Born c. 1973 in Detroit, MI; raised in Chicago, IL. Addresses: Record company--LaFace Records, 6 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10026. Booking--ICM, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Website--Donell Jones Official Website: http://www.donell-jones.com.
Donell Jones has sometimes been compared to R&B star R. Kelly. Both were raised in Chicago and are products of that city's urban music scene, which in comparison with other large cities tends more toward R&B than toward hip-hop. Both are multitalented young musicians who early on impressed the music industry with their abilities as singers, songwriters, producers, and arrangers. And both have updated the romantic sounds of R&B with modern production techniques that suited it to a more technologically oriented musical environment. The only question at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s was whether the growing success of Jones might one day allow him to match or even eclipse the near-legendary status of his Chicago predecessor.
Jones was born around 1973 in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up on Chicago's tough South Side. Music was an anchor in his life. Jones's father, a major influence in his son's life, was a gospel singer, and Jones's musical activities began with attempts to imitate his father. Over the years, he has remained a strongly religious person. At age 12, Jones began to write songs of his own, and later on, Jones believed, music may well have literally saved his life.
Drawn into Gang Scene
"When I was home," Jones was quoted as saying on the iMusic website, "I was influenced by a lot of peer pressure and being with the wrong people. It was rough; a lot of gang violence.... My music got me away." "You see guys with nice things, and you want them too," he added in an interview with New York's Amsterdam News. "But then I got into music and it kept me inside, focused and out of trouble." Jones seemed reluctant to speak at length about his gang activities, but it was evident that he could easily have ended up a victim of the violence of the streets.
The music that set him on a new road took the form of a vocal group called the Porches. Though the group soon dissolved under the pressure of personality conflicts and left Jones a solo artist, it proved that even in this day and age, the old-fashioned technique of buttonholing a music bigwig at the right time and place can work wonders for a talented but unknown entertainment act. The Porches headed for a black radio conference in Washington, D.C., hoping to impress the music-industry figures assembled there. They rented space for a showcase concert, but no one showed up to hear the unknown act.
The determined group walked around the exhibit hall, asking anyone who seemed interested to listen to their demo tape. Heavy D and the Boyz producer Edward "Eddie F" Ferrell, an influential producer and artists-and-repertoire executive, agreed to listen to the group and was immediately impressed. He flew the Porches to New York a month later and offered them a contract on the LaFace label. That label was dominated by the multiplatinum-selling vocalist Babyface, another influence on Jones's style. The group actually recorded one song, entitled "I Can Make You Feel Good," for a Motown compilation, but it was at that point that the group broke up.
Composed Usher Hit
Jones was ready, willing, and able to step into the void. It was as a songwriter that he first proved his worth to LaFace executives, penning songs for labelmate and fellow romantic vocalist Usher, 702, Silk, Brownstone, and other acts. The superstar Madonna featured some of the 21-year-old Jones's vocal arrangements on her 1994 CD, Bedtime Stories. That raised Jones's profile in the industry, and plans were laid for him to release a solo album of his own.
That debut album, My Heart, was released in June of 1996. Critical praise flowed for his elegant cover version of Stevie Wonder's "Knocks Me off My Feet," and indeed Jones's work has showed the influence of several vocalists from the classic era of romantic soul. "His songs are like poetry," Jones said of Wonder on the iMusic website. The singer also lauded the ability of Teddy Pendergrass to "make you feel what he's singing," and his evaluation of the Isley Brothers--"the mellowness of their music combined with their groove is something that never dies"--might serve as a good summary of Jones's own sound and artistic aims.
My Heart did quite well for a debut release, approaching the gold-record level of 500,000 copies sold. Jones, dreaming of superstardom, was somewhat disappointed in the album's performance, but his family helped him persevere. "After thinking about it and talking with my mother, who has always been there for me, I realized that it was all good, and that I just had to work harder to take it to the next level," he told the Amsterdam News. The result of his efforts was Where I Wanna Be, released in 1999. His sophomore effort reached the platinum status that eluded his early efforts.
Two Covers for CD
That album, cleverly marketed in dual covers, showcased Jones's powerful voice to the fullest. Its lead single "Shorty (Got Her Eyes on Me)" became one of the party anthems of 1999, and Jones balanced that out with several slow-groove ballads. "U Know What's Up" gave Jones another top-ten single, and critical reception for the album was once again strong. "The young Jones can take a love story and translate it into sweet and sexy, yet hip and street-friendly, lyrics that sound oh-so-natural over a funky, hip-hop track," noted Billboard's Chuck Taylor in his review of the single "This Luv."
Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide concurred, noting that "on the surface of things, Jones may sound similar to a lot of his peers, but there's a greater sense of musical sophistication in his music. There are light touches of jazz, suave electric pianos, and an easy seductiveness to the entire production." Jones has written most of his own material, and has avoided many of the degrading images of women found in much contemporary urban music. "None of my songs disrespect females," he explained in his LaFace biography. "You'll never hear me using the b-word, or explicitly begging them to 'do me.' I learned from my parents a long time ago that to get respect from women, you have to give it to them first."
Jones continued to impress critics with a single, "Do What I Gotta Do," that he contributed to the soundtrack of the Shaft remake film, released in 2000. An arrest on charges of assaulting a New York limousine driver marred that year; Jones denied the charges. In 2001, Jones received an American Music Award as Best Soul/R&B New Entertainer. A rare combination--a crooner with creativity--Jones seemed poised to become one of the new decade's brightest stars.
His follow-up album, Life Goes On, was released in 2002 and didn't disappoint fans or critics. People reviewer Chuck Arnold praised it as a "sumptuous, sophisticated ... consistently gratifying effort." Asked about his inspiration by Jet magazine, Jones explained: "Love inspires me. There are so many different sides to it. There's the love that you have for a friend, for your kids, for the love of your life. And no matter what side it is--it could be the bad side of love where it causes you pain, or the good side where it makes you a better person--love keeps me thinking about the possibilities."
by James Manheim
Donell Jones's Career
Began writing songs at age 12; sang with vocal group the Porches as a teenager; signed to LaFace label; wrote songs for Usher, 702, and other acts; wrote vocal arrangements for Madonna's Bedtime Stories album, 1994; released debut album, My Heart, 1996; released Where I Wanna Be, 1999; released Life Goes On, 2002.
Donell Jones's Awards
American Music Award, Best Soul/R&B New Entertainer, 2001.
- Selected discography
- My Heart , LaFace, 1996.
- Where I Wanna Be , LaFace, 1999.
- (Contributor) Shaft (soundtrack), 2000.
- Life Goes On , LaFace, 2002.
- Contemporary Black Biography, volume 29, Gale Group, 2001.
- Baltimore Afro-American, December 28, 1996, p. A1.
- Billboard, September 2, 2000, p. 24; May 18, 2002, p. 46.
- Chicago Defender, January 11, 2001, p. 15.
- Jet, July 1, 2002, p. 40.
- Los Angeles Sentinel, October 27, 1999, p. B5.
- Newsday (New York, NY), January 20, 2000, Queens edition, p. A3.
- New York Amsterdam News, July 21, 1999, p. 21.
- People, July 22, 2002, p. 31.
- Village Voice, July 25, 2000, p. 72.
- "Donell Jones," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 30, 2003).
- "iMusic Urban Showcase--Donell Jones," http://www.artistdirect.com/showcase/urban/donjon.html (June 30, 2003).