In memory of a soul queen
When soul singer Sharon Jones first approached a big music label in her effort to record her songs, an executive there infamously told her that she was “too fat, too short, black and old”. On the original soundtrack of Miss Sharon Jones!, a documentary by Barbara Kopple shot in raw, cinéma vérité style, Jones sings autobiographically about that on I’m Still Here, the last of the 16 songs on the record. That song, as well as the film, is a fitting primer on Jones, whose bittersweet life ended in late 2016—at 60, still at the peak of her career, she succumbed to cancer.
When Kopple’s film was released in 2015, Jones was enjoying a brief respite: The cancer was in remission; chemo sessions had paused; she was touring again; and recording. This November, the outcome of those recordings came out in a posthumous album, Soul Of A Woman. The 11 songs on the new album fittingly encapsulate the powerful soul singer whose voice and singing style has been compared to the oncoming rush of a locomotive. Jones not only revived the sounds of the glory years of R&B and soul, the 1950s and 1960s, but she was also a big influence on a generation of younger revivalists, including Adele and the late Amy Winehouse. For Winehouse’s stunning Back To Black album, the producers even hired Jones’ band, The Dap-Kings, to record with the British singer who died prematurely in 2011.
Jones’ was a rough ride to success. Born in the still-segregated US state of Georgia, and before moving to Brooklyn, she began her singing career like many others in R&B—at a local church as a gospel singer. Her striking vocals and energetic style, hugely influenced by the funk of James Brown, the soul of Aretha Franklin and the R&B of Otis Redding, were quickly noticed by people who heard her, but her early attempts to get a break in the studios failed. The infamous response of the record label executive is one example of that. Failing at her attempt to make a career out of music, Jones sang at weddings and worked at jobs, including as a prison corrections officer at the notorious Rikers Island, and a security guard for an armoured truck company. Till she got her first break and recorded her debut album, Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings. By then Jones was already in her 40s.
Her trademark big-voiced style of singing is showcased on every album she has recorded (nine, including one that is a compilation), and her high energy levels, recalling James Brown’s, are infectious. Jones’ live performances capture that energy. When cancer struck in 2013, and long bursts of chemotherapy and other treatment weakened her, she remained remarkably determined, touring when she could and drawing upon her inner strength to deliver upbeat performances. YouTube (goo.gl/17ykGw) has a full live performance by Jones recorded for Seattle’s public radio station, KEXP, just seven months before she died. I would recommend watching it to get a sense of Jones’ gigs.
The songs on Soul Of A Woman comprise soulful ballads as well as funky, high-tempo tracks. Since it has been released posthumously, it is tempting to read between the lines in the songs and find references to imminent mortality—Jones recorded these songs in the last two years of her life. And maybe those are there. Ballads such as These Tears (No Longer For You) and Pass Me By could be interpreted as sad, farewell songs but that’s hardly the overwhelming mood of the album. That mood is dominated unmistakably by the Jones brand of exuberance, a tone that is set by the very first song on the album, Matter Of Time, about hope, optimism and a good future, hardly the sort of song from someone who knew the end was nigh. That is followed by Sail On!, a funky tune that can get you on your feet from the first note.
Jones’ music had always been uptempo. In Kopple’s film, which explores the last years of the singer’s life, documenting her chemotherapy sessions, her good days and bad ones, there is a part where Jones gets to know that Ellen DeGeneres wants her to perform on her show. She’s thrilled and ecstatic and girlishly wishes to dance with DeGeneres on the show. That wish was granted.
Kopple’s film travels also to the sadder parts of Jones’ life: a trip down memory lane to Augusta, the small town in Georgia where she spent her early years and faced racism; and the conflict between her failing health as cancer took its toll and her determination to keep doing tours, on which her band members were dependent for their livelihood.
The film ends with Jones in remission, spiritedly performing live at New York’s Beacon Theater, but it also shows her trembling in the wings before she gets to the stage. It wouldn’t be long before she would suffer another relapse. In November last year, Jones had a stroke, ironically while watching the US presidential election result being declared, and died shortly afterwards. But the grit and upbeat determination she brought to soul remains in her albums. And in Kopple’s poignant biographical film.
The lounge list
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘100 Days, 100 Nights’ by Sharon King and The Dap-Kings from ‘100 days, 100 Nights’
2. ‘I’m Still Here’ by Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings from ‘Miss Sharon Jones! (OST)’
3. ‘Retreat!’ by Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings from ‘Give The People What They Want’
4. ‘Sail On!’ by Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings from ‘Soul Of A Woman’
5. ‘What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?’ by Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings from ‘Soul Time!’ Vol. 1
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets @sanjoynarayan
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