Little Johnny Jones - Feature
‘LITTLE’ JOHNNY JONES by Pete Nickols (with thanks for additional information from Mike Finbow)
A while back I listed my Top 50 all-time favourite deep-soul recordings and posted this to the Southern Soul Yahoo Group. Although my listing was intended to represent the best secular Deep Soul performances, the recording which made it to No.1 was actually something of a “cheat” on my part. It’s easy to see how important the gospel influence was to the deep-soul style but the recording at the very top of my pile is actually a genuine gospel song, cut in the soul era in the deep-soul mode and simply just SO good that I had to allow it to “cross over” since, if you were to substitute secular lyrics for its sanctified ones, it would need no other change whatsoever, so deeply soulful is the recording as it stands. The piece actually stems from 1972. The pre-disco-era early 70’s indeed saw some wonderful deep soul recordings made and, whilst some fans will always associate classic-soul with merely the 60’s, both the classic soul genre and its deep-soul sub-genre maintained a strong presence up until about 1974.
More about this very special deep-gospel recording by Jimmy Jones in due course - but first, what of the vocalist himself?
Picking the greatest male gospel voice of all time would clearly be a very subjective exercise and, with so many different styles of gospel music and so many different ranges and timbres of voices to choose from, to attempt to make such a choice is almost impossible. The great power lead voices like Ira Tucker, Clarence Fountain, Julius Cheeks, Archie Brownlee, Brother Joe May, Silas Steele and Morgan Babb have to be in the reckoning, plus there have been some great bass-baritones too like Jimmy Jones. Then there are the high-tenors - most notably perhaps the amazing Wilmer ‘Little Ax’ Broadnax – and we can’t overlook the quieter but still super-interpretive lead vocalists, notably the hugely influential Sam Cooke. However for his sheer unbeatable combination of mellifluousness, power-when-needed, shrieking on-key, ad-lib insertions, interpretiveness and emotional involvement, a very real contender for me would have to be ‘Little’ Johnny Jones.
Jones was born close to the Savannah River in Augusta, Georgia on December 8th 1930. His father, the Rev. Benny Jones, was a holiness preacher at the nearby Watts Chapel Church. Johnny’s own introduction to singing in that church came early. He recalls that when he was only 6 or 7 years of age his ‘daddy’ would have him sing to ‘warm up’ the congregation. Then his father would preach before inviting Johnny to sing again.
By the time he was 13, Johnny had joined the local Daggert brothers, Bill, Joe, Richard and Billy-James to form a gospel quartet called variously The Daggert Brothers Quartet or simply the Daggert Boys (note the term ‘quartet’ is traditionally used for all small gospel groups however many actual members they may have). Two years later (and still only 15) Johnny found himself singing second lead in the South Carolina-based quartet Andrew Johnson & The Southern Six. Much later, in about December 1955 this group would cut two sides for John Dolphin’s Los Angeles-based Hollywood label and two more would appear in early 1957 - but of course Jones was no longer connected with the group by then. While Jones was touring with the Southern Six, his talents were noted by Barney L. Parkes, manager of the the significant female gospel soloist Edna Gallmon Cooke (‘The Sweetheart Of The Potomac’), who duly recruited him to become a member of her regular backing group The Singing Sons (who later, without Jones, would evolve into the Florida Robins). It is likely that Jones was recruited to the Sons to simply support her regular personal appearances as Edna did not start to record until the Spring of 1949. The Sons themselves also first recorded in 1949 (on July 14th) but Johnny was not by then amongst their personnel.
Unlike many gospel-raised and trained vocalists, Johnny had never been shy at also utilising his great God-given voice for the ‘devil’s music’ (i.e. that of a secular variety) and in 1955, while the already highly-successful secular group The Drifters were waiting for Johnny Moore to become a permanent lead-vocalist replacement for the booze-loving Little David Baughn, Johnny was asked to sing with the group at some live performances, although he did not feature on any of their recordings.
On his return to his Augusta GA home ground in 1956 Johnny was recruited by the manager of the Swanee Quintet to initially sing second lead alongside the Rev. Ruben W. Willingham as it was felt the addition of a highish tenor voice would keep the Swanees’ sound more contemporary to the gospel needs of the day. The Swanees would become Jones’ ‘home’ for a number of years and he would sing with them on and off up until 1968 - and even return briefly in the late 70’s and for personal appearances on into the 90’s. On his first lead-vocal on his return to the group in 1977, he would cut a gospel version of Phillip Mitchell’s soul-song “Starting All Over Again” which had been a No.4 R&B and No.19 Pop hit for Mel & Tim in 1972 on Stax 0127 after being cut at Muscle Shoals Sound. On Johnny & The Swanee’s 1977 single (Creed 5239) Johnny is actually welcomed back into the group via a spoken intro to the recording.
However, back in the 50’s, his earliest appearances with the group were interrupted when he took on a similar role in the gospel fold as that which he had recently taken with the Drifters in the secular one.
In the late-summer of 1957, Sam Cooke had left the big-name gospel quartet The Soul Stirrers to begin his own solo secular career (his last recording with them was on August 19th that year), and the Stirrers were waiting for his permanent replacement Johnny Taylor to ready himself for that particular hard-to-fill role. In the event, Taylor did not record with the Stirrers until February 4th 1958 and, in the interim, with Cooke gone, Johnny (who knew Sam well from when the Swanees had been supporting the Stirrers on gospel programs) was duly recruited to sing lead on several of the Stirrers’ live performances. However, Johnny Jones did not stay with the Chicago-based Stirrers for long (although he would sing with them again in the 70’s - see later) and claims that the Windy City’s snowy winter weather did not suit his southern Georgia soul. It seems he was also missing his home-town girlfriend and so he soon returned south to resume his residence with the Swanee Quintet.
This Quintet’s roots stemmed from The Hallelujah Gospel Singers, formed in 1939 by Charlie Barnwell who, with Rufus Washington and William ‘Pee Wee’ Crawford began touring around their native Georgia and South Carolina before linking up in 1945 with James Anderson and Ruben Willingham to create the Swanee Quintet. For ten years they would feature on a local daily radio show, during which time they won the regional Golden Cup Award for seven consecutive years. In one public performance they allegedly sang in front of 18,000 people and they also appeared at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall in 1957 – but they did not begin their recording career until around December 1951, some six to seven years after their formation. It was then that they featured as one of the first gospel acts to record for the Nashboro label.
Nashboro Records had been formed in June of that year by Ernie Young, the owner of Ernie’s Record Mart mail-order operation, by then based at 179 Third Avenue in Nashville. After an early aborted attempt by Young to create a “hillbilly” music outlet, Nashboro quickly became his main gospel logo, while blues and R&B would later emerge on his Excello subsidiary, introduced in August 1952.
From his early days with the Swanees it seemed Jones possessed a light and airy albeit genuinely impressive tenor (clearly influenced by, but not derivative of Cooke) but it held latent power and could also effortlessly soar into the falsetto range, sometimes proving an almost startling but very successful complement to Willingham’s preaching baritone (as on the absolutely outstanding “Sleep On Mother” from 1958, the lovely lilting-paced “Lowly Jesus” from about 1959, and the pacy foot-tapper “Holy Ghost Got Me” from 1960) whilst it was also sometimes allowed full rein as a solo tenor lead-voice (as on “Over In Zion” and the self-penned “My Father’s Land” both from 1959, plus “Take The Lord With You”, “Great Change In Me”, “I Want To Move” and “Jesus Loves Me” all from about 1961/2). By the time of these slightly later Swanee tracks, over in the secular arena the classic soul era was only just beginning but on performances like “I Want To Move” Jones already used the kind of emotive melismas, shrieks and “Oh Lord” ad-lib-interjections that would become the staple fare of the deepest secular examples of soulful vocal interpretation. Even based on Jones’ earliest gospel recordings, respected gospel authority and historian Opal Louis Nations regarded him as “perhaps the finest, most delicate falsetto lead of all time” and, as Nations adds: “he possessed a unique way of effortlessly splitting one note into two”. Jones’ lyrical, soulful, smooth timbre and often – though not always - restrained singing style may have been related to his long-term denominational affiliation with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This denomination has historically featured less-demonstrative musical rituals than, for example, the Black Baptists or the Pentecostalists.
In 1966, the Swanees supported the James Brown Revue at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem and from this association James and his band (with the help of Bob Holmes) produced and recorded the group on 4 tracks. Two of the tracks, the Willingham-led “That’s The Spirit” and the Jones-led “Try Me Father”, were first issued on a 45 by Syd Nathan’s Federal label (#12542) as by Rev. Willingham & His Swanees. Federal was of course also the label for which James Brown himself recorded and “Try Me Father” is simply a gospelising by Jones of Brown’s September 18th 1958-recorded secular Federal 12337 R&B hit “Try Me”. But Jones’ recording was cut some 8 years later in the middle of the classic 60’s soul era and is an outstanding example of a 60’s gospel performance which uses the then contemporary deep-soul style. It could easily have scraped into my Top 50 male Deep Soul performances of all time and it certainly “bubbled under” (to borrow an old Billboard phrase). Later, when the four Brown-related tracks were leased to Creed, the same two sides from the Federal single also saw release on a Creed 45 (#5180) and then all four would appear on the first album released by that label on the Swanees entitled “Step By Step “(Creed 3001).
In 1968, Jones was tempted by New York-based record store and label-owner Bobby Robinson to try his hand at some more secular material and two singles emerged. A tasty countrified soul style was employed on Johnny’s version of the otherwise rather hoary old tune “Tennessee Waltz” while its flip (on Fury 550) was the bouncy ”I Find No Fault (In My Baby’s Love)” which would become a favourite on the UK Northern Soul scene. “No Love As Sweet As Yours”/”Stand By Me” duly followed on Fury 553.
Jones’ gospel peers didn’t take too kindly to this secular recording adventure (especially as the record labels gave artist credit to “Johnny Jones & Swanee Quintet”) but with no commercial success attained by these 45s, Johnny’s vocal talent and considerable reputation allowed him to return to the gospel fold, albeit he now left the Swanees and formed his own Johnny Jones Singers, which also featured the three Mimms brothers, Augustus (Gus), Dennis and another Johnny. Whilst rehearsing his new group Johnny also took on work as a brick mason at Babcock and Wilcox’s Augusta facility.
Johnny and his new group cut three LPs for Creed over as many years, namely “He Walks With Me” (#3013), “Let’s Go Back To God” (#3018) and “A Long Way From Home” (#3025) and several singles for the label also saw release including our featured one from 1972, which (like some of the others) was credited solely to Jones. This superb recording. which deservedly hits my male deep-soul top-spot, is Jones’ version of his self-penned “The Name Jesus” on Creed 5209. With a suitably plodding-paced guitar riff, some gorgeous sanctified organ fills throughout and the use on backup purely on the title phrase and climactic passages of the impressive Mimms brothers, the scene is beautifully set for the totally involved, melisma-full, falsetto-utilising, super-interpretive. emotion-laden lead-vocal from Johnny Jones, by then already some 41 years of age. Jones simply hits the peak of his very considerable powers on this amazing mind- (and ear-) bending paen to the Son of God, although the all-enveloping deep-soul musical setting means this song could just have easily been directed, not at a religious deity, but to the girl of Jones’ dreams. Whilst the singer’s religious sincerity should not be doubted, you don’t have to be able to associate personally with these feelings to wallow shamelessly in the soulful intensity of the piece.
Johnny Jones - The Name Jesus - Creed
It was probably just after this recording that Johnny (ever the journeyman singer) enjoyed a second brief spell with The Soul Stirrers. It seems Stan Lewis’ Shreveport-based Jewel label had contracted the group by this time and in 1973 one side of Jewel J-210 featured a stunning version of “Stand By Me Father” with Johnny taking lead, albeit the issued 45’s label showed the title simply as “Stand By Me”. Around this same period, there were five genuinely live Soul Stirrers tracks either cut by Jewel or acquired by them but not released at the time. Johnny sang lead on a nice rendition of “That’s Heaven To Me” but also on an absolutely outstanding, intense and extremely emotive interpretation of the much-recorded gospel favourite “When The Gates Swing Open” (a song later beloved by the great gospel and soul singer Otis Clay but perhaps best-nailed in 1966 by the amazing female soloist Inez Andrews). The other Stirrers live cuts were the sermonette “Free At Last” with Martin Jacox on lead and “Wade In The Water” and “Resting Easy” which each had Martin and Johnny sharing the lead duties. These five live tracks finally emerged in 1990 on a P-Vine PLP-2171 various Jewel artists gospel compilation entitled “Downhome Gospel Live Vol.2/Too Close To Heaven” and the full group line-up on the recordings was Jones, Jacox, Jesse J Farley and Arthur and Rufus Crume.
Over time, as members of The Swanee Quintet passed away they were replaced by Augustus Mimms and also Johnny Mimms, thus effectively ending the existence of the Johnny Jones Singers, with Johnny himself, as already noted, occasionally still sharing a role at live Swanee performances with the group’s main lead voice in the 90’s (as it had then been for many years) namely that of Percy Griffin. Johnny Jones eventually passed on October 23rd 2000 in Richmond County, Augusta GA. He is buried in the local Walker Memorial Park.
A memorial appears on the Find A Grave web-site but this gives Johnny’s birth date as 1939 and therefore his age at death as 60/61. However, this does not tie in with the chronology of his musical career as summarised herein and I’m sticking to the birth date given near the start of this piece (as provided by gospel authority Opal Louis Nations in his 1995 notes to Johnny and the Johnny Jones Singers Nashboro 4535-2 CD reissue compilation “Let’s Go Back To God”). Therefore, Johnny was some six-and-a-half weeks short of his 70th birthday when he sadly passed while still a member of the local African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Greater Ward Chapel.
R.I.P. Johnny Jones