Sharon Jones was scheduled to sing at the 2013 Rochester International Jazz Festival when her career was abruptly put on hold due to a bout with cancer. Consequently, the following feature article was also put on hold. After treatment, Jones is back fronting the Dap Kings and is now scheduled to play at this year's festival, so we wanted to resurrect this article.
Back in the late-1980's, when she was in her 30's, Sharon Jones knew she had the pipes of a great soul singer. But instead of being onstage, she was in her uniform as a corrections officer at Rikers Island Prison.
"I just felt God had given me a gift to sing," Jones says. "When they told me I didn't have the looks and I wasn't what they were looking for, that's when I just stood strong. I just knew one day ... It's not like I gave up. I just said, 'Hey, let me find something else to do until this music thing kicks in.'"
So she took the prison job. And served as a guard on an armored Wells Fargo truck. And worked for the sanitation department in New York City.
"I was just trying different jobs," Jones says. "Then the corrections job came along. I took that because the music thing wasn't coming. As soon as I got into corrections I realized this is not what I want. And then Gabe came along, looking for someone to do some soul music. That was right up my alley."
When he discovered Jones singing backup at a recording session, Gabe Roth was co-owner of Daptone Records, the Brooklyn-based label responsible for a resurgence of 1960's-style soul. Roth still mixes Jones' albums on a vintage console. Along with CDs, Daptone's recordings are all released on vinyl. Roth and Jones were a match made in R&B heaven.
"By the time we got our first album out I was like 40," Jones says. "Now, I'll be 57."
You wouldn't guess her age when you watch Jones perform. She is a whirlwind of activity, in the tradition of two of her idols growing up. "Some people came up to me and said if James Brown and Tina Turner had a love child, I would be that child," Jones says.
She was born in Brown's hometown of Augusta, Georgia. But she grew up in the rough Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Her don't-mess-with-this-women stage persona — not to mention her ability to control prisoners — was formed there.
"I guess being raised up in the ghetto," Jones says, "we weren't kids that were hangin' and doing all this stuff. We would get a good lashing from my mother. She told us when that sun set you're gonna be on that stoop and in the house. We knew the rules. I wasn't out there with the gangs but I would never show fear and I wasn't scared.
"They used to call me goody-goody church girl but if anybody ran into me, I could stand my ground. I was a little tomboy all my life. At the time I was about three-feet-something. I didn't care. I would run somebody down. I didn't care how big they was. I've always been like that; I never showed fear. Living in the neighborhood, they'll rob you every time."
The New York airwaves of the 1960's provided her musical schooling. "I listened to whatever they played on the radio or whatever we got to see on American Bandstand," Jones says. "Motown, Stax — but I also listened to Frank Sinatra. Aretha [Franklin] was my big inspiration when I was a little girl. When I heard her 'Amazing Grace' album, I said I want to be like Aretha. I want to play the piano and sing like that. When I got a chance to meet Aretha at the Apollo I told her she was my inspiration."
But if Aretha came along today, with her gorgeous, gospel-tinged voice, would even she be flashy enough to cut through the mainstream mediocrity? Jones had been singing backup vocals for a variety of artists but her image and style just didn't align with the glamour-pop and hip-hop the major labels were looking for. So how did she finally become a star at a relatively advanced age?
"Having an independent label," Jones says. "Other than that we wouldn't be here. It wouldn't even matter. As you can see, no major label's trying to pick up anything with us. We don't want it because then they're going to be trying to tell you, 'We don't really like that.'
"We don't care what you think — we care what we like. If we like it, it's going to be good. I haven't had too many people say, 'I hate that song.'"
While her stage show is a non-stop soul extravaganza, punctuated by the Dap-Kings' horns, there is a section of every performance that transcends the funk of the moment. Jones, who has both African-American and Native American roots, talks over the music about the generations that came before her and the struggles they endured long before she was born. The first time it came up, Jones was surprised.
"You know, it just happened one day," Jones says. "Things I do on stage, I never rehearse that. You can't rehearse that. That ancestor thing, I think that's something I'll be doing for the rest of my life. I want to really take that genetic test, it's really important to me."
Jones gives so much of herself in every performance that she sometimes has trouble calming down afterwards.
"I get really overcome," she says, "out of body, out of mind — I know what I'm doing but I'm not thinking, I'm not concentrating. Things come out that I have no control over.
"Sometimes when I'm getting ready to go on the stage I'll be in the corner and people want to run up and grab me and talk. I can't. I'm blank right now, I'm focusing, trying to get into my ... It's not a character — I am Sharon Jones. But when I'm on stage, I'm SHARON JONES!
"It's just like an actor. You've got to become that character. When I get on that stage I'm not the Sharon I am out here now. When I'm on the stage I've got to give you a show. You paid money to see me. This is my job now."
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings will perform with Tedeschi Trucks Band and Doyle Bramhall II on Thursday, June 25, at 7 p.m., in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street. sharonjonesandthedapkings.com