Sunday, June 17, 2012

Grace Jones Pulls Up to the Bumper On Boogie

GRACE JONES: Not your average dream girl, but undeniably striking. Maybe not a great voice or pretty voice, but an unforgettable one. Grace Jones records: Not your average Top 40, but indelible, unique--and striking, undeniable, unforgettable.

Born in Jamaica, Grace Mendoza was raised in upstate New York, with no knowledge of reggae music. As a model for the Wilhemina agency, she traveled the world and left a larger-than-life impression wherever she worked. How much larger? Well, you and I both would think of Jones as Amazonian—especially if you’ve seen her in Conan the Barbarian – but the headshot her modeling agency circulated in the 1970s says that her height is 5’8”.

Jones made her early records in France and Italy, and hit the dance clubs in 1976 and 1977 with three French-produced songs, heavily overdubbed and remixed in Philadelphia by disco-mix pioneer Tom Moulton. Amid the peaking of the disco craze, Chris Blackwell signed Jones to Island Records, and Moulton devised a side-long medley of recent Broadway show tunes in the lushly orchestrated pop-disco style of Gloria Gaynor.

The odd tune out was an electro-samba version of “La Vie en Rose” that didn’t hit four-on-the-floor at all. The track had already been sung for Moulton by another singer  – who later, it turned out, refused to sign a contract. Jones, who’d heard the tape in a club, described the production to Moulton and remarked that she’d like to do something exactly like it. At the studio the next night, she was thunderstruck when he had the same track ready for her to re-voice.

The eventual death of disco presented an opportunity for both Grace Jones and Chris Blackwell. Having built Compass Point Studio in Nassau, Bahamas, Blackwell conceived a multinational studio band that would carry on the great tradition of Motown’s celebrated Funk Brothers, Booker T & the MGs, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Wrecking Crew, MFSB and Jamaica’s indefatigable studio players. Anchored by Kingston rhythm geniuses Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare on bass, the first project of the band was a Grace Jones album that would dovetail the most extreme fringe of her disco sound with new wave, dance-rock and reggae.

How exciting was the new fusion? Guitarist Barry Reynolds, playing the first take of the first cover song suggested by Blackwell, the Norml’s “Warm Leatherette,” looked up from his instrument at the other players, and saw stars before his eyes. Even Chrissie Hynde, who first came upon Jones’ remake of “Private Life” in a German nightclub, thought to herself, “Now, that’s how it’s supposed to sound!”

Not only did Jones become a reliable interpreter of Bryan Ferry, Tom Petty, Vanda & Young, Sting and many others, she became a capable lyricist, co-writing the perfect sideways evocation of restless urban sexuality, “Pull Up to the Bumper,” the now frequently sampled “My Jamaican Guy,’ and the softer, reflective “I’ve Seen That face Before.”

Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life, Jone’s three albums recorded at Compass Point, have now all been rightly recognized for their groundbreaking, redefining role in early-80s pop, preceding such other acknowledged classics as Controversy, Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), and Private Dancer, to name a few. With hindsight, we can see that, by putting an international groove into rock and roll, Grace Jones improved the prospects for everybody’s music.

On Boogie today, the Grace Jones playlist includes:  Slave To The Rhythm, La Vie En Rose, I Need A Man, Do Or Die, Private Life, Love Is The Drug, I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango), Pull Up To The Bumper, Walking In The Rain, My Jamaican Guy, Nipple To The Bottle. Also on today's show, after the Grace Jones segment, is a selection of British number 1 pop chart hits from the 1980s, including Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Black Box, Yazz, The Human League, Mel & Kim, Kajagoogoo, Culture Club, UB40, ABBA and more.

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Radio Presenter, Recording Artist & Vocal Coach

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