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Published: 2016/11/25
by Mike Greenhaus

Get Up, Get Out: A Final Chat with Sharon Jones

Photo by Dean Budnick

Sharon Jones is the undisputed “Queen of Funk,” the matriarch of the Daptone family that helped revive soul music in the indie-rock boom and preserved vinyl records at the tail end of the CD era. She first entered the Relix and Jambands.com orbit in the late ‘90s through her original band The Soul Providers, who served as the house band for producer Gabe Roth’s nascent Desco label. Soon after, Desco folded and Roth channeled his energy into a new label, Daptone Records, and The Soul Providers morphed into Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. At a time when the jamband circuit was still one of the only avenues for retro, world and other independent-minded bands to present their music to a passionate underground audience, The Dap-Kings and brother bands Antibalas and Sugarman 3 found a home on the scene’s festival and club circuit. In later years, Sharon Jones—who was already in her 40s by the time she met Roth and found fame—finally received her due and blossomed into the missing link between collaborators like Lou Reed, David Byrne, Phish and Michael Bublé.

On June 3, 2013, it was announced that Jones had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer and the singer cancelled her remaining dates. She returned to the stage the following year and released her fifth album, Give the People What They Want, and recorded the interfaith holiday album It’s a Holiday Soul Party. Through VH1 connections, she also befriended noted documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who tracked Jones during her struggle in cancer for the honest, heart-wrenching film, Miss Sharon Jones!. In 2015, Jones announced that her cancer had returned, but she remained on the road until this fall. Sadly, she suffered a stroke while watching the 2016 United States presidential election results on November 8 and another the following day. Jones passed away in Cooperstown, NY, where she was receiving treatment on November 18, 2016. She was 60 and waited until the final years of her life to achieve her well-deserved fame after working as a prison guard and security guard for Wells Fargo to support her mother and family. According to a press release announcing her death, Jones was surrounded by her family and bandmates, who sang her songs during her final days, at the time of her passing.

In celebration of her life, Relix and Jambands.com are proud to present this largely previously unpublished interview from this July, while Jones was promoting Miss Sharon Jones! and opening for Hall & Oates at amphitheaters around the country.

Your new documentary Miss Sharon Jones is a candid look at your current struggle with cancer, but it also traces your entire career. When did you decide to tell your life story in this way?

Once I knew that the cancer was there, I told management that I had this thing in my head—I wanted to let my fans know what was going on. This was a way for me to have that connection with my fans and, after we talked about that, my management started talking with VH1 and got the rights to do this and they got in touch with Barbara. You can tell how much love they put into it, their passion for doing this and everything. They were with me from day one [of my treatment] until I get back and that is how we made the decision [to show everything.] I just wanted my fans to see what I was going through and that was my therapy. I think it was good for the fans to see that as well.

You mentioned how you looked at the film as a form of therapy and, in the film, you never shy away from talking about your fears and struggles. Were there certain parts of your day or aspects of your life you asked Barbara to keep off limits?

Basically one of the only things I did not want to be recorded was getting out of my bed. That was one of the things that they respected and that was great, but other than that, I wanted them to capture me—what I was going through. I also wanted her to capture my band members and what we went through together. That was the purpose of that part of my life.

Miss Sharon Jones is also the story of Daptone and The Dap-Kings, who discovered you when you were in your 40s and helped introduce you to a new, younger audience. What was your first connection to their world?

Gabe [Roth, Daptone and Antibalas co-founder, who also plays bass in The Dap-Kings]—I’ve known him longer than anyone in the band. It’s been over 20 years now that we’ve been connected. He had a label called Desco and they’d put out these 45s without putting dates on them. He got the guys in the band together—they were all friends. Some of them were 15, 16 years old at the time, like Homer [Steinweiss, Dap-Kings drummer, who met Gabe as an uber-fan of Antibalas and convinced him to sign his high-school band]. I’ve know those guys since they were teenagers. Then, a couple of years later, they were gonna cut a few songs with Lee Fields and they wanted to go in and do some background. They needed three girls, and my ex at the time was one of the horn players that they would hire when they did these 45s in the studio. He said, “Hey, my lady can sing!” So they had me come in and sing, and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “What does that curly-haired, white Jewish boy know about soul music?” He was so young—maybe 22 years old. But once they started playing…

Those first few years there was a lot of learning, because, you know, you don’t just do soul; you got to practice, and when I mean practice I also mean it has to be in you, a part of you. And every one those musicians, it’s in them to play this music. You can’t learn something that’s inside you—either you got it or you don’t.

They had me come in the studio one day and it was hot in there. I just came from work, so I had on my Wells Fargo outfit with my gun on on and I’m like, “Damn it’s hot in here! What’s the name of this song?” They didn’t have a name for it yet and I said, “Listen, this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to go, ‘Woo woo woo,’ and then all y’all go, ‘Damn it’s hot,’” and that’s what we called the song. Then maybe a year or two passed and he called me and said, “Look, I’m getting a group together,” and that’s when he put together [Dap-Kings predecessor The Soul Providers] and went to Europe. We went to London, and they had a magazine out there called Big Daddy, which doesn’t exist anymore, and they gave me the title, “Queen of Funk” and that’s how it started with Gabe.

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