I was living at home under a parent’s roof the first time I heard Sharon Jones. I was flipping channels and stopped on IFC. I want to say it was a Courtney Cox film (I can’t find it anymore) when I heard the opening notes of a beautiful old school song during the last scene before it eventually played out over the credits. Whatever that film was, I watched it to the end of the credits because I wanted to catch the name of the song and the name of the artist for future reference.
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. “Make It Good to Me.”
It started there. I remember listening to the first three albums on some type of service that allowed users to listen to albums for a limited number of time (before getting rid of that app altogether). They also became one of my first, possibly the first, YouTube obsession as I constantly went down holes looking for content, eventually finding an array of live performances and a beautiful rendition of “Answer Me” in which I learned that Sharon could play a mean piano.
Of course, I eventually bought the CDs. I might have waited until I Learned the Hard Way was released in 2010, but I might have treated myself to the first three along with the singles’ collection. In either case, I know I made my mother copies knowing how much she would appreciate the upbeat funk associated with Sharon’s style.
However, it was a live performance on Austin City Limits that introduced me to the term most used to describe Sharon’s sound: retro soul. I made the distinction right away from the neo-soul I’d listened to almost exclusively during the early 2000s. Whereas neo-soul could be firmly placed in the here and now, retro soul showed more of an appreciation and influence of 60s and 70s soul. Sharon even explained that they used the same recording methods and equipment from that era to create their sound.
But Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings were no mere throwbacks. Rather, they crafted their act to so much perfection that they revamped 80s classics such as Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and Prince’s “Take Me With You” in ways that rendered them unrecognizable from the originals. And slayed them.
In a way, I wonder if the whole 60s soul aesthetic fit with this new age of the music industry we have entered. Sharon created her own label after hearing rejections on all the wrong issues: too short, too fat, too black, too old. Never did anyone say she wasn’t talented. However, with her own label, she created an aesthetic reminiscent of 60s soul groups traveling the Chitlin Circuit. As more artists find themselves in their own virtual chitlin circuits attempting to make a name for themselves, Sharon showed us how it was done back in the day and that it was still possible.
And for all that work that went into giving us a look at how it used to be, Sharon ended up giving us something vibrant and fresh. The way she worked those sheath, sometimes fringed, dresses was nothing less than mesmerizing. The constant moving of her legs and feet in those low (I’ve since learned are called kitten) heels somehow transferred her energy to an audience she engaged with the aplomb of the master she was.
Sharon was an obvious heir to Tina’s throne, recalling the Queen in her 60s heyday before the 80s comeback that catapulted her star beyond the stratosphere. Like Tina, Sharon found her greatest success after 40, not even recording her first single until then. The Dap Dippin’ album was not released until 2002 when Sharon was 46. Of course, those who know her story and now mourn her passing are taking the opportunity to make her life a platitude: she worked a number of jobs (including at Riker’s prison) before she ever went into music. She was the living example that it is never too late.
But to me she is a hero because she had the means to make her own after hearing all the rejections. She eventually co-created Dap Tone records and put together a house band, the Dap Kings. She stayed committed to an aesthetic familiar to us who study the looks of the bands and groups from the early rock and roll era. Sharon stood proudly in front of the boys in the band with their matching suits, later also with background singers Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan Lowe. All clean and polished, just like their sound.
As I tend to do with artists who fire something in my soul, I spent hours listening to the albums and anxiously awaiting new work. I fell in love with tracks like “All Over Again,” “Settling In,” “Let Them Knock” and “You’re Gonna Get It,” songs of unabashed sexuality with vocals as sultry and slinky as the lyrics and musical accompaniment. I also loved that she took on politics with tracks such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes.” I watched the short film The Game Gets Old with all the enthusiasm as the premier of a Michael Jackson music video back in the day. And of course waited for new YouTube uploads of live performances.
Like many acts I grow fond of, I had no hope of ever seeing Sharon Jones live in person, so television and online videos had to suffice. But at least I got a taste. So in 2013 when she announced a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, I was crestfallen. I feared the worst. But in 2014 after a treatment of surgery and chemotherapy, Sharon returned sporting her newly bald head, practically giving the middle finger to the cancer that kept her down for nearly a year. However, that treatment was also documented in Miss Sharon Jones, which was released this past summer.
Watching Sharon promote the doc on the summer gave me hope. I was so relieved and proud that she was still here to see her life documented, getting the recognition she so richly deserved for all she put into her work. Just as Prince was a herald of funk, Sharon was the herald of soul. The old school soul revival with groups such as The Black Keys, Vintage Trouble and The Suffers started with her. But none of them could work the stage like she did. They may have gotten the music and vocal intonations correct, but Sharon brought much more. Sharon Jones was the show.
Her loss hurts as much as Prince’s did seven months ago in April. However, I was heartened to see the outpouring of love and grief by so many in my circle who knew and loved this woman. She is one of the women for whom I created The Black Swan Collective. As far as I’m concerned, she can never get enough credit for the vivaciousness she brought to the stage. And for her presence. Because unlike many other artists who get that elusive goal of visibility, we saw ourselves in Sharon. We saw those parts that got rejected even though they had nothing to do with what we do. Sharon Jones dared to be Sharon Jones. By having the audacity to be herself, she told us to do the same.
Thank you, Miss Sharon Jones.