Sharon Jones, a late-blooming soul singer who emerged in her late 40s with a gale-force voice and a magnetic stage presence, and who kept performing for the past three years while being treated for cancer, died Nov. 18 at a hospital in Cooperstown, New York. She was 60.
Her death was announced by a representative, Judy Miller Silverman. The cause was pancreatic cancer.
Miss Jones, as she was always introduced in the dynamic stage shows with her backing band, the Dap-Kings, had a raw, unreconstructed singing style drawn straight from the heyday of soul music in the 1960s.
She was born in James Brown’s hometown of Augusta, Georgia, and sang in church choirs and wedding bands in her youth. But as she tried and failed to launch a solo career, she found work as a dental assistant, armored-car guard and prison guard at New York’s Rikers Island.
In spite of a voice that reminded critics of Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples and Tina Turner, the diminutive Jones – barely 5 feet tall – was repeatedly passed over by producers and record labels.
“They just looked at me and they didn’t like what they saw,” she told Rolling Stone magazine this year.
In “Miss Sharon Jones!,” a documentary released this year by Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, Jones repeated what one producer told her to her face: “I was too fat, too black, too short and too old.”
She was finally discovered by Gabriel Roth, a musician who had a small Brooklyn record label, originally called Desco and later Daptone. Roth, who played bass and was the leader of the Dap-Kings, wrote many of Jones’ songs under the name Bosco Mann.
The music was original, but the style was classic old-school soul. Jones stayed with Roth and the small Daptone label because she could sing the music she wanted.
“I’ve been called retro, but to me, retro is someone young who’s learning how to sing soul,” she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2010. “I’m not learning how to sing. I open my mouth, and that’s what comes out: soul!”
Jones was 46 when her debut album, “Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings,” appeared. She had six more albums, but by all accounts her studio work didn’t do her justice. She had to be seen live, as she shimmied onstage in glittery, fringe-bedecked dresses, introduced in grandiose style by the Dap-Kings’ guitarist, Binky Griptite:
“Right now, for your enjoyment and pleasure, we would like to introduce to you the funky and dynamic sister who’s exciting dance floors across the nation with her dynamic new sound. . . . Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about 110 pounds of soul excitement coming towards you. This sister is so bad, she’s badder than bad. . . . And now, ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show, the brightest star in the Daptone universe, the super soul sister with the magnetic je ne sais qua, Miss Sharon Jones!”
Jones toured throughout the country and, eventually, around the world. She did not have a Top 40 hit, but she was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2014, and her enthusiastic audiences sang along when she belted out such stirring tunes as “I’ll Still Be True,” “Nobody’s Baby,” “The Game Gets Old” and perhaps her best-known song, “100 Days, 100 Nights,” which was featured in television commercials for Fitbit.
Powered by the Dap-Kings’ driving horn section, Jones pounced across the stage, dancing, flirting and thrilling the crowds. In 2006, Amy Winehouse hired the Dap-Kings to back her on the album “Back to Black,” but onstage, Jones “is everything that the much younger Winehouse is not,” Washington Post critic J. Freedom du Lac wrote in 2008. “Which is to say, engaged, engaging and full of fire. Where Winehouse nervously goes through the motions, Jones swaggers and stomps through her songbook.”
After she was first treated for cancer in 2013, Jones transformed two sassy breakup songs, “Retreat!” and “Get Up and Get Out,” into spirited anthems about her plight. Even as she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment, losing her hair in the process, she returned to the stage as soon as possible.
“Getting out on that stage, that’s my therapy,” she told the New York Times in July. “You have to look at life the way it is. No one knows how long I have. But I have the strength now, and I want to continue.”
Sharon Lafaye Jones was born May 4, 1956, in Augusta, Ga., and spent her childhood in North Augusta, South Carolina. She moved in her early teens to Brooklyn, where her mother went, fleeing an abusive husband.
Jones sang in church from childhood and later worked in wedding bands and as a backup singer. She went through a variety of jobs, including as a prison guard and filling ATMs with money while working for an armored car company.
Her survivors include four brothers and sisters.
Kopple’s documentary shows Jones at the height of her career and at her lowest, when she learned in 2015 that her cancer had returned. She insisted on maintaining a steady touring schedule, even as she underwent chemotherapy.
“You got to be brave,” she told the Associated Press in July. “I want to use the time that I have. I don’t want to spend it all laid up, wishing I had done that gig.”
Backstage, she was often in pain and barely able to move. But when the long, rousing introduction reached the words, “Miss Sharon Jones!” she found the energy and bounded onstage, with a full voice and soul.