost many of those people to AIDS. “It was a strange period. I got very depressed for about two years - so many of my close friends were sick and passing away. I felt like dying along for a while.”

In response to her sense of loss, Jones became involved with AIDS benefits and relief work in general. She described the kind of support that she gained from these activities: “I always perform at gay clubs, even if I have an international movie or whatever big success. I still go back. That’s where I have the most fun! Gays appreciate me more than anybody.”

Jones eventually returned back to her recording career, enlisting super-producer Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood) to oversee 1985’s Slave to the Rhythm, which turned out to be a somewhat autobiographical work (the same year, a ten-track compilation was issued as well, Island Life). Jones’ penchant for working with big-name producers continued on 1986’s Inside Story; with production chores handled by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, the album spawned one of Jones’ last successful singles, “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You).” After 1989’s Bulletproof Heart, Jones seemed to turn her back on her recording career (although 1993 saw the release of a new single, “Sex Drive”), as she again focused primarily on movies, including a role in Eddie Murphy’s hit 1992 comedy Boomerang. The double-disc set Private Life:  The Compass Point Sessions (a collection of 26 tracks that Jones recorded with Sly & Robbie during their early ‘80s union) was released in 1998, which was followed up four years later with Island Life, Vol. 2.

As her tenth album and the first studio release in almost 20 years, Hurricane features an all-star production team led by Ivor Guest, including Brian Eno, Tricky, and Sly & Robbie. Other participants on Hurricane are Wally Badarou, Wendy and Lisa, Uziah “Sticky” Thompson, Mikey ‘Mao’ Chung, Barry Reynolds, Don-E and Tony Allen. The album features nine tracks, including the singles “William’s Blood” and the haunting and twisted “Corporate Cannibal”.

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