2016 has scythed down yet another musician. This time it’s Sharon Jones, at the end of a week in which we have already lost Leonard Cohen, Mose Allison and Leon Russell.
A powerhouse of a soul singer in the great tradition of the sixties, Sharon Jones breakthrough only came later in her life. She didn’t release her first album until 1996, when she was 40, and it was only in this century that she started to receive serious attention, fronting Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
Jones was born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1956 and sang in gospel choirs and backing bands. However, real success eluded her and she took many jobs, including as a corrections officer at New York’s Rikers Island jail.
But a recording session performance led to the formation of the Dap-Kings and the release of Dap-Dippin’ With Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings in 2002, when Jones was 46. Six more powerful albums followed, including the Grammy-nominated Give the People What They Want. The Dap-Kings were the backing band for Amy Winehouse on her breakthrough album Back in Black, released in 2006. Last year, Jones performed a storming version of ‘Wade in the Water’ on the BBC TV documentary series Songs of the South, presented by Reginald D. Hunter.
Sharon Jones died, aged 60, after what the website of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings describes as ‘a heroic battle against pancreatic cancer’. That battle was documented by the Oscar-winning film-maker Barbara Kopple in Miss Sharon Jones! which told the story of her life, and charted the progress of her fight to overcome her cancer as she underwent chemotherapy.
Listen to any of her albums and you hear something exhilarating – ‘equal parts Baptist church revival, Saturday night juke joint and raucous 1970s Las Vegas revue, that showcased the singer’s unparalleled energy’ in Rolling Stones’ words. Backed by her tremendous band, horns to the fore, Jones vocal style was as dynamic as that of her idol James Brown. Rolling Stone described her approach as:
Homage without mimicry; respecting the soul and funk elders that defined the genres while displaying seemingly boundless vitality. Jones’ power was the ability to straddle the line between thankful humility, born out of late-in-life success, and boastful performer.
For the soundtrack of Miss Sharon Jones! she recorded a new song entitled ‘I’m Still Here’, which was described in a Guardian interview as not only her most autobiographical song but also ‘a forceful statement of purpose’. Sharon responded:
When I was 57 and I was diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t think I would see my 58th birthday. So that’s why I say, “I’m still here.” I’m 60 now, so 60 years came along and I’m still here!
From the string of exhilarating albums released by Sharon Jones, at this perilous moment for America and particularly for African Americans, I would choose her storming version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’, taken from her 2005 album, Naturally. It is imbued with the same spirit which was shown by the actor Brandon Dixon who, at the end of last night’s performance of the hit hip-hop musical Hamilton in New York – which had been attended by vice-president elect Mike Pence, who was booed by the audience – delivered this superb push-back message to Pence and the rest of the incoming Trump administration:
Vice-president Mike Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us, just a few moments. There is nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen, we are sharing a story of love. Mike Pence, we welcome you here. We are the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents. Or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights … we hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colours, creeds and orientations.
This is a live performance, filmed in Antwerp in 2014:
Follow this link to Rolling Stone’s appreciation for more stirring YouTube videos of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.