A force of nature. Those were the words that came immediately to mind the first time I saw Sharon Jones perform, and every time after that. She was that all-too-rare phenomena that we call the “real thing.” If you ask 100 people the definition of “soul” you’re likely to get 100 different responses. By any definition, Sharon had it. It’s hard to believe that the intense light that burned within her could ever go out, but last week it did.
Sharon was born in Augusta, Georgia into a family that included not only her five older siblings, but her deceased aunt’s four children as well. As you might imagine, the kids’ hero growing up was someone else who had grown up in Augusta, James Brown. The fact that Sharon’s mother, Ella Mae Price Jones, knew Brown only made the connection stronger.
When Sharon was still a young child, the family moved to the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. That’s where Sharon grew up, graduated from high school, and went on to Brooklyn College. She began her singing career in church, and by the time she was in her mid-teens she was entering talent shows. She got some gigs as a background vocalist on records, but a record deal didn’t seem to be coming her way. As a result Sharon spent many years working as a guard at tough Riker’s Island prison, and guarding armored cars for Wells Fargo.
It wasn’t until 1996 that Sharon got her first break, at the age of 40, when she sang on a session backing the legendary Lee Fields for a label called Pure Records. There were three session singers hired that day, but Sharon was the only one who showed up so she did all of the background parts herself. The record company owners, Gabriel Roth and Philippe Lehman, were impressed and decided to give Sharon a shot on her own.
In 1996 Roth and Lehman released an album by the Soul Providers called Soul Tequila. The album included two tracks by Sharon, “Switchblade,” and “The Landlord.” The Soul Providers themselves were members of two Brooklyn bands, Antibalas, and the Mighty Imperials. Those players eventually morphed into the Dap-Kings, who became Sharon’s band.
Roth and Lehman formed a new label called Desco, and Sharon released three singles for the label; the two-part “Damn It’s Hot”; “Bump N Touch”; and “You Better Think Twice.” On the B-side of the latter single Jones paid tribute to her Augusta hero with a cover “I Got the Feeling.” The 45s got some attention from collectors because they weren’t dated, and many people thought they were obscure soul records from the early ’70s. The singles also appeared a compilation album called The Desco Funk 45 Collection.
When Lehman and Roth went their separate ways in 2000, Roth founded Daptone Records, along was a sax player by the name of Neal Sugarman. The label’s first release, was Sharon’s first full-length album. Some of those Mighty Imperials and Soul Providers followed Lehman to his new Soul Fire label, and became known as the Budos Band. Others, including Sugarman, Roth (aka Bosco Mann) on bass, emcee Binky Griptite on guitar, percussionist Fernando Velez, Anda Szilagyi on trumpet, organist Earl Maxton, sax player Leon Michels, drummer Homer Steinweiss became the Dap-Kings.
Their first album, Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, was released in 2002 to an enthusiastic response. Three more albums followed; Naturally in 2005; 100 Days, 100 Nights in 2007; and I Learned the Hard Way in 2010. It is fair to say that over the years Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings became the leaders in the emerging soul and funk revival.
An ominous note was sounded in 2013 when it was announced that Sharon was suffering from cancer of the bile duct. Her surgery delayed the release of the band’s fifth album, Give the People What They Want. It was released in 2014 and was nominated for a Grammy award for “Best R&B Album.” But Sharon’s diagnosis was changed to pancreatic cancer, requiring more surgery, and chemotherapy. It didn’t stop her from performing however. The chemo had caused her to lose her hair, but she wouldn’t wear a wig, and went on stage with a bald head.
Sharon seemed to be in remission, and she was continuing to perform, but last year it was announced that the cancer had returned, and would require more chemo. Two weeks ago she suffered a stroke while watching the election returns, and blamed it on Donald Trump. Another stroke followed the next day, and she passed away on November 18 at the age of 60.
It has been the worst year in music history in terms of the losses that we have suffered. We’ve lost so many great artists that it’s easy to become numb to it. Don’t give in to that. Each one of these artists was special in their own right, none more so than Sharon Jones. She didn’t have the longest career. Her break didn’t come until later in her life. But she made the best of the time she had, and there is no doubt that had she lived she would have continued to make great music for many years. So let’s not mourn Sharon, or the other greats today. On this Thanksgiving day, let’s be grateful that they walked among us.