One of the most talented Soul, Funk and R ‘n B singers and charismatic live performers you’ve probably never heard of, Sharon Jones, died on Saturday, Australian time, following a well-publicised and well-fought battle against pancreatic cancer.
Her passing is a wretched post-script to the acclaimed Barbara Kopple documentary, Miss Sharon Jones! – which profiled her struggle against cancer following her diagnosis back in 2013, and screened at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival back in August.
Sharon Lafaye Jones was born in May 1956 in North Augusta South Carolina, before her mother moved the family to Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York while Sharon was still a small child. Jones, like so many other soul, funk and R n’ B legends grew up singing in her church’s gospel choir and was raised in a house dedicated to Soul music, with the James Brown and Aretha Franklin influence, which were ever-present in her own powerful vocal stylings.
Despite her undeniable talent and presence, Jones struggled in the business. Once told by a recording industry executive that she “was too black, too fat, too short and too old” to make it, she worked as a corrections officer at New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison, as well as an armoured car guard while she persevered with obtaining a recording contract. Her ‘break’ came in 1996, aged 40, and even then, Jones had to wait until 2002 to release a full-length LP; Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
The career trajectory of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, continued on an ever upward arc, with Grammy award nominations and widespread acclaim beginning to be bestowed upon the band. As the fates would have it, her cancer diagnosis occurred just as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were beginning to cross over from the East and West Coast soul underground and establish themselves firmly in mainstream American, and international music circles.
Along with my wife, who introduced me to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, we saw Sharon and the band live twice at Melbourne’s Corner Hotel. To describe Jones’ stage presence as energetic was an understatement; whirling dervish would be more apt. She prowled, danced and controlled the stage unrelentingly for the two hours that the Dap-Kings shows went for, giving white people from Melbourne’s suburbs a glimpse of what a James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye show would have been like, back in the day. It was an honor to have that experience.
Some of you reading this will know of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Many of you likely will not have. If you haven’t heard of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, take a listen to songs like 100 Days, 100 Nights; Stranger to My Happiness; Got a Thing on My Mind; How Do I Let a Good Man Down?; Natural Born Lover, and the unforgettable Jones re-working of Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit What Have You Done For Me Lately?, and avail your ears of the opportunity to immerse yourself in one of the most powerful, glorious, unique and uplifting voices God ever done gave one of his chillun’.
In 2016 we’ve lost some immeasurable musical and artistic giants: Bowie, Rickman, Cohen, Prince, Harper Lee, Shandling and Wilder. I have no problem placing Sharon Jones and her voice alongside these luminaries who now swirl above us in the heavens.
Well played, Miss Sharon Jones!