Grace Jones at 74: Surviving and Thriving in Her Eighth Decade

Looking back on the career of the legendary singer/model/actress who defies convention

Grace Jones Honda Scooter ad (Image: Pinterest)

True to form, Grace Jones’s 2022 tour was an unusual one. In late September, she played only three dates: Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles. That was it. I’m not sure how Seattle got so lucky.  

When Roxy Music got the band back together for a 2022 tour, they included nine U.S. dates, but left out the Pacific Northwest altogether. We’re used to it. I traveled to Chicago to see the British outfit, because I figured I would never get that chance again (in recent years, I’ve traveled to Detroit for Massive Attack with Liz Fraser and London for Scritti Politti). The minute tickets for Grace Jones went on sale, I snapped one up for the same reason. These performers, who forged their brilliant careers over 50 years ago, are well into their eighth decade–often defined as an age of decreased mobility. Don’t tell Grace Jones.

To be sure, she kept the crowd at Seattle’s Moore Theatre waiting for a good long time, a signature move designed to stoke anticipation. It worked. She made a startling entrance clad in top hat and towering heels atop a staircase, bathed in golden light, as her band plunged into Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s swaggering “Nightclubbing.” At 80 minutes, it wasn’t the longest show I’ve ever seen, but it was definitely one of the best. Even from the balcony, I could feel the rhythm section rumble as much as I could hear it.

Though she hasn’t released an album since 2008’s Hurricane, 2022 also marked Grace’s debut appearance on a Beyoncé album, Renaissance, the superstar’s seventh studio recording. Her signature contralto provides striking contrast with Beyoncé’s soprano. All 16 tracks would land on Billboard’s Hot 100, including the dancehall-accented “Move” featuring Jamaican-born Grace and Nigerian-born Tems. 

 

 

For a semi-retired legend, 74-year-old Grace Jones has been doing her level best to stay in the game. It’s just not like her to kick off her shoes, put her feet up, and slowly fade from public view. Making herself visible/seen/impossible to ignore: that was always her goal, and she has succeeded beyond measure. 

To cynics, that might seem egotistical, but that isn’t the impression I got from her 2015 book, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (the title comes from 1981’s “Art Groupie,” i.e. “I’ll never write my memoirs, there’s nothing in my book”). Grace recognized her strengths and weaknesses early on, and she also faced a fair amount of rejection in her early days, but her fearlessness propelled her past one obstacle after another.

It isn’t clear where that fearlessness comes from, though she attempts to explain it in her book. In part, it’s simply because she started out in Spanish Town, Jamaica where race prejudice wasn’t part of her formative years. She wouldn’t experience racism until she moved to the United States when she was 12. 

To a lesser extent, racism would follow her to Paris, where she relocated to reinvigorate a static New York modeling career. To be clear, she landed some choice gigs in Black women’s magazines and on the cover of Billy Paul’s 1970 album Ebony Woman–coincidentally, he would title his best known song “Me and Mrs. Jones”–but higher-profile work eluded her. As she saw it, the U.S. modeling industry only had room for one top Black model, and silken-haired beauty Beverly Johnson ticked all the right boxes.  

But Grace didn’t make it easy. In her compulsion to be true to herself, she often went against the grain. Significantly, she had no interest in straightening her hair, and in the 1970s, she would grow it into a luxuriant afro. In this period, she did a photo shoot with the Chambers Brothers for Essence, and you can see Grace in all of her leather-clad, hippie chick splendor. When she grew tired of the big hair, she simply shaved it off–her eyebrows, too. Nobody was doing that back then. Wilhelmina, her modeling agency, was furious; she compromised by re-growing her hair and brows, just enough to make her acceptable. 

It was the beginning of a new persona. As she remembers, “It made me look hard in a soft world.” Grace would not tone down that look over the years. She would change it up from time to time, but even in her acting roles, she would show up as her bold, androgynous self. By contrast, Lady Gaga has no problem going full normcore, as she did in A Star Is Born, when it suits the part, but Grace Jones would become Grace Jones’s greatest role. If it tempered the acting career she sought during her modeling years, it helped to launch her as the music star she would become. And of course: the modeling would continue.

In Paris, Grace roomed with brassy Texan Jerry Hall, whose glamorous image would adorn Roxy Music’s 1975 Siren album, and Minnesota-born, future Oscar-winner Jessica Lange. I wouldn’t mind a narrative feature about this gorgeous trio, causing a commotion wherever they went, dedicating their every night to all the Parisian hotspots, where Grace recalls that she and Jerry competed for the same men. All three of them appear in James Crump’s 2017 documentary Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco, which provides a glittering glimpse into the lives they lived during a very fashionable, very hedonistic time.  

 

VIDEO: Antonio Lopez: Sex Fashion & Disco trailer

In her book, Grace says that he has remained in contact with both women, which raises some intriguing questions. If she aspired to appear on American Horror Story, for instance, Lange could probably work her magic with creator Ryan Murphy, not least since Gaga and Stevie Nicks have put in appearances.

And it’s hard not to wonder what Grace thought of Jerry’s marriage to right-wing mogul Rupert Murdoch. There’s little talk of politics in her book, but Grace’s views on racism and homophobia are crystal clear.

Though she harbored no musical ambitions at the time, it’s a path she would eventually pursue. It began when she joined a theatrical troupe in college that traveled around the East Coast performing original musicals, so Grace was singing professionally, even if she saw herself as more of an actress. The troupe’s founder even secured a coveted audition with Gamble and Huff, architects of the Philly sound, but she admits she was so out of touch with the 1970s music scene that she completely botched it.   

In Paris, she essentially fell into a music career. That isn’t to suggest that she lacked ambition. On the contrary, drive was never an issue. It’s more that she was spending her nights socializing with musicians and fashion designers. Opportunities would present themselves, and she took advantage of them. 

For Jerry Hall, these encounters led to relationships with Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger–with whom she had four children–but Grace was more interested in becoming a pop star than shacking up with one. 

Like Madonna in the 1980s, she had a well-tuned sensor for collaborators who could show her off to her best advantage, such as Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyaki and German-Australian photographer Helmut Newton. She also knew her limitations. Vocal range would never be her strong suit; instead, she would embrace the dusky, island-inflected intonation that has allowed her to make every track her own, including songs originally performed by diverse artists from Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla (“I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)”) to all-American soul troubadour Bill Withers (“Use Me”).

It didn’t happen overnight. For her first three records, she worked with disco innovator Tom Moulton. Considering his track record, this must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Moulton was behind classics from Gloria Gaynor (“Never Can Say Goodbye”), B.T. Express (“Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)”), Trammps (“Disco Inferno”), and adult film star-turned-disco diva Andrea True (“More, “More, More”). 

Granted, Grace had originally planned to work with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, but when the doorman refused to allow them entry to Studio 54 where they had arranged to meet, that was the end of that. The two men were so pissed off that they returned home and poured their frustrations into a track called “Fuck Off.” That was never going to fly with Atlantic, so they changed it to “Le Freak,” aka “Freak Out,” and the rest is history. Grace and Nile would reconnect in 1986 for her eighth album, Inside Story.

 

 

Considering how fully she had embraced disco, Moulton made sense as producer, except he didn’t know what to do with her voice. Even Grace was at somewhat of a loss. As she puts it in her book, “I never believed in it as a voice. It was very deep and manly–it sounded like it was coming from another person.”

On their records, especially Portfolio (1977) and Fame (1978), she sings in a slightly higher register, and the results can be discomforting, especially on show tunes, like Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” (from 1973’s A Little Night Music). Fortunately, there are exceptions, like a surprisingly robust take on Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” a beneficiary of the fluency she acquired during her time in Paris.

Nonetheless, the albums did well on the dance charts, or there might not have been a third, 1979’s transitional Muse, on which Moulton added reggae rhythms and gospel melodies that better suited Grace’s voice. It’s the best of the three, but proved a commercial disappointment. Instead of dropping her from the roster, label head Chris Blackwell, a lifelong friend, suggested that she record with the Compass Point All Stars in the Bahamas. Disco was on the way out, and Grace was ready for a new start.

Warm Leatherette (1980), however, didn’t just mark a new chapter in her career, but a shocking reinvention, representing a break with her previous work. Jamaican rhythm section Sly Dunbar (drums) and the late Robbie Shakespeare (bass) have received considerable credit for its success, except the entire band–Wally Badarou, Barry Reynolds, Mikey Chung, and Uziah “Sticky” Thompson–played a part in the electrifying post-punk/art pop/industrial fusion that finally provided the perfect foundation for her voice, here taken in a deeper, darker direction than ever before (Blackwell produced with Bob Marley associate Alex Sadkin). Grace would reunite with the Compass Point All Stars for 2008’s Hurricane

She also switched from collaborating with Interview illustrator Richard Bernstein, who designed the covers for her first three albums, to Esquire art director Jean-Paul Goude, who would design the next three, trading her previously sophisticated image for something more abstract, intersexual, and downright intimidating. Though they never married, Grace and Jean-Paul were romantically involved from 1977-1984, a union that produced their son, Paulo, a percussionist who plays in Grace’s current band.  

Warm Leatherette consists primarily of inspired covers, like the Kraftwerk-goes-noir title track, a J.G. Ballard-influenced number originally recorded by The Normal, the nom de music of Mute Records founder Daniel Miller. Though it’s become one of her defining songs, she didn’t perform it in Seattle.

 

VIDEO: Grace Jones “Love Is The Drug”

Grace did, however, perform “Love Is the Drug,” her anxious, fast-paced cover of the immortal Roxy Music side. If anything, her live version was even better, and not just better than the recorded version, but better than Roxy Music’s lackluster take on their original in Chicago. Oddly, Bryan Ferry opted to sing it in a Jamaican patois that changed “no big thing” to “no big ting.” What sounded awkward coming from British-born Ferry sounded perfectly natural when a Jamaican-born singer pronounced it that way.  

Grace recorded her next two albums, 1981’s Nightclubbing and 1982’s Living My Life, with the same team. Though she continued to lean on covers, the albums included fabulous originals “Feel Up” and, especially, “Pull Up to the Bumper,” a dancefloor slayer co-written with actress Marcia McBroom’s sister, Dana Manno (McBroom played Petronella in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). In her book, Grace swears the lyrics aren’t a reference to anal sex, though she’s totally fine with that interpretation.

Cover songs would even extend to the B-sides she released in that period, including Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” on which she literally loses control, and Gary Numan’s “Me! I Disconnect from You.” 

Notably, Grace recorded Sting’s “Demolition Man” before the Police included it on Ghost in the Machine, making their version the cover in strictly chronological terms. In Seattle, she pounded away on a set of cymbals, just as she does in Jean-Paul Goude’s Grammy-nominated 1982 concert film, A One Man Show. By the end of “Demolition Man,” those cymbals were scattered in pieces across the stage.  

Between 1986 and 2008, she would record four more albums with Trevor Horn, Nile Rodgers, Chris Stanley, and Ivor Guest with an emphasis on original material. She would experience her biggest hit with the title track from 1985’s Slave to the Rhythm, her last for Island, and her most disappointing album sales with 1989’s Bulletproof Heart, her first for Capitol, a possible factor in the 19-year gap between that album and Hurricane. She would also reunite with Richard Bernstein, who designed the cover for Slave to the Rhythm and Jean-Paul Goude, who designed the cover for Bulletproof Heart, in addition to the 2011 dub version of Hurricane, on which Grace appears in a Phillip Treacy-designed mirror-ball bowler hat.

When Grace wasn’t recording, touring, and making videos, she was acting, her first love. Notable roles include Zula in 1984’s Conan the Barbarian, May Day in 1986’s A View to a Kill (partnered with Christopher Walken made up to look like Bowie, who had dropped out), and Helen Strangé in 1992’s Boomerang with Eddie Murphy, who had opened dates for her A One Man Show Tour a decade before. 

For my money, she gives her most enjoyable performance in 1988’s Christmas at Pee Wee’s Playhouse in which she sings “Little Drummer Boy” in a Dada headpiece and Issey Miyaki-designed metallic bustier. 

Though she appeared in a few more movies, she tired of playing characters based strictly on her image. She puts it more bluntly in her book, concluding, “I saw that the film business was a motherfucking beast, and one that would have killed me if I had kept going.” Music thereafter would become her primary focus.  

Beyond the mini-tour and the Beyoncé collaboration, this year marked Grace’s curation of the UK’s Meltdown Festival, delayed for two years due to the pandemic, where she performed an 11-song set–including a costume change for every song–similar to the one I saw in Seattle. During the performance, she announced that she’s been working on an “African hybrid” album from which she premiered two songs (she also mentions the album in her book, so she’s been working on it for at least seven years). 

 

VIDEO: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami trailer

In recent years, she’s lost close friends and relatives, including Issey Miyake and her mother Marjorie Jones (a deeply devout preacher’s wife who was a loving and supportive influence), helped to welcome now-teenaged granddaughter Athena into the world, collaborated with French avant-garde vocalist Brigitte Fontaine on a handful of stark dance tracks, and worked with Sophie Fiennes–sister of actor Ralph Fiennes–on the observational 2017 concert film-documentary hybrid Bloodlight and Bami

Next to Slave to the Rhythm, which features excerpts from conversations with Art of Noise member-turned-journalist Paul Morley and Ian McShane-voiced excerpts from Jean-Paul Goude’s 1983 memoir, Jungle Fever, Hurricane would turn out to be her most intimate effort to date (Morley also worked with her on her memoir). On the album, she pays touching tribute to Marjorie and the entire Williams clan. 

In addition to the Compass Point All-Stars, Hurricane features contributions from Tricky and Brian Eno. If this fine comeback was the last album she released, her legacy would be secure–but she isn’t done yet. 

Initially, I described Grace Jones as “semi-retired,” because she hasn’t released an album in 14 years, and because she’s largely left acting and modeling in her rearview mirror, but if anything, she’s been as busy as ever: recording, touring, and living her life. As she puts it, “I will never retire. When I retire, I’m dead, and even then, I will be reincarnated. I will remain on the move. Even death won’t stop me.”  

 

 

 

 

 

Kathy Fennessy

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Kathy Fennessy

Kathy Fennessy is a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society, an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, and a regular contributor to Seattle Film Blog. She has also written about film for Amazon, City Pages, Northwest Film Forum, Seattle International Film Festival, and The Stranger.

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