“The show must go on.”
–Sharon Jones, from the film documentary Miss Sharon Jones!
Earlier this year I saw Daryl Hall and John Oates in concert, which fulfilled a dream of mine. Growing up as a child of the ’80s I was a huge fan of the duo but never saw them perform live. That was until they headlined at at Madison Square Garden for the first time in over 30 years last February. As eager as I was to see them, I also wanted to check out the opening act, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. I love old-school R&B music from the Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International Records eras. So I wanted to see the Brooklyn-based soul group for myself and find out what everybody was talking about.
At times, the Dap-Kings set felt like a church revival, and I became one of the converted.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings weren’t your conventional soul band–this was a large ensemble with both rhythm and brass sections, reminiscent of something you’d see at a James Brown show or a soul revue on the Chitlin Circuit in the ’60s. The guitarist in the Dap-Kings also served as the MC-–a throwback to the old days–who in a booming voice introduced the main focal point, Sharon Jones. I never realized how petite Jones was in person, but underneath her small physical frame was a feisty high-octane performer who, along with the band, projected joy, energy, and of course soul. I knew at the time she was recovering from treatment for cancer, but you couldn’t tell as the band delivered one hot number after another. At times, the Dap-Kings set felt like a church revival, and I became one of the converted.
It’s a memory that I will now forever cherish following the death of Jones at the age of 60 this past Friday. What makes Jones’ death particularly hard was the fact that after years of being under the radar (she was a wedding singer and a corrections officer at Rikers), Jones was at the apex of her late-blooming career, which showed no signs of slowing down. In addition to the records she made with the Dap-Kings, Jones was also the subject of a documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, directed by Barbara Kopple (a legend in her own right), which was released in September. In light of recent events, the film now serves as a fitting tribute and celebration of her life.
Rather than telling Jones’ story in chronological fashion, Miss Sharon Jones! begins with the singer’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2013. The cancer forced the postponement of the release of her then-new album and tour. The cameras follow Jones as she gets her braids shorn off at a hair salon, undergoes chemotherapy treatment, and stays at a friend’s home in upstate New York as part of the recovery process. Along the way, friends, family and colleagues tell stories that reveal aspects of her life and personality, while archival performance and video clips show her and the band really cooking onstage. It’s Jones’ struggle to balance recovering from her illness and maintaining her normal work life that propels the movie’s narrative.
The documentary offers plenty of poignant and tearful moments, like Jones talking about her idol James Brown; sobering scenes of Jones receiving treatment that contrast with the excitement of performing on the stage. One particularly moving moment shows Jones holding up a copy of the Village Voice and she’s the cover story. She then tells a story about a record executive who dismissed her physical appearance and how her mother consoled her and told her to ignore him.
Throughout the documentary it becomes clear that it’s not just Jones who is affected by the cancer, it’s also her management and the other members of the Dap-Kings, who rely on performing to make their living. They function more like a family unit than a colleagues, and the delicate balance between their careers and their concern for Jones is wrenching. And yet through all of the medical appointments and tests, not to mention the demands of her career, Jones triumphantly carries on, singing.
If you want to appreciate the genius and magic that was Sharon Jones, watch this documentary over Thanksgiving weekend. You’ll realize how lucky we were to have been blessed by the gifts and talents of this soul music legend.
Miss Sharon Jones!, directed by Barbara Kopple, is now available on demand on iTunes and Amazon.
Per Jones’ publicist, donations may be made to the following organizations: