DeepSoul: Gloria Jones - "Tainted Love"

Our final entry in DeepSoul's salute to pioneering female R&B artists spotlights a renaissance woman who spanned the R&B and glam rock genres.
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Generation X members fondly remember the 1981 Soft Cell New Wave hit "Tainted Love"; what few realized, however, was that it was a cover of a 1965 soul single.  The still distinctive R&B stomper transcends its decade, sounding years ahead of the then-predominant Motown sound.  Its singer, Gloria Jones, would later become a member of the burgeoning glam rock movement in the 1970s, joining T. Rex and embarking on a romance with lead singer Marc Bolan.  Songwriter, singer, musician, and music supervisor for films--Jones has enjoyed a long career in the music business, but has seen her share of highs and lows.  Overall, "Tainted Love" remains her masterpiece and an important single in the history of female artists in R&B.  

Born in Cincinnati in 1945, Jones and her family moved to Los Angeles when she turned seven years old.  There she began singing, and formed her first band at age 14 along with Frankie Kahrl and Billy Preston.  Their act, gospel group the Cogic Singers, gained local popularity and released the album It's A Blessing.  After four years, Jones left the group to focus on secular music.  By 1964 she had signed with Greengrass Productions, headed by rock songwriter Ed Cobb.  Cobb wrote and produced her first single, "Heartbeat Pts. 1 & 2"; Jones subsequently toured the United States in support of the song.   Meanwhile Cobb had penned another tune, "Tainted Love," which he first offered it to the Standells ("Dirty Water").  After they passed on the song, he gave it to Jones, who placed her own stamp on the funky track.  "Tainted Love" and its B-side "My Bad Boy's Coming Home" were released on the Champion label in 1965; inexplicably the single failed to chart.  After releasing a 1966 album Come Go with Me, Jones pursued an advanced degree in piano, concentrating on the works of Bach.  For the next two years she dabbled in musical theater and recorded additional singles.

Her career took another turn after meeting Motown songwriter Pam Sawyer.  Sawyer recruited Jones to the label as a singer and composer; to differentiate her two positions, Jones initially wrote under the pseudonym "LaVerne Ware."  Frequently collaborating with Sawyer, Jones' compositions were recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips (most famously "If I Was Your Woman"), the Commodores, the Four Tops, and the Jackson 5.  Examples of her work with J5 include "2-4-6-8" from ABC and "Christmas Won't be the Same This Year" from the Jackson 5 Christmas Album.

After her Motown tenure Jones achieved fame for another reason: her romance with T. Rex singer Marc Bolan.  She joined the group as a backup singer in 1973; her subsequent relationship with Bolan produced a son.  They often collaborated professionally, writing and producing songs together, but their partnership tragically ended on September 16, 1977.  After dining at nearby restaurant, Jones was driving the couple back to their house when she hit a tree, instantly killing Bolan.  After she recovered from the accident, she resumed her singing and songwriting career, releasing the solo album Windstorm in 1979.  She reteamed with Cobb for the appropriately titled 1982 disc Reunited and reassembled her first gospel group, the Cogic Singers, for a 1984 reunion album.  More recently she has served as music supervisor for several films.  

Today, the Soft Cell version of "Tainted Love" is better remembered than the original, which is a shame.  Jones' thumping original, featuring blaring horns and her gospel-soaked vocals, differs greatly from the robotic 1980s version.  The garage band-style backing perfectly suits Jones' gritty, raw vocals.  Drums throb throughout the recording, beating frantically to accent every word in the line "Take my tears and that's not nearly all."  As the title suggests, "Tainted Love" spins the tale of a disintegrating romance. Jones lets desperation creep into her vocals when she sings depressing lines such as "I've lost my light" and "Once I ran to you / Now I'll run from you."  Cobb wrote some very intriguing lyrics, including "And you think love is to pray / Well I'm sorry I don't pray that way."  

As the song reaches its conclusion, Jones lets her voice slightly crack as she pleads "Don't touch me please / I cannot stand the way you tease."  She chants the title phrase as if reminding herself of their destructive romance, yet the final line suggests that the narrator may give in once again.  "Touch me baby, tainted love," Jones croons in a lower voice, as if resigned to her fate.  Her expressive singing style expresses the narrator's torment and conflicting emotions, staging a drama for listeners to vicariously experience. Perhaps the record was simply too raw, too imperfect, and not "poppy" enough to register with 1965 top 40 fans.  

Interestingly "Tainted Love" would resurface in 1973, when British club DJ Richard Searling bought the single during a United States trip.  Returning to the UK, he began spinning the little-known record at Northern Soul clubs such as Va Va's and Wigan Casino.  Dancers loved the song, prompting Jones to rerecord the track in 1976.  Unfortunately the new version also failed to chart; five years later, Soft Cell's dramatically different arrangement would top international charts. Jones may have never experienced that sort of massive success, but her powerful vocals and rebellious spirit continues to inspire generations of female soul singers.