Jimmy Jones Remembered: We All Listened to What He Was Putting Down
James "Jimmy" Jones, a singer, songwriter and entertainer with a smooth, soulful high-pitched singing voice, who is best known for his 1960 R&B smash hit "Handy Man," died on Aug. 2 in Aberdeen. He was 82.
As a young, resourceful 6-year-old child in Birmingham, Ala., "Handy Man" Jones, as he would later be known, embarked on his career as an entertainer, said his son, James Jones Jr.
"He would take bottle tops, hold them between his toes and tap dance for money," Jones Jr. said.
Eight years later at the age of 14, Jones left home to join the circus as a tap dancer and performer, his son said.
"He had natural ability. He was made to do what he did," Jones Jr. said. "He was an entertainer's entertainer."
Already an accomplished tap dancer, Jones was discovered as a singer in 1952 during a stint in the U.S. Army.
During an audition for a talent show, Jones was asked to sing by a fellow officer, Jones Jr. said.
"He said, 'Hit this note,' and Dad did, and then he said, 'Hit this note,' and Dad did, and then he said, 'Hit this note,' and he did it again, and then they fired the whole group (of singers) and Dad replaced them," the younger Jones said.
While serving in the Army, Jones earned extra money by going from barracks to barracks and tapping in front of his fellow soldiers. But he realized singing was going to take him farther in life than tap dancing.
In 1954 he joined a doo-wop group, The Berliners. They later changed their name to Sparks of Rhythm.
He eventually decided to go solo in 1958. A year later, he wrote and recorded "Handy Man."
"It took it a while for it to become a hit," Jones Jr. said of his father's most well-known song.
The song, he said, "bombed" on "American Bandstand" in the summer of 1960, but became a hit in October thanks to a fortuitous flip by a disc jockey in Pittsburgh.
"Handy Man" was the "B" side of another recording that hit big when local radio personality Porky Chedwick began playing it, Jones Jr. said.
Living in New York at the time, and with the memory of the song's first failed release, Jones didn't belive the numerous telegrams he started to receive telling him that his song was burning up the airwaves in Pittsburgh.
Eventually, he flew to Steel City to see for himself.
"He heard 'Handy Man' playing on the jukeboxes in the Pittsburgh airport," Jones Jr. said. "He said there was no place he could go that he didn't hear 'Handy Man.' He said he heard it so much that wax was running out his ears."
The song eventually topped out at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and remained there for 18 weeks.
The song would be remade and recorded several times. James Taylor's version became a huge hit again in 1977.
Jones was also a big hit in England. "Handy Man" peaked at No. 3 on the charts there and later that same year, "Good Timin" climbed to No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart and hit No. 3 in the U.S..
Over the next 12 months he would have three more songs make the British charts.
Jones landed in Aberdeen quite by accident, according to his family.
More than 20 years ago, Jones and his wife, Mattie, were planning to move to Fayetteville, but the entertainer, like so many who come to the Sandhillls, fell in love when he arrived.
The family saw a home in the area, and Jones decided right then that Aberdeen was home.
"He loved the area and when he saw this house, he said, 'That's my house,'" his son said.
Jones never stopped writing songs or performing, often singing at charity events and fundraisers.
His most memorable performance locally came in October 2000 during the "Raising the Roof" event for the Sunrise Theater.
That event was organized by writer, musician and long-time Pilot contributor Stephen Smith.
"I had the opportunity to interview him several times," Smith said of Jones. "He was gentle, kind, cooperative and humble. I liked him very much."
Smith said one of the things he appreciated about Jones was the fact that he continued to write songs "right up until the end."
"The beautiful thing about the position that Dad was in, was that he was able to work when and where he wanted to," said Jones Jr., who served as his father's music director for more than 30 years.
Jones Jr., who sings and plays numerous musical instruments, credits his father for his love of music and performing.
"He gave me my first job in the industry when I was 3 years old," Jones Jr. said. "We would go into the studio and I would sit on my father's knee and listen to guys sing. When they would hit the wrong note, I would get down, go over to them and sing the right note."
Jones Jr. said his father was naturally gifted, but was also a dedicated, hard-worker who was self-taught.
"All I ever wanted to do is be like him," said Jones, who also taught himself to play multiple instruments. "I am still working to this day to be the great man that my father was."
Jones is survived by his wife, Mattie, two daughters, Jennifer Jones and Jilliann Jones-Hendricks, a son, James Jones Jr, a sister, Cleddie Barge, a brother, Willie Jones, four grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at First Baptist Church, Aberdeen. Family will receive family and friends from 4-8 p.m. Thursday at Purcell Funeral Home, Southern Pines.
Contact Tom Embrey at (910) 603-2484 or tem firstname.lastname@example.org.
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