Washington Smithsonian Folklife Festival Highlights R&B, Shirley Jones

Folklife festival highlights R&B music, 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

July 8, 2011, 1:56 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 8, 2011 -- R&B singer Shirley Jones of the Jones Girls is a part of U.S. history.

Performing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., which runs through Monday, Jones is paying tribute to rhythm and blues, a uniquely American music combining swing, blues, gospel and boogie. R&B takes its roots from African-American culture.

"Rhythm and blues is something that transcends," she said. "It's a lifestyle."

The Smithsonian Institution holds its Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington every year this time, drawing tens of thousands of visitors. This year's festival highlights the country of Colombia, the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and R&B music.

Jones started her professional singing career in the 70s performing with her two sisters in the Jones Girls. The Jones Girls were known for their soulful ballads and disco dance hits, including "You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else" and "Who Can I Run To."

The Jones Girls began by singing backup for their mother at church services. By the time they were teenagers in their home town on Detroit, they moved into rhythm and blues. Highly sought after backup singers, they opened for such artists as the Four Tops and Little Richard.

The Jones Girls sang backup in 1976 for Diana Ross, who became Shirley's idol. The Jones Girls continued to perform until one of the sisters, Valorie, died in 2001.

Now Jones tours the world singing on her own because music means so much to her. "It's my life," she said. "We started out singing gospel with my mother. So I said I got to keep going, keep on out there."

Jones' hit, "Do You Get Enough Love," peaked in 1986 at No. 1 on the R&B charts.

Jones is not a big fan of hip-hop music and its effect on youth. She'll take R&B any day. "If more young people got into it, we wouldn't have as much violence because there's no violent lyrics in rhythm and blues," she said. "Rhythm and blues is about uplifting and positive and inspirational."

And, she said, R&B brings people together. "When I see all different people, all different races, all different cultures out here enjoying rhythm and blues, that's helping it get back to where it was," she said.

Also at this year's festival is Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams, a colorful performer who began singing in the 1950s in Portsmouth, Va. Many of his songs include social satire and political awareness.

Lately, he has developed a case of gout and walks with a cane. But not on stage. "Music is my life," he said.

And once he takes the stage, he doesn't seem to need the cane anymore. He clearly loves playing to his audience.

Also touring with "Swamp Dogg" is his mother, 90 year-old singer and musician Vera Lee. She charmed the Folklife Festival crowd with a song her son wrote for her two years ago, she said, when she was "88 and still playing with the boys."

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