Soul of a Woman: Sharon Jones’s final, funky masterwork, a year after her death
With her band the Dap-Kings, Jones was a ball of pure soul power. Her band and colleagues say farewell with one last record
Sharon Jones (centre) with the Dap-Kings
Sharon Jones died on November 18th, 2016 and the world became a few shades less funky. Jones had the kind of voice that could instantly warm your blood an extra degree; she had a four-foot-eleven-and-a-quarter-inch frame that metamorphosed into pure thunder and lightning when she stepped on the stage. She seemed to have the power to call on everyone from Apollo, Greek god of music, truth and prophecy, to Al Green, himself a soul deity.
Jones first found out she had cancer in 2013, slowing a singer who seemed to have fallen through a crack in time and landed in the 21st century. Flanked by her funky band The Dap-Kings, Jones’s songs sounded like lost nuggets cut in Memphis, Motown, Philly or Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. “A female James Brown” is a simplistic moniker often bestowed on her, but it’s undisputable that Jones boasted some of Mr Dynamite’s same explosive attributes.
In early 2014, Jones appeared to have defeated stage II pancreatic cancer and was back out on the road performing shows (her battle is captured in Barbara Kopple’s excellent documentary Miss Sharon Jones!). But the disease returned the following year. Then, while watching the 2016 US presidential election results in New York, Jones suffered a stroke. From her hospital bed, she joked that Donald Trump was responsible.
Former assistant manager Austen Holman had planned to fly in from Los Angeles to visit Jones before she heard the news. By the time she reached Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, Jones had suffered a series of strokes and was unresponsive. Perched at the side of her bed, Holman began singing a tune that meant a lot to her: Gladys Knight’s Midnight Train to Georgia, a classic number the pair casually sang together many times on the road. Suddenly, Jones stirred.
“I was singing it, all of a sudden I was like, ‘Is she humming with me?’” Holman remembers, speaking over the phone from LA. “She wasn’t talking, she was barely opening her eyes. Alex [Kadvan, Jones’s manager] was out in the hall and I said, ‘Alex, I think Sharon is humming. I think she’s singing a little bit.’ When we went back, she wasn’t doing it any more.”
Holman dismissed the incident as her mind playing tricks on her. But when she returned to the hospital later that day, she found the Dap-Kings crowded around Jones’s bed, with guitarist Binky Griptite singing with his instrument.
“Sharon was humming along with him,” Holman says, tearing up a little. “It was if she was singing but she just couldn’t open her mouth. She was hitting these harmonies and soulfully accompanying the rhythm of the guitar.
“It’s hard for me to describe how magical it was. This was someone who could not move and couldn’t talk. The most you could get out of her was a finger squeeze here and there. All of a sudden, this music was bringing her back to life. It was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. She was surrounded by her band and people that loved her.”
Two days later, Jones died, aged 60.
Almost a year to the day of her death, Jones’s long-time label Daptone – an institute for groovy music with an old-school ethos – will release her final album, Soul of a Woman, another great LP of scintillating brass, funky guitar licks and the singer’s indomitable power.
Posthumous albums often leave an uneasy feeling, the fear that a label is cashing in on a star’s legacy by signing off on recordings not fit for public consumption. Soul of a Woman, though, is very much a record Jones worked to complete, even if health issues over the final few years of her life meant that recording was often fractured.
According to Gabriel Roth, a member of the Dap-Kings and co-founder of Daptone Records, who also performs under the moniker Bosco Mann, recording took place over 2015 and 2016. “It was a struggle the whole time,” he says. “Sometimes she had to go do chemo and stuff like that. She didn’t want to go into the studio unless she was really feeling good. It was sometimes hard to schedule a time to get in there.”
When mortality beckons, some artists stretch the limits of their physicality to continue creating. The motivations are perhaps different: adding to their body of work, capturing the spectre of death, or just doing what they love while they still can.
According to some of her collaborators, Jones wasn’t interested in leaving behind a final piece of her legacy. She just wanted to perform as much as she could. Her first love was being on stage. Making records like Soul of a Woman – which has little sense of grief or sadness – was just something to back that up.
“I think she had already done what she wanted to do,” says Homer Steinweiss, a songwriter and drummer with the Dap-Kings. “She wasn’t like, ‘I have something else to say, I need to put this one more track down.’ It wasn’t like that. [Her mentality was], ‘I love to sing, I love to perform, I love to connect with people, and part of doing that is making records, so I’m going to keep doing that until I can’t do it any more.’”
In Kopple’s documentary, Jones attempts to separate the sick person from the performer, even refusing to engage with her own music during treatment. According to Holman, stepping away from her musical self was something Jones resolved to never do again – even when the cancer returned. “For her heart and soul, she knew her life was finite and she wanted to spend her time continuing to perform and being with her band on stage.”
Soul of a Woman closes with a special composition. Jones wrote Call on God for the Gospel Wonders choir at the Universal Church of God in Brooklyn, a place she attended. Roth believes she penned the song in the late 1970s. Together, they recorded a version a few years ago, which sat on the shelf waiting to be included on a Jones gospel album that never came to pass.
At a memorial service at that same church, several of the singers from the original choir came from all over the US to pay their respects. Afterwards, Roth asked some if they’d like to visit the Daptone studio in Bushwick and sing backing vocals on his recording of Call on God. And so the version you hear on Soul of a Woman features the same church singers that Jones wrote the song for some 40 years ago.
“I think it was a special thing. I think she would have been really happy to know she had those women’s voices on there,” says Roth. “It was amazing for them too because they got to go into the studio and one last time put on the headphones and hear Sharon’s voice and sing behind her one more time. It was pretty incredible to do it.”
Afterlife: Three great posthumous albums
The Notorious BIG: Life After Death (1997)
Released just two weeks after the shooting death of Biggie Smalls aka Christopher Wallace, Life After Death is a chilling work of bleak prophecy. The legend of Big is crystallised on this sprawling double-disc opus – a blockbuster rap record of mammoth beats, commanding verses, grim storytelling and hooks that stick.
Elliott Smith: From a Basement on the Hill (2004)
Apparently intended to be a double-disc release, Elliott Smith’s incomplete sixth album was put together after his still-disputed suicide. Nothing about From a Basement on the Hill feels half-done, though, with the album fully displaying Smith’s almost unequalled skill at matching his sharp pop instincts with a haunting acoustic style.
Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)
Johnny Cash recorded prolifically with producer Rick Rubin towards the end of his life. Released after his death, American V: A Hundred Highways finds the weakened legend gently singing songs – mostly covers – that captured his grief, faith and feelings about death.