For gospel singer turned pop vocalist Glenn Jones, life is good and full of delightful surprises -- surprises like the phone call he received from his manager last December.
Unbeknownst to Jones, Dionne Warwick was then recording in Los Angeles, collaborating with songwriter Burt Bacharach for the first time in a decade. One of the songs they were working on was the television theme "Finder of Lost Loves," a duet that required a strong and passionate male voice. Somehow, Jones says, his name popped up and the next thing he knew his manager was telling him to fly to the West Coast. The happy result: an unexpected hit single, an appearance on the "Tonight Show" and the kind of media exposure young performers dream of.
Nor was that the first phone call to alter the direction of Jones' career. Only a few months earlier, a friend had called to tell him that auditions were being held for a new musical called "Sing, Mahalia, Sing," a tribute to gospel great Mahalia Jackson. "I went to them," Jones says, "just to see what they were like, never having thought about doing a Broadway show. The next day I was hired." The musical, which stars Jennifer Holliday, opens tonight at the Warner Theatre.
If Jones hadn't given Broadway much thought, it was because he was busy trying to establish himself as a popular recording artist. Since making the transition from gospel to pop music a few years ago, he's released two albums -- "Everybody Loves a Winner" and "Finesse" -- appealing to an audience with somewhat less than spiritual matters on its mind. A blend of romantic ballads and fashionable dance tracks, the songs would make the typical radio listener feel right at home. But what often sets them apart is Jones' voice -- a powerful gospel-inflected baritone that can turn into a soulful tenor without a hitch. "Even when I was a kid," Jones recalls, "I could jump from one end of the scale to the other and back again. Now it's just a little harder to do."
So why is Jones, having spent all this time and energy trying to establish himself on the pop charts, putting everything aside for a musical? "It's a great opportunity all around," he says, "a chance to really develop myself as a stage performer and work with some really talented people. I even get a chance to dance . . . I didn't take any lessons, but once [choreographer] George Fason gets through with you, you don't need lessons."
And there is the role to consider. Jones plays a Baptist preacher, and while he insists he wasn't grooming himself for the assignment, it's hard to imagine a singer his age better prepared to handle it. At 24, he's already got 20 years of church service behind him.
The youngest of nine children, Jones was raised by devoutly religious parents in Jacksonville, Fla. By the time he was 4, his parents were aware of his talent and encouraging him to sing at Pentecostal gatherings around the country. He made his professional debut at age 5, singing "How Great Thou Art" at a church convention in Philadelphia. A few years later he was touring the country with the Bivens Specials, a popular gospel ensemble, and by his mid-teens was leading his own group, the Modulations. That's when he met the Rev. James Cleveland, who took the Modulations on tour and produced two of the group's albums.
Increasingly, though, Jones began to listen to more pop and soul music. "Donnie Hathaway is my all-time favorite," he says, quickly adding Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Dionne Warwick and other singers to the list. Not surprisingly, virtually everyone he mentions has a style rooted in gospel music. When jazz-pop producer Norman Connors asked Jones to sing on one of his albums in the late 1970s, Jones jumped at the chance. He's been pursuing pop stardom ever since.
Still, he says he wants his music to inspire people, not just excite them, and he plans to start recording some of his own songs soon. "I'm not interested in singing sexually-oriented lyrics or songs that have negative messages. I may be singing secular music now, but I want it to agree with who I am and how I was raised. Basically, I haven't changed at all."