Born James Jones, 2 June 1930, Birmingham, Alabama
Jimmy Jones, who had spent a long apprenticeship singing in R&B vocal harmony groups, became a rock 'n' roll star in the early 1960s singing "Handy Man" and other hits with a dramatic and piercingly high falsetto.
When Jimmy was around twelve years old he moved from his native Birmingham, Alabama, to New York City. At that time he was already an accomplished tap dancer, but singing was equally important to him. Role models were Louis Jordan and the Ink Spots and later especially Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson. Early in 1955 he joined a vocal group, the Sparks of Rhythm (originally the Berliners), who landed a recording contract with Apollo Records in July 1955. Four songs were recorded at their first session, three of them led by Jimmy. When the two resulting singles went nowhere, Jones left the Sparks of Rhythm to form his own group, the Savoys, soon renamed the Pretenders. Their first session was for Herman Lubinsky's Savoy label (for which they were named), on February 2, 1956 and yielded the single "Say You're Mine"/"You" (Savoy 1188). By coincidence, this was one day after the Sparks Of Rhythm, now without Jimmy, recorded four - then unissued - songs for Apollo, among them Jones's composition "Handy Man" (with bass Andrew Barksdale on lead).
Jimmy led the Pretenders on a series of doowop sides for a number of New York based labels : Savoy, Rama, Whirlin' Disc, Arrow, Holiday, Central and Apt, but nothing came close to denting the charts. In 1959 he was getting tired of groups ("too much responsibility") and decided to go it alone. He started doing demonstration records at Roosevelt Music, for songwriters like Otis Blackwell, Charlie Stephenson and Luther Dixon. For every demo he did, Jimmy received $ 25. A demo of his own "Handy Man" was heard by Otis Blackwell, who helped him rework the song. Jones then made a new demo, which Blackwell took to publisher Moe Gale of Shalimar Music. On June 17, 1959, Jimmy made a professional recording of "Handy Man" at Regent Sound Studio in NYC, with Otis Blackwell handling the whistling after the flute player didn't show up for the session. Moe Gale sold the tapes to MGM in August. "Handy Man" was released on September 7, on MGM's Cub subsidiary, but it didn't enter the Billboard charts until the last week of 1959. From that point there was no stopping the record and in February 1960 it peaked at # 2 pop and # 3 R&B.
Following this success, everyone came out of the woodwork. Apollo finally released "Handy Man" by the Sparks of Rhythm, which they had kept in the can since 1956. Their slow doowop version sounded outdated in 1960. Savoy reissued "Say You're Mine" with overdubs, while Roulette and ABC-Paramount dug up old Pretenders tracks and reissued them as by Jimmy Jones.
The follow-up to "Handy Man" was "Good Timin'", which went to # 3 pop / # 8 R&B in the US and all the way to # 1 in the UK (where "Handy Man" had peaked at # 3). Jimmy flew over to the UK in the autumn of 1960 for a successful tour of the British Isles. In general, his records sold better in the UK than in his home country, where only "That's When I Cried" (# 83 pop, 1960) and "I Told You So" (# 85 pop, 1961) made any chart impact after "Good Timin'". Lack of promotion on the part of MGM seemed largely responsible for Jimmy's decline in the USA. Jones left MGM in 1962 and subsequently recorded for Ro-Jac, Vee-Jay, Roulette, Parkway and Bell, but the glory days were over. By the late 60s, the music industry had changed beyond recognition from the days that Jimmy had first stepped into a recording studio and although he was still in his prime, the heavy workload endured over the past decade had taken its toll. A period away from the limelight ensued, although Jimmy did come out of premature retirement in the early seventies to launch his own Jenjillus label, which is still in business today. Jones claims that he never received any royalties from MGM as a singer. "The only thing I got paid for was as a writer. Over the years I've done pretty good from 'Handy Man' alone". The song has been recorded by at least 25 artists and charted in versions by Del Shannon (# 22, 1964) and James Taylor (# 4, 1977). Add to that the income from radio airplay and Jimmy Jones hasn't been doing too bad these last few decades.
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Acknowledgements : Laurence Cane-Honeysett, Marv Goldberg.
Dik, June 2012
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