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Sharon Jones And The Work That Lasts

The soul singer succumbed to cancer, but not before she gave the people what they want

A true vocal belt — the strong, sustained, rafter-raising kind that soul singer Sharon Jones made her calling card — relies less on the lungs and the larynx than it does on the abdomen. When a singer inhales, most of the physical work takes place in that stretch between the curve of the ribcage and the shelf of the hips. The torso fills as the diaphragm rises like a little balloon, the belly inflates, and the organs make room for the air that will fuel a potent high note or a heart-stopping wail.

To pick a single song from Jones’s six-album catalogue that demonstrates her domination of this technique is a futile exercise. Nearly every song to which she lent her voice shows how well she could do this, and more often than not from the very first measure. But to think of how the tender space that gave her voice such power was ravaged by a three-year war against a vicious, persistent disease — and that still didn’t stop her from taking a breath and turning it into such extraordinary work — is a true testament to her strength, tenacity, and singular spunk.

When Jones died on November 18 at the age of 60, it was a little more than a week after she had endured two strokes in a 24-hour period. She spent her final hours singing. She was surrounded by her family; members of her band, The Dap-Kings; and friends in Cooperstown, New York, where they’d gathered shortly following the first stroke that landed her in the hospital on November 8. As revealed by Gabriel Roth, the bandleader of The Dap-Kings and co-founder of her longtime label Daptone Records, she was watching election returns when all hell broke loose in her gray matter. This was a joke she made to the hospital staff herself — that Donald Trump was to blame for the cerebral event — before a second stroke robbed her of the ability to speak on November 9. In spite of this severe trauma, Jones latched on to the notes that Dap-Kings guitarist Binky Griptite was picking by her bedside, and she started humming along in tune. Roth told the Los Angeles Times that the words came back to her soon enough. “We all just kept playing and singing with her, and little by little over the next couple of days she actually started moving her mouth and started singing lyrics,” he said. “She just wanted to sing these gospel songs.”

Two spiritual standards in particular served as anchors for Jones as she underwent treatment for the cancer — which first seeped into her bile duct in 2013 and eventually swelled in her pancreas — and as she continued to make music while doing so. In Miss Sharon Jones!, Barbara Kopple’s 2015 documentary following Jones’s life in the wake of her diagnosis, she sings both “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and “May the Work I’ve Done Speak for Me.” The latter tune, which was a regular fixture in the Sunday services she sang in as a child in Brooklyn, surfaces in two notable scenes from the documentary. In the first, Jones goes to church and sings it for the congregation; in the second, she sees her face on the cover of The Village Voice for the first time, and recalls the significance of the song’s lyrics. She credited that simple phrase — “May the work I’ve done speak for me” — with helping her focus on the work rather than any of the seductive distractions that can come with the pursuit of fame.

Jones, by industry standards, came to the spotlight late. Decades spent singing at weddings, backing up other artists, and enduring the shallow dismissals of major-label execs based on what she wryly called her “too short, too fat, too black, and too old” appearance preceded the first LP bearing her name, Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, in 2002. (A 2013 cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street that featured Jones and The Dap-Kings as the band at Jordan Belfort’s wedding made for a megawatt wink of a casting choice.) It was an audition for an opportunity to back Lee Fields that led her to Roth in 1996, and from that point forward, Jones’s career and Daptone grew together. Dap Dippin’ was her first album, but it was also the first full-length for the revivalist label operating out of a two-floor Bushwick brownstone that had converted its living room into a studio and the bedroom into its base of operations. The covers of her albums reflected this familial connection and the establishment of Daptone as her home: 2005’s Naturally featured Jones gazing out of the window from Daptone’s House of Soul on Troutman Avenue, and 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way had Jones and The Dap-Kings posing proudly in front of the weathered concrete and brick behind the property.

Throughout this period, The Dap-Kings would collaborate with other artists — most notably Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, who tapped the band to supply the brassy backbone of her career-defining Back to Black in 2006 — but the high-profile detours from Troutman Avenue only helped them build a dedicated following in between records. Jones and The Dap-Kings became festival regulars and dependable room-fillers thanks to their exceptional live show, which often had her kicking off her shoes and working herself into a state of spiritual ecstasy. She worshipped James Brown, who also hailed from her native Augusta, Georgia, and the intensity of her performance recalled that of the Godfather of Soul, right down to the frenzied dance moves that paired perfectly with her vocal acrobatics.

By the time 2013 rolled around, these hard-earned attributes of Jones’s live performance and superlative recordings flowered beautifully in the sessions that would shape her album Give the People What They Want, which was written and recorded before the cancer diagnosis shook the House of Soul’s foundation. The album’s release was delayed to the following year; to listen through it now is to marvel at the power of context and Jones’s command thereof, as lyrics that initially took aim at careless lovers, notably on “Retreat!” and “Get Up and Get Out,” were suddenly repurposed as confident attacks on her own illness. “Retreat!,” especially, became an anthem of empowerment and resilience.

“It’s been almost two years that we’ve gone through the making of this stuff,” Jones told me in 2014. “When we did ‘Retreat!,’ the guys were writing it, and I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be fun. I can see now how I’m going to tell this guy off.’ Now, instead of telling a guy to step back, I’m telling my cancer and my sickness to retreat. I’m back, I’m better, I’m walking in the world and back to give the people what they want.”

She did just that when she whipped cancer into remission shortly after Give the People What They Want came out. That interview took place as Jones was beginning her chemotherapy treatments in Sharon Springs, New York; she was onstage at New York’s Beacon Theatre seven weeks later, beaming, waving to the sold-out crowd, and matching The Dap-Kings step for step. Jones and The Dap-Kings spent the majority of 2014 touring behind Give the People What They Want, which would eventually earn the group their first Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album. The triumphant tone of Jones’s remarkable year carried on into 2015, but she stunned the audience at a premiere screening of Miss Sharon Jones! at the Toronto International Film Festival that September when she told them that her cancer had returned. Standing there before a theater full of distraught faces, Jones returned to a dependable source of strength in a difficult moment, and sang her favorite verse from “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

“There’s no way I could get up there with people telling me, ‘We’re so glad you beat cancer!’” she told me on her way home from Toronto. “It’s like, ‘No. No. It’s back. I haven’t beaten it. I have to beat it up again.’ I had to tell the truth, so I told my manager,‘'Whether you like it or not, I’m going to announce it when I get up in front.’ After I did that, I felt better. Now I can accept it even better now. I figured by my fans knowing now, they know what I’m going through.”

What they didn’t know was that the follow-up to Give the People What They Want was under way. Jones spent 2016 battling pancreatic cancer while putting in work on new music and touring, just as she’d done the first time around. She was invited to perform at the White House this October as part of the inaugural South By South Lawn festival, but a nasty bout of pneumonia kept her from performing for President Obama, a disappointment that cut deep. And though the next record from The Dap-Kings remains unfinished (and the time frame for its release has yet to be determined), it won’t be without her voice: Jones had recorded a number of vocal tracks for the album before she passed.

To say that Jones lost her long, hard fight against cancer is only halfway true. She is no longer here, and the organs that once made room for the fuel of her fire surrendered to the disease that ultimately refused to retreat. The chair from the Naturally cover still sits in the House of Soul, and remains empty. But her voice will continue to resonate far beyond that room’s walls, and new verses of hers rest there in the meantime. At the end of her six decades on earth, she is the star of a remarkable story and a voice many turned to as their own sparrow, a spry, stubborn force who wouldn’t let the music stop, even on her deathbed. Long after this sad week, the work she did will speak for her.

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