Soul survivor Gloria Scott: ‘Tina would say, “Why does Gloria always talk back to Ike?”’

Backing singer to the greats of 1960s soul, Scott released one exceptional album – and vanished without trace. Forty-eight years later she’s back with a worthy successor

You can understand why Gloria Scott thought her music had been forgotten. In truth, it hadn’t attracted a lot of attention in the first place. Her career intersected with some of the biggest artists of 1960s and 1970s soul – Ike & Tina Turner, Sly Stone, Barry White, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes – but her own handful of records failed to make an impression.

In the mid-1990s, she was living in Guam, in the western Pacific, singing in hotels, when a tourist said he knew her name: her flop 1974 single, (A Case of) Too Much Love Makin’, had been a huge record on the European soul scene since the late 1980s, he claimed. Lisa Stansfield had covered it on her 1993 album So Natural. Copies of the original seven-inch were selling for eye-watering sums: the last time someone bought one on Discogs, they paid £1,300. Scott, meanwhile, no longer even owned a copy of her solitary album, What Am I Gonna Do. Then she was contacted by the promoters of Germany’s Baltic Soul Weekender asking if she wanted to perform, accompanied by an orchestra. “The audience knew every song on the album, they were singing louder than I was, and I just stopped and listened,” she says with a smile of disbelief, speaking via Zoom from her home in Florida.

She seems equally incredulous that she’s promoting a new album at the age of 76. The Baltic Soul Weekender’s former musical director Andrew McGuinness says he discovered that there were demos from an unfinished follow-up to What Am I Gonna Do “floating around in the ether”. He elected to make an album based around them, re-recording them with Scott, alongside new material and a cover of Joe Smooth’s Chicago house classic Promised Land. The result is a second Gloria Scott album, So Wonderful, a perfect follow-up a mere 48 years after her debut.

In fairness, Scott is the kind of figure that soul devotees love: her 1970s releases were obscure and extraordinarily good, and her story is one of brushes with fame that never quite pan out. She was discovered at 17 while attending a high-school dance in San Francisco: a friend pushed her to get on stage with the band, whose leader happened to be a pre-Family Stone Sly. He was, she says, “very protective, like my big brother”: he took her on tour, writing and producing a single, I Taught Him, in 1964. When it didn’t make it as a hit, she auditioned to become one of Ike & Tina Turner’s Ikettes.

“Oh, it was hard,” says Scott. “He fined us for everything. If I had a tag on my dress and one of the other girls didn’t see it, then he’d fine all of us. If we didn’t have our wigs on tight, he’d pull them back, and if he pulled it off, you’d get fined for that. We all were aware of what was going on with him and Tina, and I didn’t like Ike because of that. Tina would say: ‘Why does Gloria always talk back to Ike? Nobody else talks back to Ike.’ But I didn’t respect him, I didn’t think he was a fair person at all, and I guess I was kind of sassy back then.” Inevitably, their relationship came to grief. When the Ikettes missed a flight, Scott announced she would quit if Turner fined them. “He said: ‘Let the bitch quit.’ And so I did.”

Gloria Scott (far left) as an Ikette, with Ike & Tina Turner
‘Oh, it was hard’ … Gloria Scott (far left) as an Ikette, with Ike & Tina Turner. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Scott was working as a backing singer when she was introduced to Barry White, who offered to sign her. He got her a record deal with Casablanca Records, a label that became famous later in the 1970s for its profligacy. Produced by White, arranged by Gene Page, What Am I Gonna Do sounded like a triumph. But it vanished without trace: Casablanca failed to promote it, while White’s own career had gone so stratospheric, he “didn’t have the time” to help Scott. “He probably didn’t know he was going to be that big,” she says. “He just blew up so quickly.”

Scott was in the frame to replace Deniece Williams in Stevie Wonder’s backing band Wonderlove, but instead became one of the post-Diana Ross Supremes, with the band in noticeably reduced circumstances: “I interviewed for the job, and Mary Wilson said: ‘If you want to be a Supreme you have to lose weight because we can’t afford to buy new gowns.’ So I lost 30lb, and there I was.”

By the 1990s, Scott had disappeared from sight. It might have stayed that way had it not been for McGuinness, who says making a second Gloria Scott album became a kind of “spiritual calling”. “I don’t know what the reason is,” he says, “but I just knew it had to be done.” So he saved up money he had earned playing “local blues gigs in pubs” to pay for Scott’s flight to the UK and the musicians’ salaries. The album was half-finished when Covid struck: McGuinness lost his gigs and his business: “I had rehearsal rooms, a drum shop, a PA company and studio, and that’s all gone now. And Boris Johnson wasn’t picking up the phone – I got £400 government funding. But I thought I had to persevere.”

He ended up calling on friends including the composer Andrew T Mackay, who scored the West End production of Life of Pi – he arranged a string quartet. “It was a long line of people pulling in different resources from everywhere,” says McGuinness. “I think people picked up on the vibe. They knew I wasn’t doing it for Grammys and ego.” Eventually, it was finished, an entirely unexpected but worthy successor to Scott’s debut. She tells me she hasn’t seen a finished copy yet, so I hold up the sleeve to my laptop screen.

“Oh my God!” she cries, delighted and astonished. “I can’t believe this!”

• So Wonderful is out now on Acid Jazz


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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