Turning on your phone in the morning in 2016 is becoming a saddening and dangerous activity. We’ve woken up to the news of some stellar talent passing away, starting with David Bowie and most recently, Leonard Cohen.
As of today, we can add Sharon Jones to the list. Sharon was distinctly old school. She was a soul belter that would have stood shoulder to shoulder with the greats of the sixties and seventies. Born down in the South in Carolina, she moved to New York when she was four years old. She had a long hard slow rise to her career as a soul star. Whilst working a number of jobs, including a prison officer and on Rykers Island and as a security driver for Wells Fargo, she entered talent contests and worked as a backing singer.
Ir was at a backing session for Lee Fields that things began to turn for Sharon. She did a studio gig for the French label Pure Records, backing up Lee Fields and the owners recognised her talent. She was given the opportunity to record and the track “Switchblade” was included on a label compilation.
The label owners, Gabriel Roth and Philip Lehman, started a record label in Brooklyn, Desco Records and this was the next turning point. Sharon met the guys who eventually became her backing band, the Dap-Kings. The singles she recorded generated interest in the collectors field, many of whom thought they were long lost tracks from the sixties. Again her talent was recognised and when Roth went on his own to launch Daptone Records, Jones went with him.
Roth, now also the bass player in the Dap-Kings, released her debut album “Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings” in 2002 and immediately there was a buzz. She continued to work with the label. In 2007, “100 Days 100 Nights” hit the streets.
We saw her perform at London’s Jazz Cafe. We didn’t have much money at the time but we treated ourselves to a seat and meal on the balcony opposite the stage. It was a hell of an experience. The band had the swing, snap and precision of a James Brown band and Jones owned the stage with confidence and personality. It was hot and sweaty, an old time soul revue. She took the band up, she took them down. She had the crowd eating out of her hand, a masterclass in stagecraft. Her voice was deep, rich and powerful with that southern rawness that, for me, is spine tingling.
The band in the meantime had got themselves another gig. If they sound familiar, it is probably down to their work on Amy Winehouse’s wonderful “Back To Black” LP, their accurate homage to the golden soul era working wonderfully alongside Amy’s songs.
Jones also added her voice to other artists work. When Lou Reed revisited the Berlin album in 2007, Sharon helped him out. Here’s a wonderful version of “Sweet Jane” with the great Steve Hunter on guitar. It’s got the full “Rock’n’Roll Animal” guitar intro before Sharon comes in for the second verse – “Jack, he is a banker, Jane, she is a clerk….” Lou was a huge soul fan and knew talent when he saw it.
Jones stuck proudly with Daptone records, releasing a series of always first class albums, earning a Grammy nomination for 2014’s “Give The People What They Want”. But the release of the album had been delayed due to Jones’ diagnosis with bile duct cancer. The cells spread to her liver and pancreas and she received chemo continuing to perform without a wig, appearing in the latest Marvel/Netflix series, “Luke Cage”. In 2015, a documentary film was released “Miss Sharon Jones!” but unfortunately the cancer was back.
She told the Guardian:
“Right before I get on that stage, it’s like something comes over me and the pain goes away. I guess the adrenaline just gets going and, you know, your body’s just like, ‘Well, you know: here we go!’”
We got the news last night that she had passed away with her bandmates at hand. Another one gone, still recording great music, still relevant.
Jones wasn’t glamorous. She wasn’t the willowy beauty that was Diana Ross or the strutting megastar that was Beyonce. In an era where often the superficial is valued over artistic depth, she didn’t have an easy ride. But she had talent and presence to burn and was beautiful in her own way. It was a privilege to have seen her perform at such close quarters with the Dap-Kings in Camden all those years ago.
We wanted and needed a hell of a night out. Boy, did we get one!