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Sharon Jones: her music and legacy will live on

Sharon Jones is our first featured artist for Black History Month
Sharon Jones is our first featured artist for Black History MonthKyle Dean Reinford/Courtesy of the artist

by Lou Papineau

January 30, 2017

This February, The Current is celebrating Black History Month by celebrating four artists chosen by our listeners. We'll be playing their music on the radio and sharing features online. For the first week, we're featuring the late Sharon Jones.

Sharon Jones' life and career embodied heart and soul and determination. Her artistry, strength, and spirit were truly inspirational.

Jones was born in North Augusta, South Carolina and had five older siblings, but came of age in Brooklyn, where her mother moved the family away from her abusive husband. Jones first sang in church and gained experience with funk bands in the '70s. But despite her ambitions and abundant talent, success eluded her: "I wasn't what they was looking for," she told Rolling Stone. "They just looked at me and they didn't like what they saw: a short black woman." Jones never lost her love of music — she had steady work with gigs at weddings and as a backup singer — but paid the bills with stints as a corrections officer and an armored car guard.

Fate smiled on her in 1996 when she was invited to sing on "Damn It's Hot," a track by Lee Fields. The session was led by Gabriel Roth, who recruited Jones to work with his band, the Soul Providers, which evolved into the Dap-Kings, with Roth as bassist and bandleader of the soul revue-inspired outfit. Dap Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, released in 2002 on Daptone Records (which was co-founded by Roth), set the template for the band's contemporary take on deep funk and R&B, with Jones' powerhouse vocals propelled by a roof-raising horn-section (leading to the oft-cited "female James Brown").

The band's feverish live shows and subsequent releases, including 100 Days, 100 Nights and I Learned the Hard Way, wowed audiences worldwide over the next decade (check out the electrifying full-set performances on YouTube) — including a rousing appearance at Rock the Garden in 2010. But Jones' ascendance was sidetracked in June 2013 when she was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. The disease went into remission after surgery and chemotherapy and Jones returned to the stage following the release of Give the People What They Want in 2014 (it was delayed for six months while she was in treatment, and garnered a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album).

In September 2015, at the premiere of Miss Sharon Jones!, a documentary by Barbara Kopple about her struggle with the disease, Jones said that the cancer was back and had spread to other vital organs. But despite the debilitating effects of the disease and the treatment, she continued to perform (and recorded the 2015 disc It's a Holiday Soul Party). "When I walk out [onstage], whatever pain is gone," Jones said. "You forget about everything. There is no cancer. There is no sickness. You're just floating, looking in their faces and hearing them scream."

Jones determination was unwavering — "I have this saying: I have cancer, cancer don't have me," she said — but the disease was unforgiving. The singer had a stroke on November 8 while watching election returns. She died at a hospital in Cooperstown, NY, surrounded by her band and family members, on November 18 at age 60.

"She didn't seem anxious or scared or anything," Roth told The Los Angeles Times after her passing. "She just wanted to sing, you know, and every time there was a lull in the room she would start moaning some kind of gospel song. She was the strongest person any of us had ever known, and she just kept singing. She didn't want to stop singing."

As The Current honors Sharon Jones as part of its celebration of Black History Month, her songs — and her spirit — will live on.

We need a worthy honorific title for Sharon Jones

When Sharon Jones died, we immediately thought she needed a title that was befitting her work and legacy. On the Wikipedia page titled "Honorific Nicknames In Popular Music," Jones is cited as "Godmother of Soul," which is shared by Patti LaBelle and Erykah Badu. We think she needs a better one. Vote for one from the pre-selected list, or nominate one of your own.