Portfolio- Grace Jones (Island 1977)
So here it is – the album which I will save above all others from the theoretical burning building (at least I hope it’s theoretical- I don’t want to actually have to make the choice). This is the CD I play probably more than any other and have done really since its release back in 1977. It was not a big seller yet has remained consistently available. It is the ultimate cult album from one of the ultimate cult artists. It did establish Grace as a hit artist in a number of markets gaining a Top 30 placing in Australia (27), Sweden (22), Italy (9) and The Netherlands (8).
Grace Jones was born in Jamaica and had a very strict upbringing. Things got tougher for her when her parents migrated to America, aiming to settle there before bringing the family over so Grace and her siblings were brought up for a time by very devout church-going relatives. Grace was always going to rebel. She eventually joined her parents in Syracuse and the awkward tall teenage girl drifted into acting and then modelling. It became clear to Grace that if she wanted to make it as a model she would have to get away from the USA as her brand of exoticism was too much for the conservative model agencies. She moved to Paris where she became for a time one third of a modelling agency where the two other girls on the books were her friends Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange. It was the image of Grace Jones that first caught my attention. I remember a photo of her being published in “Record Mirror” and I bought this debut album on the strength of that photo without hearing a note. Never has an impulse buy paid off so well.
Grace was in France really not knowing of the disco explosion that was happening in New York in the mid 70’s. She had made some demos in Paris and a New York couple called Sy and Eileen Berlin, who had been in the clothing industry but were looking to move into music took note. Grace’s early tracks were lined up for a label they had planned called Beam Junction. The popularity of the early singles led to a record label with Island Records the home of many Jamaican recording artists and run by the man who would become a great friend of Grace’s, Chris Blackwell. Grace, in her 2015 autobiography “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” had this to say;
“The fact that I made disco music was an accident, really. When I made my first records, I didn’t think of them as being disco. I made them in France and the word discotheque is a French word, but it did not have the meaning that it was beginning to have in New York. I didn’t characterize them as anything. They were simply songs with a little bit of soul and rhythm, echoes of singing in church, a sense of something showy whipped up by being in Paris with all the fashion, around all the people making it happen.”
Back in America genius record producer Tom Moulton was brought in to mix the tracks Jones had already recorded and eventually to put together the other songs which made up this seven track debut. Grace may have not been aware of disco initially but she recorded the perfect disco record which clearly illustrates what disco was all about. As well as the rhythm and melodies there was the hedonism, the camp sensibility, the excellent production values and for me most of all the chutzpah of Grace the artist with a voice that could hover towards the flat end of the scale performing with such gusto that she just had to become a household name.
Producer, re-mixer and disco legend Tom Moulton
The look of the album also suggested something different. I have held onto my vinyl copy because the CD could not reproduce fully the look and feel of the album. The Warholesque artwork was not by Andy, who would become Grace’s big Studio 54 disco pal but by Richard Berenstein who worked for Warhol’s “Interview” magazine who was one of the first of many who would manipulate the image of Grace Jones from photographs. Grace’s face is in tones of purples and greens on the striking blue background of the front cover and on the back as a disembodied head in reds and purple with a glittery tongue. Grace Jones had arrived.
The first side of the album also summed up Disco. Grace was not the greatest singer yet the idea was to get her to tackle three demanding recent Broadway tunes which would segue into one another and would use some of the greatest Philadelphia session musicians. Vincent Montana Jnr, the vibe player and brains behind the Salsoul Orchestra was brought in to do the arrangements and the celebrated backing vocalists, known as The Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette Benton were on hand should Grace find herself deviating too far from the melody. The result is around eighteen minutes of sheer joy, which I turn to whenever I need a boost- the ultimate guilty pleasure.
It wasn’t that original to disco-fy old songs. Gloria Gaynor had exploded onto the pop charts and was heralded the Queen of Disco by raiding the Motown songbook and older songs such as “Tangerine” (Salsoul Orchestra), “What A Difference A Day Makes” (Esther Phillips) were becoming mainstays of this recent form of music. The song chosen for Grace’s Broadway medley were quite recent showstoppers. The whole thing kicks off with “Send In The Clowns” from “A Little Light Music” (first produced on Broadway in 1973) which had that year already just survived a vocal version by Elizabeth Taylor in the film version but whereas Taylor seems apologetic Grace is going for it. Grace’s vocal is unique and gells excellently with the “sweet” background vocals. Her unusual phrasing, long notes and just-on-key performance are all used for excellent effect. There’s great work going on in the piano and rhythm section. The track moves with a flourish into “What I Did For Love” from 1975’s “A Chorus Line”. There is no doubt that Grace is camping this up with a vengeance. The backing girls are given more to do here and their harmonies are sublime. The rhythm, crashes, builds, breaks down and builds up in a template for the disco sound. The third track is the weakest of the three, but then the song “Tomorrow” came from “Annie” which opened the same year as this album was released so would have been less familiar and Strouse and Charnin’s song is never going to be of the same quality as the Sondheim and Hamlisch tunes that precede it. Once again Grace gives it her all- although it does get a little repetitive before the end. It does however, perfectly fit the concept and the production and musicianship is excellent.
Grace at Studio 54
If the producers had gone for more of the same for the second side then maybe we would have a very good solid disco concept, not startlingly original and probably not essential. It is the second side that makes this album for me – bringing remixed versions of her tracks originally recorded in France with another French standard which is one of the highpoints of the whole Disco era.
The second side kicks off with Grace’s finest moment of her long music career, her version of a 1945 song with lyrics originally written by France’s most famous chanteuse, Edith Piaf. “La Vie En Rose” needs to be heard in its seven and a half minute glory. (The video below from a 1977 European pop show is the edited single version). The lengthy introduction with woodblock and guitar builds things up beautifully into a kind of bossa-nova feel which would have ensured this went down a storm in Latin discos. It’s coming on for two minutes before Grace makes her entrance, speaking in French before easing into the familiar melody. This works because of its sense of exotic – the French lyrics, the latin rhythms and Grace soaring her way vocally. This track is often a staple of live shows and Grace has said of the song, “That’s a very special song to me. Oh God, I cry every time I sing it. I had quite a few French lovers, so every time I sing it I think about them.” I love Grace’s vocal on this. At the time of its release music journalist Vince Aletti was writing a column in Record World which he put together in the five-star rated book “The Disco Files” . This is what he had to say about this track;
“building to an emotional peak from a minimal, delicate, seductively languorous arrangement of piano, guitar and percussion. Grace, singing in both French and English, uses the simplicity of the production as the perfect foil, strutting across it, purring, growling, shouting and whispering like an actress working her lines for all they’re worth.”
I couldn’t put it better myself. This track gave Grace her first international hit single going Top 5 in France, Italy and the Netherlands. In the UK Grace had to wait another nine years for it to be re-issued as a double A side with “Pull Up To The Bumper” where it did more than help that track get to number 12. Grace has never had a Top 40 hit single in the US, so that decision to make a move to France to find fame might have been the right one after all.
Grace goes unusually passive on the next track, the apologetic “Sorry” which certainly has that Philadelphia feel. It’s a tale of jealousy written by Jones alongside Pierre Papadiamandis. Jones has been caught out after a rendezvous with an ex-lover . The rap “he loves me too and he’s not jealous of you” shows where Jones is coming from. The song is basically trite but Grace pulls it all off with panache. This was a double A sided single with “That’s The Trouble” written by the same song-writing team and this is a great, infectious track where everyone appears to be having a good time. Taken at quite a fair old pace, Grace laments being followed by men who fall in love with her instantly. “Every man I see taking every little thing so heavily”. Grace isn’t into commitment but those around her seem to be. This is establishing the Grace Jones image of a strong, attractive, desirable woman. She performed this song many times live in nightclubs, including Studio 54, and those booking her really did not know what they were getting- occasionally bare-breasted, painted, or even with a leopard on a chain – this lady was certainly coming from a different place from previous disco divas.
Her gay appeal was established very early on with her first single release which becomes the closing track of the album. In “I Need A Man” Grace is not going to be wasting her time cooking (it was hard to imagine Grace cooking!). She ‘s out to get her man “then at night I won’t be lonely/knowing I’m the only one”. The song is predatory, sexual and yet has a yearning which shows the contradictions of being Grace Jones. It also has a fervour which could almost be described as gospel-esque, although it’s not religious salvation Grace is looking for. The track was an instant success in the Discos and took Grace to the top of the American dance charts. In a track from her later “Slave To The Rhythm” album, (“The Frog And The Princess” ) narrator Ian McShane relates the words of her lover and manager Jean- Paul Goude who spoke of the ambiguity of his first viewing of Grace watching her sing “I Need A Man” in a New York nightclub “Les Mouches” and looking like a man, to a room full of gay men. He knew then that this radical, electric performer would be his muse. When Grace ends the track with the spoken “perhaps that man is you!” you can’t help but smile nor have a slight shiver up the spine!
The complexity of the artist is evident from this first album. Rebellious and radical yet prepared to perform a Broadway medley this is just what Grace Jones was all about. Predictably unpredictable merging the worlds of fashion and music, a punk sensibility with disco. I knew she was going to go far.
Portfolio is is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.33, used from £1.97 and as a download for £6.93. In the US it is currently $8.99 new, used from $1.79 and download for $5.99. It is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK .