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 was an unstoppable force.
I try to check out concert footage of artists I admire as often as I can. It can be both rewarding and humbling to get schooled by the greats, and Sharon Jones was one of the greats. Every time I revisit her live performances I am blown away. She was one of those captivating performers who seized every moment, and her command of the stage was unquestionable and demanded respect. Coupled with her explosive energy, soul, swagger, humility, and raw, visceral talent, she joined the ranks of black female artists who crush the idea that black womanhood is anything but dynamic — fierce yet tender, bold yet vulnerable.
Sharon Jones was classic. Soulful. Funky.
Record labels such as Daptone Records and Minneapolis’s own Secret Stash Records have done an incredible job of recapturing the sounds of the great Stax and Motown records while keeping it original and fresh. Sharon Jones has been there since the beginning of the revival — she literally helped build Daptone Records’ studio/headquarters — and the movement would not be anywhere near as successful as it is today without her. Through her voice and her presence, she helped reintroduce the world to the likes and sounds of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marva Whitney, James Brown, and countless others, while maintaining her own original and fresh take on a classic sound. (She has often been referred to as the “female James Brown,” which may feel reductive to anyone who has heard her music as she is, of course, the only Sharon Jones.)
Sharon Jones was a warrior.
She was once told by a major record producer that she was “too fat, too black, too short, and too old” to be a star. Please…from the moment she hits the stage, this mighty black woman’s star power is in full force. Every time. Find any concert footage and just watch her eyes; the amount of focus, drive, and passion there is palpable. When she got to whipping her hair around? My goodness. Don’t try to tell me she was not born to be a star. She may have found success and recognition later than some, but she shined brighter than most.
This ability to bounce back remained, as she battled cancer twice, and suffered two strokes that ultimately claimed her life. Shortly after her first bout with cancer, she headed back on tour to promote her final album, Give the People What They Want (for which she received a Grammy Nomination for Best R&B Album). When the cancer returned in 2015, she continued to tour, even while undergoing chemotherapy. “I have cancer, cancer don’t have me!” she said in an interview with Rolling Stone. Strength, power, and resilience, giving it her all every night, regardless of the circumstances. I remember one of the first things I read the morning following the presidential election was that Sharon Jones had suffered a stroke while watching the election results. My heart sank. Then, on November 18th, 2016 Sharon Lafaye Jones passed away at the age of 60. Another monumental black voice gone too soon.
In an interview with the LA Times, Gabriel Roth described some of his last moments with Ms. Jones. I figured it would be worth sharing some of his words, as he was among her closest companions. “She just wanted to sing…even in that state. If you asked her if she was in pain, she couldn’t respond. She couldn’t say one word, or say somebody’s name or anything. But she could find harmony notes…and sing three-part harmony and improvise these gospel moans. It was really remarkable, and it was beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Thank you for your gift, Ms. Jones.