When a nearly unknown Sharon Jones, then in her forties, burst upon the soul-R&B-funk scene in the late 1990s, music critics started comparing her to James Brown, who was arguably R&B’s biggest star. It would take some more time before the Brooklyn-raised African American singer finally got signed by a label and had her first full-length record out. Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings came out in the early 2000s. Jones had already hit mid-life but the late-bloomer’s zest and energy belied her age. And she kicked off what was to be a remarkable career that produced at least seven studio albums, each one a deep dive into funk and soul of an era long past. If you think the revival of the Motown era sound has been one of the greatest things to happen in music you should thank, among others, Jones. Posthumously. For in the middle of last month, Sharon Jones succumbed to a stroke and died. She was only 60.
Because Jones suffered the stroke while watching the US presidential election results, social media quickly made the Trump connection and some of her friends said even she believed that the victory of the controversial president-elect may have brought on her end. That could be apocryphal. Jones had been suffering from cancer for the past several years, although she performed through those years and released records that never betrayed the pain and the intense treatment that she was going through intermittently. But then Jones had suffered pain and disappointment of another kind when she was much younger.
For several years in the 1980s and 90s Jones worked as a prison guard at Rikers Island, New York’s infamous jail. She also served as a guard for a bank’s armoured car. Those were jobs she had to take because a break in the music industry had eluded her for years. Jones’s style of R&B, soul and funk harkened back to the sound of the 1960s, a heady era for soul and R&B music. Like many African American young kids of her time, as a young girl, she grew up singing gospel at her local church and subsequently landed gigs to sing background vocals with various acts for which she went uncredited. She couldn’t get a break for various reasons. In the late 1970s and 80s, which could have been a prime period for a singer of her age (Jones was born in 1956), soul and R&B of the sort she sang was already fading in popularity. Also, according to some accounts, sexism played a role too when record labels reportedly found her not to have the ‘right’ looks for a soul singer.
But things turned happy for Jones at 40 when she was ‘discovered’ while backing another soul singer. You don’t have to have watched Jones live or seen a YouTube video of her gig to get excited about her music. I first heard her on a podcast – a weekly blues/R&B one – sometime in the mid-2000s. The song was Natural Born Lover and Jones began the first verse singing: “He’s an N.B.L. and he T.C.B/N.B.L. and he T.C.B./N.B.L. and he T.C.B.” You don’t have to wait long to realise what she means: “He’s a natural born lover and he takes care of business.” In that ode to a great lover, Jones sings unabashedly about how her N.B.L. will “love you real strong” and “love you all night long”. I bought that album, Naturally (2005), on a whim and on the back of that one song that I had heard. I don’t regret it. Not long after that song, on the same album, Jones sings about another lover, this one not so natural born. That song is called My Man Is A Mean Man . Many of Jones’ songs are about love – happiness in love, sadness in love, break-ups, yearning. After Naturally I started listening to all of Jones’ releases, picking up the new ones as they came out but also her abbreviated back catalogue. In the title song on 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007), Jones sings about how it takes 100 days and 100 nights for a woman to know a man’s heart but then adds a witty twist about how a man would take little more than that to know his own heart.
When you watch Jones live (I did via videos online), even at gigs after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her vivacious presence, high-energy dancing (often on high-heeled feet) and her passionate vocals would never betray her illness. Her loss will be felt sorely.
Tailpiece: Old Bob has found a great new voice. I’m not talking about the old Bob who says he isn’t going to make it to Stockholm any time soon. This is the other Bob. Bob Weir. The 69-year-old Grateful Dead founder member, guitarist and singer has released a solo album, Blue Mountain.
Weir sounds wise, thoughtful and reflective. The songs, including one titled Ki-Yi Bossie (written for his ailing collaborator John Perry Barlow) are like tales about aging cowboys and ranchers. No coincidence that Barlow and Weir both have real ranch experience and some of their greatest songs for the Dead were themed on that kind of life. Blue Mountain is a must-listen. Whether you’re a Deadhead or not.
From HT Brunch, December 4, 2016
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