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Even In Death, Sharon Jones Is An Inspiration

Sharon Jones wasn’t supposed to happen. She’d tried. She’d tried again and again. As a teenager, she’d sung at talent shows around New York City, where she’d grown up in desperate poverty. She’d sung backup on other people’s records. She’d done everything you can do to break into the vampiric music business, and it wasn’t working. But she never stopped. She kept showing up and auditioning, even into middle age. By the time she got to record her first solo track, at age 40, she’d been working as a prison guard on Rikers Island and as an armored-car guard for Wells Fargo. She only got the chance to record that song because two other backup singers hadn’t shown up for a recording session with the old-school soul singer Lee Fields, and she’d impressed the producers. And even after she got to make that song, it was a longshot that anything would come of it. Things did come of it. She beat all the odds.

The song she recorded that day was “Switchblade,” a nasty ’60s-style soul-funker that appeared on Soul Tequila, an album from the Fields-affiliated revivalist group the Soul Providers. The album itself was a blip on the radar, but one of the people she impressed was the Soul Provider and Desco Records co-founder Gabriel Roth. Not too long afterward, Roth put together his band the Dap-Kings specifically to back up Jones. But Jones and the Dap-Kings didn’t release their first album, Dap Dappin’ With Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings, for another four years. And when they put it out on Roth’s newly founded Daptone label, they only pressed 500 copies. It could’ve disappeared like so many other expertly made retro-whatever records. It didn’t.

I first heard Jones’ voice when someone put both parts of Jones and the Dap-Kings’ cover of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” on a mix CD sometime around 2003. The Jackson original was, of course, a tense and chilly and minimal piece of synthetic R&B — a template for much of the R&B that was coming out in 2003 and for what’s still coming out now. Jones’ version was a stunt cover, one that pushed its source material as far as it could go without breaking it. She and her band replaced the icy chill of the original with heat. It was a taut and hard and nasty funk workout, and it had Jones out front, working herself into a grand and unconfined froth. It was gimmicky and knowingly anachronistic, but it worked, and it worked because Jones was out there selling the fuck out of it.

That Jackson cover was an early calling card, and Jones and her band broke out on the indie-club touring circuit shortly afterward. I’d read reports of these shows, and I’d get suspicious. Here was this obviously ferociously talented black woman out there, fronting a mostly white, entirely studious band of men in suits. Were they exploiting her? Making her look like a clown? It seemed possible. And were they making a mockery of black music by pointedly ignoring anything that had come out the past few decades and elevating everything that had fallen out of favor? I was suspicious. Jones was apparently pulling doofy white hipsters out of the audience to dance with her, and they were attempting to grind on her. I didn’t like that. That just seemed embarrassing.

And then I finally saw her, and holy motherfuck. I felt like an idiot for ever doubting. Jones onstage was just tremendous. Her voice was huge, her energy was beyond almost anything I’d ever seen, and she seemed absolutely overjoyed to be on that stage. She’d been touring for years by that point, and the show was the sort of SXSW showcase that rarely brings a great performance out of anyone. But she attacked that stage with such joyous abandon that she couldn’t be denied. She was still pulling doofy white hipsters onstage to dance, but it registered as an act of supreme generosity; they were being permitted to stand up close to this powerhouse and watch her do what she could do. And it became plainly obvious that the people in her backing band weren’t exploiting her. They were doing the work that you need to do to get a performer like that out in front of people. They were performing a public service.

When Jones got cancer a few years ago, she kept performing. She went through chemotherapy, she performed while bald, never bothering with the vanity of a wig. And when she died this past weekend, after going through a stroke while watching the election results, all the members of her band were by her side in the hospital. They were singing with her. After her second stroke, she couldn’t talk anymore, but Roth says that she could still harmonize on gospel songs, and that’s all she wanted to do.

On its own, that is an incredible life: coming up from nothing, breaking into music after decades of rejection through sheer persistence and talent, wrecking stage after stage, refusing to let even cancer slow her down. But Jones wasn’t just a revivalist. She was a catalyst, too. Consider: When Amy Winehouse made Back To Black, she brought in the Dap-Kings, a band that she’d heard because of their work with Jones. Maybe, if she hadn’t heard that band, Winehouse still would’ve found a band who could play old-school soul music with that level of grit and precision. But maybe not. Without Sharon Jones, then, maybe we wouldn’t have Amy Winehouse. And without Amy Winehouse, we almost certainly wouldn’t have someone like Adele, currently the biggest pop-music star on the face of the Earth.

In the wake of Winehouse, there was this whole wave of retro-soul singers, artists who attempted to revive the hard and funky spirit of the ’70s chitlin circuit even as they cleaned that sound up. Jones was the link there, the connector that bridged those old records and the new era. She took old sounds and, with unfathomable levels of charisma, made them feel new. But she didn’t just do that. In doing what she did, she helped reshape the musical landscape. We were lucky to have her.