Graham Reid | | 3 min read
When opportunity came knocking, Sharon Jones was waiting to open the door. She was 40 and had been ready for decades.
No surprise then that once her career took off she released albums with the titles I Learned the Hard Way and Give the People What They Want.
Jones – now 60, half a dozen albums to her name, Grammy nominated and the subject a recent film festival documentary Miss Sharon Jones! – brings a world of experience to the songs and the stage, and if anyone can dig deep into their soul it is her.
She was born in South Carolina (the youngest of six) and the family moved to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, New York City when she was young. The house was full of kids and soul-funk (James Brown a favourite) and like most people her age she sang gospel in church. Also steeped in the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and other classic black soul and jazz singers, she started doing session work but also held down day jobs.
They were interesting of themselves: She worked as a prison officer at notorious Rikers Island jail and later as an armed guard for Wells Fargo. You'd have to guess the lady can handle herself.
Her break came in the mid Nineties when she sang on a session for soul-funk singer Lee Fields (himself getting a late-in-life career boost after decades on the road). On the strength of her showing she was invited to record some tracks for singles.
But it would be another seven years before opportunity turned up on her doorstep in the form of Daptone Records, a new label formed by people she knew and using musicians – soon to be known as the Dap-Kings – she'd already worked with.
Jon Spencer (of the Blues Explosion) who recently recorded in the Daptone studios in Brooklyn says of the place: “When you walk in – no offense to Daptone – it's pretty funky, they built it themselves. It's part of a house and it's not a pretty place or a plush studio, it's pretty small.
“But you've just got to listen to the records they make there, they make great records and know how to capture a live sound.”
And that perfectly suited Jones who can channel the spirits of Memphis soul, Chicago blues and Detroit rock'n'soul into an amalgam which conjures up the past but sounds utterly contemporary and also timeless.
The documentary Miss Sharon Jones! – the soundtrack includes one previously unreleased track – turns the cameras onto a key year in her recent career when, after all the belated successes, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to endure bouts of chemotherapy.
Yet, heroically, she continued to perform when she could – despite the loss of her hair she wouldn't wear wigs – and her undeniable inner strength after decades of hard knocks got her through.
In the same year she was recording the Grammy-nominated Give The People What They Want her mother, with whom she lived, died . . . as did the brother of her saxophonist Neal Sugarman in the Dap-Kings, musicians who are as much family as a band.
The complete Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings catalogue is now readily available, including Soul Time! which collected rare singles and b-sides.
Oh, and that previously unreleased song on the soundtrack?
It is I'm Still Here.
Sharon Jones won't be the last to distill soul, blues and funk.
But she may well be the last woman to have that link back to James Brown and the original rhythm and blues styles of the Sixties which inspired her and a generation.
As she sings in Miss Sharon Jones! on Longer and Stronger, “fifty years of soul gone by, and fifty more to come”.