Soul funk legend Sharon Jones, of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, died on November 18, 2016, at sixty years old.
While 2016 was a year of stunning musical losses, from Prince to Bowie to Cohen (who died elegantly and pointedly just after election day) to George Michael (who died during his very Last Christmas), Sharon Jones was the one that haunted me most. This was the case even though, like many, I was just getting to know her work. Jones was a late bloomer, a former prison guard who released her first record when she was forty years old. She had twenty years of professional success as a musician, which is not unusual in itself, except that usually years of success attach initially to the very young. I can think of other musicians who were still working after forty, including, of course, Cohen, but I can’t think of any who were just getting started then.
And I can’t help but admire over-forty women who refuse to capitulate to a music industry machine that often fetishizes youth and ignores or silences older women. In Jones’ case, her dark skin and powerful frame were also a problem for some: Jones was told she was “too dark, too short to be a music star.” She kept singing anyway, in churches and at weddings, until she caught her break.
What was it like to break into the music biz well after most stars are used up and forgotten? In Miss Sharon Jones!, a 2015 documentary film about Jones’ pancreatic cancer treatment and triumphant return to the stage, she shrugs and says, “seems like everything I’ve done in my life takes a little longer [….] but now it’s my time.” She is insistent that nothing will stop her – not her age, not her body, not her illness:
“I want my friends to understand, […] That was my goal all these years. Just to do good music and get out here and be recognized […] People love me, you know, for my voice, and not the way I look, and they enjoy my music. To see me, the same woman that – the guy from Sony said I was too fat, too black, too short, and too old. And look at me now, you know?”
In 2014, after surgery and a devastating round of chemotherapy, Sharon Jones released a new album with the Dap-Kings and the Dapettes, Give the People What They Want, and went on the road and the television circuit, performing bald and just as formidable as ever on shows like Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel. That year, Give the People What They Want was nominated for a Grammy for best R&B album.
Daptone Records, Jones’ Brooklyn-based independent studio, records Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings albums the old way: directly onto an 8-track tape, without computerized manipulation—so that the music in the studio is the music on the record.
Not that her music needs anything extra. Jones’ voice is a force reminiscent of her idols James Brown and Tina Turner, and the Dap-Kings showcase her indomitable lyrics with fierce horns, guitars, and drums.
Jones had a stroke while watching the presidential election results, and in the hospital she sang gospel songs and joked that the news of Donald Trump’s victory was responsible. She brought the funk until the very end.