As Much As I Can, As Black As I Am: The Queer History of Grace Jones

As Much As I Can, As Black As I Am: The Queer History of Grace Jones

In this career overview, Barry Walters details how one of the most transgressive stars of the 1980s, Grace Jones, gave voice to the oppressed while offering a bold example of what it means to be free.

Grace Jones is perched on a ledge above the dancefloor of New York’s 12 West, the state-of-the-art, members-only gay disco, about to take the stage for one of her first performances. The year is 1977, and no one is prepared for what’s about to hit them.

Tom Moulton, father of the dance mix and Jones’ early producer, describes the scene: “All of a sudden the spotlight hits her. She starts singing ‘I Need a Man’, and the place goes crazy. After she finishes, she goes, ‘I don’t know about you, honey, but I need a fucking man!’ Talk about a room-worker. Whatever it takes. She was so determined.”

To understand the impact of this moment, one must understand a bit of history. Just a few years earlier, it had been illegal for two men to so much as dance together in New York City. With the exception of maybe hairdressers and artists, queer people risked unemployment if they merely hinted at their orientation outside the confines of gay bars and clubs, and it was in these discos that the seeds of liberation were sown. At 12 West, gay people could grasp the power of their collectivity and understand what it meant to be free.

That night, Grace Jones sang “I Need a Man” just like a man might—tough and lusty, she was a woman who was not just singing to them, but also for them, as them. She was as queer as a relatively straight person could get. Her image celebrated blackness and subverted gender norms; she presented something we had never seen before in pop performance—a woman who was lithe, sexy, and hyperfeminine while also exuding a ribald, butch swagger. In ’79, Ebony got her je ne sais quoi exactly right: “Grace Jones is a question mark followed by an exclamation point.”

Even now, her transgressive charisma remains bold. She still feels outré.

In 1960, a 12-year-old Beverly Grace Jones moved from Spanish Town, Jamaica, to Syracuse, New York, with her family. She didn’t have many friends; a high school report card described her as “socially sick.” Halfway through her studies at Syracuse University, she impulsively abandoned school to work on a play in Philadelphia. The Pentecostal preacher’s daughter realized there was no going home after that, and she moved to New York City in 1975 to fulfill her dream of becoming a star.

At first, Jones modeled for the Wilhelmina Agency while doubling as a go-go dancer under the pseudonym Grace Mendoza. “Even though the agency kept me pretty busy, I auditioned for every play and film I could find,” she told The Baltimore Afro American in 1985. “But they all wanted a black American sound, and I just didn’t have it. Finally, I got tired of trotting around and took myself to Paris.”

In France, her blackness set her apart from other models, and Jones landed covers of Stern, Pravda, and Vogue. Within a few months, she recorded a few singles; one was sent to Cy and Eileen Berlin, an enterprising husband-and-wife team who later managed Tom Cruise. Jones flew back to NYC with her roommate, actress Jessica Lange, and met with the Berlins. Impressed by her exuberance, star quality, and willingness, they signed on to manage her. “I thought of her as family,” says Eileen Berlin. “My son had gone to college, so I gave her his room.”

At the time, Tom Moulton’s pioneering club-specific mixes were blowing up both discos and R&B radio, and the Berlins begged him to produce their new client. Moulton and Jones’ partnership began with the double-sided ’76 single, “Sorry” / “That’s the Trouble”, and their next collaboration, “I Need a Man”, quickly rose to the top of Billboard’s disco chart the following year. Hoping to capitalize on Jones’ burgeoning fame, the Berlins approached Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who signed her in short order. Given the combination of Blackwell’s status as an international reggae ambassador and Jones’ Jamaican roots, Cy Berlin anticipated a good fit. He didn’t know how right he would be.

Although Moulton and Jones made three albums together in three years—’77’s Portfolio, ’78’s Fame, and ’79’s Muse—the two former-models often clashed: “I always teased her about sounding like Bela Lugosi,” recalls the disco godfather. “I stood next to her while she was singing because I got so sick of hitting the talkback button [in the control room]. The moment she’d go off, I’d stop her. I was hard on her, but no matter how much I pushed her, she would take it and push herself.”

Portfolio’s continuous first side featured Broadway tunes set to string-intensive bluster arranged by the Salsoul Orchestra’s Vince Montana and performed by members of MFSB, a cohesive pool of studio musicians who played on nearly every Philadelphia-originated soul hit of the ’70s. But against the plush effortlessness, Jones sounded strained; the weight of Moulton’s hand was audible and uncomfortable to hear.

However, the LP’s second side dished out a masterstroke in Jones’ take on Édith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”, a version of which Moulton previously recorded with forgotten ’70s singer Teresa Wiater. Jones had gotten her hands on an acetate pressing of Waiter’s unreleased recording, which was wowing the 12 West crowd, and she lobbied Moulton to let her have it, baiting him that it would be a sure hit for the two: “I’m big in France.” The same rawness and struggle that worked against Jones on Portfolio’s Broadway arias conveyed the absolute heartbreak of “La Vie En Rose”.

On Jones’ second album, Fame, Moulton bolstered the French connection: Most songs were written by Jack Robinson and Jacques Pépino (credited as James Bolden, but elsewhere known as disco singer David Christie). Once again Moulton contrasted Philly soul’s lush romanticism with Jones’ confident, almost stentorian vocals. This time around, though, that combination gelled throughout because the material was made for her. Jones dedicated the album “with love” to her then-partner, Jean-Paul Goude, a Parisian multimedia artist who collaborated with her on the creation of subsequent album jackets, photos, videos, and stage shows. (Goude is also the father of her only child and author of a book that details their relationship, Jungle Fever.)

While the follow up, Muse, didn’t yield as many memorable songs, it did feature another nonstop A-side that moved from sin to salvation via stormy arrangements by Iceland’s Thor Baldursson, whose keyboards and charts lit up Giorgio Moroder and Boney M songs alike. It also brandished a killer floor-filler with “On Your Knees”. Laced with sadistic intent by D.C. LaRue, a cult disco act whose world-weary, gay-coded “Cathedrals” presaged Pet Shop Boys, and former Sugarloaf frontman Jerry Corbetta, the most soulful of Jones’ disco singles also pointed toward her future. The philharmonic instrumentation oozed luxury, but the swagger of the lyric and the toughness of her vocal suggested rock’n’roll dissent waiting to be unleashed.

I grew up in Rochester, New York, 90 miles from where a teenaged Grace Jones daydreamed about her grand ambitions in Syracuse. I was a fan of a local band called New Math, whose frontman did promo for Island and passed me a copy of Fame—the first piece of my disco vinyl collection. Later that week, I watched Jones on “The Midnight Special”, where she performed “Below the Belt”. She took the stage clad in a satin boxing robe, her hands taped for a fight. Halfway through, she pulled a brawny muscleman from the crowd, pretended to knock him out, and then stood with a foot planted on his chest, all while crooning, “Gotta take my chance/ Gotta go the distance.” She then did a victory dance as fake snow fell in celebration of Christmas (and perhaps—this being 1979—cocaine). I was hooked.

That jaw-dropping TV appearance prompted a discussion with my high school drama teacher. He bragged that his brother had once met Jones at a Manhattan roller rink, where, instead of offering him a business card, she gave him a plastic whip with her name emblazoned on it. I knew at that moment that I belonged in Grace Jones’ New York, that suburban life would kill me the same way it had killed my alcoholic father. A year later, I arrived.

Jones’ “On Your Knees” was the last single I bought before leaving Rochester and it was one of the first songs I heard on the local disco station in New York City. Subway cars plastered with graffiti bore nearly inscrutable codes I was hungry to crack, for danger preyed upon the ignorant: Each weekend brought stories of fellow students who had been mugged. I remember protesters disrupting the filming of William Friedkin’s Cruising, which retold the real-life story of a fugitive who had lured men out of gay bars to bed and then killed them. In that anything-goes, pre-AIDS era at the tail end of the ‘70s, pleasure and danger were quite literally bedfellows.

Macho, close-cropped clones ruled the city’s mega-discos, but I hadn’t escaped my small suburb just to conform, so I sought out unconventional spaces like Hurrah’s, the Mudd Club, and Danceteria, where dub, reggae and post-punk alternated with chilly synth pop and radical funk. All those genres would mingle and mutate in Jones’ next incarnation.

When Muse fizzled in the clubs and on the charts, Chris Blackwell took over as Jones’ producer. “I wanted to treat her not as a model, but to involve her as a musician,” he recalls. “Tom Moulton had been recording the instrumentation and then having Grace come in later, but I wanted her to feel as though she were a member of a band, and record her the way bands used to make albums, with the singer and the players doing their thing all at once.”

Blackwell’s approach united two things he knew well: Caribbean ease and British audacity. “I wanted a rhythmic reggae bottom, aggressive rock guitar, atmospheric keyboards in the middle, and Grace on top,” he says. To get all that, he assembled a sextet of studio ringers at his Nassau studio, Compass Point. The soon-to-be signature sound of the Compass Point All-Stars went on to animate hits by the Tom Tom Club, Robert Palmer, Joe Cocker, Gwen Guthrie, and others.

The sessions began with an unlikely remake of the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette”. Jones’ version preserved the original’s deadpan vocal delivery and minimal melody but dropped the tempo to a saunter, twisted the rhythm into a sharp funk, and sashayed with offhand earnestness, as if sexual intercourse while dying from vehicular collision was just another kink worth trying. The sessions moved with disarming speed and ease: “If Grace or the group hadn’t nailed a song by the third take,” Blackwell recounts, “it was dropped and they’d move to the next number.”

Keyboardist Wally Badarou attests to Jones’ active role in the recordings: “Grace was there even during most instrumental overdubbing sessions. She was a part of the sound and the spirit that came out almost from nowhere. We all knew we were in for something quite experimental.”

Soon they had amassed enough material for 1980’s Warm Leatherette and the beginnings of a follow-up LP that would become 1981’s Nightclubbing. Upon its release, Leatherette failed to charm either radio audiences or most dance clubs; it was too authentically reggae for the New Wave crowd, too slow for disco. But by the following year, both New York radio and the club scene had grown eclectic. Primed by kindred punk-funk blasts like Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice” as well as Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat”, a far more open-minded dance music world was ready to re-embrace Jones and her new sound.

Nightclubbing provided Jones with newfound popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. European audiences appreciated “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)”, a vocal reimagining of Argentine tango master Ástor Piazzolla’s 1974 instrumental “Libertango”. For that track, co-writer Barry Reynolds penned lyrics about a Parisian stalker, and Badarou provided a haunting introductory riff. Jones’ lyrics were a rebuttal, en francais, penned with the help of Blackwell’s girlfriend, actor Nathalie Delon: “What are you looking for? Hoping to find love? Who do you think you are? You hate your life.”

In America, Jones’ R&B breakthrough came via an instrumental recorded by drummer Sly Dunbar during the Warm Leatherette sessions. The track first leaked out as “Peanut Butter” on the B-side of kiddie reggae crooner Junior Tucker’s “The Kick (Rock On)”, but, eager to make it hers, Grace co-wrote new lyrics equating cars with carnality. “Pull Up to the Bumper” pushed that metaphor towards lewd entendre: “Grease it, spray it/ Let me lubricate it,” she drawled. A summertime smash, “Bumper” became one of the last thoroughly sexual jams before a new virus began to complicate that kind of fun.

The sessions for 1982’s Living My Life marked a culmination of the synchronicity between Jones and the All-Stars. “Blackwell felt the band was so good it deserved to be doing its own material,” Badarou remembers. As a result, the album was made up entirely of originals, save for a cover of Melvin Van Peebles’ “The Apple Stretching”. Each song began with Jones’ lyrics, from which Reynolds wrote the music to fit. Recorded in the wake of her breakup with Jean-Paul Goude, the album found Jones getting deeper and more rigorously percussive: The percolating lead track, “My Jamaican Guy”, has been sampled by acts from La Roux to LL Cool J. The title track was eventually left off the album but it showcased just how personal the work was for Jones, a world away from the show tunes and entendres. “You kill me for living my life,” she sang. “As much as I can, as black as I am.”

By 1982, AIDS and Reaganomics were striking down Jones’ core audience, and the freedoms of the previous decade shifted to contractions. MTV arrived, and the New Wave dance sounds it championed—sonic stepchildren of Jones including Eurythmics, Culture Club, and Duran Duran—launched a second English invasion on the charts. Jones’ singular appearance and meticulously crafted presentation made her a natural fit for the burgeoning music video medium, especially in its early, experimental days.

She asserted herself as an astute visual artist with her 1982 VHS release, A One Man Show. Directed by Goude and nominated in ’84 for the first Best Long Form Music Video Grammy, it combined still photography, concert footage, and video clips to distill the pair’s simultaneously sensational and intimate collaborations into a heated, unbroken montage. Jones donned pointedly geometric designs that accentuated her angles while clad in screaming Pop-Art colors that flashed and flattered. Goude’s art direction came alive through Jones, who glared at the camera as if possessed; she was imposing, alien, almighty—it’s not surprising that she would soon be stealing scenes in films like Conan the Destroyer and A View to a Kill.

What came after One Man and the Compass Point trilogy would have to top them, which is precisely what “Slave to the Rhythm” did. Bruce Woolley, co-writer of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”, wrote the song on spec for Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but helped to re-draft it for Jones. Producer Trevor Horn was brought in, and a nine-month studio odyssey ensued, allegedly costing Island $385,000—a fortune for a singer who had never scaled the U.S. pop charts. (The exorbitant single was offset by padding its accompanying album with eight different versions of the track in attempt to break even.)

“I remember a huge amount of experimentation with early digital techniques—the Synclavier, Sony digital tape spliced with sticky tape, and the Fairlight,” Woolley recalls. “We recorded a new version every four weeks, with Horn and Blackwell in search of the perfect track.” Between her acting roles, Jones returned to the studio month after month to update her vocals on the latest arrangements. “Slave to the Rhythm” was finally released in October 1985, and one would be hard-pressed to argue that all the laborious studio work and astronomical expenditures weren’t justified: Horn’s production work was ornate and opulent, lurid and symphonic. The spell cast by a larger-than-life black woman singing both metaphorically and directly about slavery was profound; the lyrics coaxed infinite interpretations. The Face—England’s authority on all things hip—declared “Slave” the single of 1985, and Jones appeared on the magazine’s January ’86 cover painted in whiteface. From the pure gloss of its ambition to the obsessiveness of its lyric, “Slave” is the ’80s.

Her ultimate hit in much of the world, “Slave” underscored how Jones’ incandescence and charisma made her bigger than her sales figures might indicate. MTV virtually ignored the track’s Goude-directed video; even when framed by Horn’s familiar transatlantic brilliance, Jones was, for them, still too black, too strong. Nevertheless, she got over elsewhere on the sheer magnitude of her presence. With the help of Hollywood and some crazy commercials for Citroën, Honda Scooters, and Sun Country Wine Coolers, she became more massive than ever.

“I like conflicts,” she told Playboy in 1985. “I love competition. I like discovering things for myself. It’s a childlike characteristic, actually. But that gives you a certain amount of power, and people are intimidated by that.”

By the following year, with Goude and Blackwell out of the picture, Jones wanted more involvement in her debut album for EMI subsidiary Manhattan Records, 1986’s Inside Story. Taking EMI A&R head Bruce Garfield’s direction to “imagine a leaf being blown through the streets of New York, twisting and turning in the sunshine” as a starting point, Jones and Woolley wrote every song together, then joined multi-platinum Svengali Nile Rodgers in New York to transform their demos. This mutually flattering union yielded her last R&B radio victory, “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You)”. Indicting white-collar criminals and Hollywood liars, Inside Story revealed the singer’s observant, socially conscious side, while the jagged arrangements meshed Rodgers’ ricocheting, jazz-schooled guitar with Woolley’s smart pop. It is a singer/songwriter record you can dance to.

She followed it with 1989’s Bulletproof Heart, which yielded one resplendent club triumph, “Love on Top of Love”, courtesy of David Cole & Robert Clivillés, a house remix/production duo who later scored with C+C Music Factory. Jones co-wrote and co-produced most of the album with her new husband, Chris Stanley, whose output fell far below her avant standards; the two soon divorced. Having tried harder, thought broader, and crossed more boundaries than most of her contemporaries, this dance-floor renegade closed out the decade boxed in and coasting.

By the late ’80s, I had moved to San Francisco; AIDS was decimating the gay community. One night in 1993, I finally got my chance to see Jones perform at a local gay nightclub and took my friend Brian, whose partner Mark was too sick to join us. Jones’ lived up to her reputation for diva behavior and didn’t take the stage until well after midnight. At first she stuck to her hits, including that year’s house excursion “Sex Drive”. But it soon became apparent that she didn’t need the spectacular filigree of her Goude years. The special effect was her smile: It just wouldn’t stop, and soon it became contagious. She didn’t back away from the elephant in the room: She dedicated one song to artist and AIDS casualty Keith Haring, who had used her body for a canvas on the occasion of her legendary 1985 Paradise Garage performance.

That night’s show was remarkable for the simple fact that Jones just kept on going, granting one encore request after another, waiting patiently while the sound man scoured backing tapes to find the fans’ offbeat choices. When Jones got to such minor numbers as “Crush”, it became clear that she didn’t want to leave. She was giving as much of herself as she could to the beleaguered troops, knowing full well that many wouldn’t live long enough to see her again. A few months after that show, I inherited Mark’s cherished copy of Goude and Jones’ art book Jungle Fever after he and Brian died within weeks of each other.

Jones’ lust for life that night represented not just resilience to repression, but also a way of fighting back that sent a message: We, who are thought less than, shall burn brighter than our oppressors. That was why she was so beloved—because she led the way, even when we couldn’t proceed. Along with the lesbians and lucky survivors who nursed our fallen, Jones had borne witness to what Reagan, Bush, and most of the country willfully ignored; she knew the toll of it all.

Throughout the ’90s, rumors of new albums surfaced; Blackwell recorded several sessions, so did Tricky. Even Moulton buried the hatchet for a 1997 house remake of Candi Staton’s “Victim”, but Island nixed its release on conceptual grounds: They thought Grace Jones couldn’t be a victim of anything.

In 2008, Jones unexpectedly reemerged with Hurricane, her first record in 19 years. She brought back Woolley and the Compass Point All-Stars while adding contributors like Emmy-winning composers Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, who worked with her for a month in their home on the the gospel-shaded canticle “Williams’ Blood”. “Prince has a presence and everybody in the room goes, ‘Whoa,’” Melvoin attests from first-hand knowledge—she and Coleman were key members of his Purple Rain–era backing band, the Revolution. “When Grace walks into the room, it’s more subtle, but it has the same effect. You just go, ‘My God, she’s taken up all of the space with that personality.’”

Hurricane mirrored that kaleidoscope. Unlike commonplace pop and rock luminaries who took extended vacations, Jones came back more polished and unpredictable than ever. With her trenchant track “Corporate Cannibal”, she even protested capitalist dehumanization by embodying it via grinding, insidious metal. But while her image as a constantly morphing, couture-clad hellion persists, the 67-year-old iconoclast stays true to herself. After all these years and so many disciples, there’s still no one like her.

While gathering up my Grace Jones memories, I was reminded of what Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon once said about entertainers. This was 25 years ago, so my memory may have altered her words, but it went something like this: We pay to bask in the confidence of our most beloved performers so that we may learn to similarly love ourselves. Grace did that for me, for her audience, for anyone who has ever been too queer, too black, too female, or too freaky for the world around them. Grace Jones is liberation.

As a companion to Barry Walters’ Grace Jones piece, various Pitchfork contributors highlight some of the artist’s finest moments in music, film, and talk-show badassery:

The “Russell Harty” Incident

In 1981, Grace Jones pummelled British talk show host Russell Harty on his own BBC show. Harty always sat among the guests on his early evening gabfest, and on this particular night he chose to focus his attention on the men to his right, leaving Jones, seated alone to his left, out of much of the conversation. The scene plays out with a frustrated Jones admonishing Harty: “If you turn your back to me one more minute.” Harty dismisses her, wagging a finger before turning away. Jones then clips him on the neck and lands one, two, three more hits in quick succession before slapping him on the head. The confused audience applauds—was this planned? Is this funny? Is it art?

This was my introduction to Grace Jones: elegantly beating the hell out of a man who won’t take her seriously, her black body and everything it knows asserting itself for the good of fed up women everywhere. —Sara Bivigou

“Use Me”

Grace Jones’ version of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” is exactly what a cover song should be: It honors the strengths of the original while restructuring it, truly taking possession of it as if it were her own work. While Withers’ original is full of human pain and love, Jones’ version–produced by Sly and Robbie for Nightclubbing–turns on one robotic heel into S&M, all sex, all strength. The distinctly American, organic funk of the original is refashioned as electro-Caribbean minimalism, letting Jones’ voice be as powerful as Withers’. When issued from Jones’ lips, “use me up” becomes a challenge: a love song for power bottoms everywhere. —Jes Sklonik


Grace Jones fascinated me at a young age (seeing her as a kid while watching Conan the Destroyer with my dad both scared and excited me), but I didn’t become obsessed with her until seeing the movie Vamp at a sleepover in 1986. In the film, Jones plays Queen Katrina, a wicked vampiress running a strip club somewhere in Kansas (naturally). She makes her first on-screen appearance nude, save for a red bob wig and full body paint, doing a seductive dance that is as bizarre as it is weirdly erotic. At the time I didn’t really know much about her music (I was 11 years old and lived on a farm) nor could I appreciate that her body paint and the chair upon which she writhes were done by Keith Haring. The film is glorious ‘80s trash of the highest order, but Jones manages to transform the whole thing into high art by virtue of simply being there and, even though she’s playing the undead, sort of just being herself—beautiful, artful, exotic, and frighteningly wild. —T. Cole Rachel


Everyone from Suzi Quatro to the Replacements have covered Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1976 slowburner “Breakdown”, but Grace Jones’ take is the version most worth discussing. Given a sauntering, reggae reconstruction, Jones’ rendering is shaded by a subtle gradation of vocal inflections that give the song a searing potency: She is sturdy and commanding one second and mournful the next, the song’s titular collapse filtered through a distinctly Jonesian lens of fortifying self-sufficiency. Even Petty recognized that quality about Jones, writing a killer kiss-off of a third verse to cap her interpretation: “It’s OK if you must go/ I’ll understand if you don’t/ You say goodbye right now/ I’ll still survive somehow/ Why should we let this drag on?” In Jones’ more-than-capable hands, a bluesy classic is transformed into a clarion call, summoning strength from the depths of its vulnerability. —Eric Torres

“Warm Leatherette”

Grace Jones’ cover of the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” is one of her more bizarre interpretations. The original song, based on J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel Crash, was a cold proto-industrial track riffing on the flattening of human affect due to post-modern technology. In Jones’ hands, the song becomes a sassy tribute to the pleasures of ultraviolence, queering the original text from a self-serious and mega-ironic love poem into a campy exploration of black female sexual identity. By subverting the tropes of white, male, anglo sci-fi, Jones turned the Ballardian porno-nightmare into a celebration of perversion via the intersection of technology and sexuality. —Eric Shorey

“Pull Up to the Bumper”

Grace Jones pioneered the way for Shamir, Stromae, and countless other dance mavericks of today—not just with her bewitching candor but through her use of androgynous innuendo. “Pull Up to the Bumper” was initially banned in the United States for suggestive lyrics—“Pull up to my bumper baby/ In your long black limousine”—that were revolutionary because they were smart, risky, and intriguingly gender inclusive, just like Jones herself. By combining Studio 54’s pulsing drums and chic new-wave licks with the kaleidoscope of Andy Warhol’s playhouse (Jones was a regular in both scenes), “Bumper” became a crucial track for American dance music while pushing boundaries of raw sexuality. —Molly Beauchemin