Fern Jones: The 1950s gospel pioneer

Thursday 11th May 2006

A legendary white gospel pioneer of the '50s FERN JONES is remembered. Mike Rimmer spoke to Fern's daughter Anita Garner.

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Garner describes the calibre of the musicians involved. "There was Floyd Cramer who was the creator of a certain Nashville sound on piano. Joe Zinkan I think is on bass. The big thrill for me is Hank Garland on guitar. When I listen to mother's tracks.I will play over and over again my comfort song which is "Precious Lord". It's Hank's intro and his ending and I love the solo on "Keeps Me Busy". It's pure jazz isn't it?"

It is! And despite the A list studio recording, Fern's amazing vocals and a pile of brilliant gospel songs, the album flopped and by the end of the following year, Fern had left the music business. It was always a dream to make an album but once recorded, things didn't happen the way Jones had dreamed. Garner observes, "Dot never did a thing about promotion of the gospel division. I have spoken with Mac Wiseman, who was the head of that division, and he was very disappointed. He said there was simply no place for this record to go. She made an initial tour through the Deep South and her dream was to attend the Nashville DJ Convention. She did. We have photos of her. Her dream was to go to the Nashville DJ Convention, to have a mink stole and a pink Cadillac. And that to her would mean that she had achieved something she dreamed of when she was a little girl. And she got all of those but practically no airplay."

Ray Jones had stopped backing her by the time she was touring in 1960 and despite fulfilling some childhood dreams, life on the road was too lonely. Garner says, "My brother and I conjecture that it wasn't the same for her without him and that she learned that on that tour. She came home and said, 'I'm done.'"

Fern and Ray Jones settled down into a peaceful domestic life together for the rest of their years and although they still played music around the house, there were no more public performances. Anita shares one of her favourite memories from this period of family life in California. "I was by then on the radio in Los Angeles as a radio personality. My brother had a busy law practice. We would pot luck down at mother and daddy's on a weekend in Palm Springs. One time I walked in with my covered dish, my brother walked in with his and mother's on the sofa with her guitar. She strummed a chord and sang 'Are you lonesome tonight?, Do you miss me tonight?' And she stopped and said, 'Nita Faye, what comes next?' And all of us just gathered around her guitar and fell into harmony on Elvis' 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' And I thought, 'Boy! This is the circle of life complete isn't it?'"

And what is Anita's main memory of her mother? "A dreamer," she responds, "a beautiful teenage girl. Until she died I think there was in her a broken heart, a need to be of service, a belief in her gifts; that they were God-given, and she was very girlish. She could giggle at the drop of a hat. She was unlike a mature mother. She never turned grey and you seldom saw her in an apron. She was glamorous."

Anita Garner has spent her life writing, performing and working in radio. These days, part of her work is to preserve the legacy of her mother's music. There is talk of a TV show, she's working on a stage play of life in the Jones family in the '50s and her parents' love affair. She's also working on a book of short stories about her family. She's busy! But it does mean that at some point, there should be another CD collecting together the rest of Fern Jones' recordings that are still in existence. And I, for one, can't wait!

Mike Rimmer would like to point out that to get the latest information about Fern Jones and Anita Garner, readers should go to www.thegloryroad.com CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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Reader Comments

Posted by Raymond McClure in Atlanta, Georgia @ 16:21 on Nov 22 2015

To my knowledge...she wrote to great gospel song, "I Was There When It Happened." I'd really like to know the YEAR she wrote it. any HELP out there?

Posted by Joseph Brill in Terre Haute, IN USA @ 16:16 on May 9 2008

Great article about a music pioneer. Someone should do a movie about her life! How can I get some of her recordings on CD? We just lost another great "country boy" Eddy Arnold yesterday at age 89 an whose wife died on March 11th of this year. Jerry Wallace (Nola) died May 5th at ago80 I believe. Do let me know how I might secure some of Jones' recordings.

Posted by Jerry Kendall in Young Harris, Georgia @ 05:38 on Jul 22 2007

I have the original Dot album by Fern Jones and have not noticed any mention in reviews of the recent reissue of the Sunshine Boys backing her on the LP. Eddie Wallace of the Sunshine Boys is a good friend of mine and I'm sure Eddie could provide some insight into the particulars of the recording session(s). Eddie lives in the Atlanta area and I believe his phone number is listed in the phone book, perhaps as Ed F. Wallace, Sr.

The Sunshine Boys, with J. D. Sumner as the bass singer at that time, backed Red Foley on "Peace in the Valley" in 1950 or 1951. J. D. then sang on the Blackwood Brothers recording of "I Was There When It Happened" which I am told was featured in the "I Walk the Line" movie of a few years ago. The other three Sunshine Boys--Eddie Wallace, Ace Richman, and Fred Daniel--appeared on both the Red Foley recording and the Fern Jones LP with Burl Strevel being the bass singer on the Jones LP.

As a side note, the Sunshine Boys appeared in some twenty mostly western movies in the forties and early fifties with J. D. and Fred Daniel appearing only in the last one but Eddie and Ace appearing in all the others along with brothers Tennessee and Smitty Smith. The Smith Brothers were a popular duo themselves in the Atlanta area on TV, radio, and recordings on the Capitol label and an LP on the Sing gospel label.

I hope this info will be of interest and that it could trigger finding additional particulars from Eddie Wallace.

Jerry Kendall

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