R.I.P. Sharon Jones, Godmother of Soul

Sharon Jones, often respectfully referred to as Miss Sharon Jones, as in the title to the documentary about her life released earlier this year, has passed away at the age of 60. In her life, she managed to build a global fanbase with her remarkably powerful voice and throwback funk and soul, despite being initially ostracized by the music industry for decades on end.

She had been performing with funk bands and doing background vocals for countless acts ever since the ’70s, but didn’t manage to break through as a solo artist until the turn of the century. While her voice, honed by years of experience in gospel choirs, was undeniably strong, her short, stocky frame was deemed not marketable enough by industry influencers. To make ends meet, she took on a job as a corrections officer at Rikers Island, but occasionally still did background vocals. It was during one of those jobs that she met producer and bass player Gabriel Roth and saxophonist Neal Sugarman, who were so impressed by her presence and vocal chops that they decided to record an entire album with her.

That album, Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, was released in 2002. Fronting her band The Dap-Kings, she would go on to record six studio albums and tour the world for years, all to much acclaim. The album would also form the foundational stone of Daptone Records, a label famous for sounding like their music comes out of a time machine dialed in on the past century, while still keeping their music fresh. When Jay Z wanted beats that sounded like they came from the seventies for his American Gangster concept album, hit single “Roc Boys” actually utilized one of Daptone’s tracks.

As anyone lucky enough to have seen one of her shows can attest, she was good on her records, but phenomenal on stage. Short she may have been, when she danced on stage with her relentless energy, her commanding voice captivating audiences, she became a titan. Relatively few people have seen her once, because audience members would instantly be turned into fans if they weren’t already, and return for more when she toured their cities again. Through those magnetic shows, she built an increasingly loyal following.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and had to undergo a grueling treatment that included surgery to (partially) remove several of her organs and exhaustive chemotherapy. A year later, she was one of the headliners at the renowned North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, where she performed in the The Daptone Super Soul Revue, along with Antibalas and Charles Bradley–a show I was lucky enough to attend. The grand revue showcased the full breadth and stature of the label she had helped build more than ten years before.

But as good as all of the performers were that day, it was Sharon Jones’ set that formed the absolute highlight. Recounting how she looked in the mirror each day during therapy, her hair and energy lost, she told audiences she talked strength into herself by saying she had to get better; the people wanted to see Sharon Jones again. A sentiment reflected in what was then the title to her latest album: Give The People What They Want. She thanked her fans for pulling her through, and her fans stood in appreciative awe, as she exploded into song with a force rarely seen.

On September 11, 2015, Miss Sharon Jones, a documentary film depicting her life, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. There she announced that her cancer had returned, telling the audience “I start chemo on Wednesday. But I’m gonna keep fighting. We got a long way to go.” It’d suddenly cast her song “I’m Still Here,” a new song for the movie’s soundtrack in which she summarizes her life, in an entirely different kind of light. She valiantly battled her disease again, defiantly stating “I have cancer; cancer don’t have me,” but ultimately succumbed to it on Friday. “We are deeply saddened to announce that Sharon Jones has passed away after a heroic battle against pancreatic cancer. She was surrounded by her loved ones, including the Dap-Kings,” a statement on her band’s website reads.

Miss Sharon Jones, rest in peace.

Sharon Lafaye Jones

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