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Sharon Jones Is The 21st Century's Godmother Of Soul

Oct 17, 2018
Originally published on October 16, 2018 12:15 pm

It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.

The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers


On July 7, 2017, Kesha was years deep into a suffocating legal battle when she kicked the dive bar door down and belted out "Woman." The soulful declaration of independence was the third single off Rainbow, her first studio album since 2012's Warrior and first LP since she went to court to fight for her creative emancipation from Kemosabe Records, the Sony Music Entertainment label co-founded by Dr. Luke, her former collaborator, producer and alleged abuser.

"Woman" was a triumphant reclamation, a feminist manifesto and a highly blastable banger all at once. In its music video, Kesha gets behind the wheel and drives to the neighborhood watering hole with her band in the backseat and back-up singer Saundra Williams by her side. Wrapped in the cape of a dollar store superheroine and dodging the gold streamers hanging from the ceiling, she celebrates her return to form: Don't buy me a drink, I make my money / Don't touch my weave, don't call me "honey" / 'Cause I run my s***, baby.

The might of the horn section behind her is the best accelerant she could bring to the studio — and a fitting one, as the soul tradition they champion is the one of revival, empowerment and emancipation. Kesha enlisted the horn section of the Brooklyn-based soul outfit the Dap-Kings — who count Williams in their rank as a back-up singer — to flesh out "Woman," and the resulting track is more of a duet between Kesha and their brass as she's pushed louder by saxophone bellows and bright trumpets to reclaim her truth. Kesha spoke of the "'dream come true' moment" that occurred when she went to Daptone Records headquarters to tape the players' contributions in the label's Bushwick studio in a Rolling Stone essay she released alongside "Woman." "Since the day we wrote it I had wanted that Dap-King special sauce to take it to the next level," she wrote. "It was such an experience to come into their world and see the stacks of reel to reel tapes of Sharon Jones and Reigning Sound records that I love along the walls."

There, Kesha became the latest in a line of pop stars — including Amy Winehouse, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga — to follow in the small but mighty steps of Sharon Jones, the Augusta-born soul singer whose own ballads, floor-burners and soaring motivational anthems took the might of Motown's peak and sharpened it to fight the impossible.

If she had bought into the industry ageism, racism and superficial standards favoring young, slim and light-skinned talent on her come-up, Sharon LaFaye Jones never would've gotten her shot at forever. A record producer told her she was "too fat, too black, too short and too old" to find fame when she was trying to make a name for herself as a singer in New York in the '90s, though that didn't stop her from working nights in a wedding band (while working days as a Riker's Island prison security guard) before she found her musical home in the Brooklyn studio — the same one that captivated Kesha — at the age of 40.

Though her band, the Dap-Kings, handled the majority of the of the songwriting, arrangements and production, her voice and enigmatic stage presence were the transformative agents, making her the key that lightning would strike before igniting the world. With the Dap-Kings' instrumental prowess guiding the kind of storytelling that could've been ripped from the pages of the listener's diary, Jones — a blur of fringe and braids and enough sass to keep her band mates chuckling as they stepped together on the 2 and 4 — charmed audiences with her endearingly frenzied performances.

Show by show, she chipped away at the sting of "too fat, too black, too short and too old" until two decades of superlative work turned it into a motivational mantra. The Dap-Kings made a point to celebrate her as a descendent of her formative inspirations: They'd vamp for minutes as Binky Griptite, the lead guitarist and MC of the group, kicked off each performance with an exclamation point-dotted introduction that always ended with a lung-busting "Miss! Sharon! Jones!," a style bit from James Brown's band and other groups of the '60s. 2002's Dap-Dippin' showcased Jones' vocal chops (and a killer cover of Janet Jackson's 1986 single "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" too), but her sophomore LP, 2005's Naturally, established her as a reliable (and brutally honest) narrator in unreliable times — much like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and the strong women of '60s girl groups and soul at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

From them, she learned the ropes of scaling a multi-octave range while perfecting her craft and persevering in the face of adversity. She reinforced their teachings with a 21st century framework by adding her crackerjack wit and Brooklyn-bred street smarts to the equation. In an age of chronic overstimulation, she was able to drown out the noise and cut through the distractions of heartache and betrayal during any extended dance break: Jones had the rare gift of making eye contact and keeping it with hundreds and then thousands of people at a time — or at least she made them feel that connected as she jitterbugged and mashed-potatoed and kicked off her shoes to keep people entertained and (looking up from their increasingly distracting phones). Soon, Jones and the Dap-Kings were lapping the international festival circuit when they weren't selling out rooms in Brooklyn and Manhattan — they played 250 shows in support of Naturally alone — and their growing popularity caught the attention of up-and-coming producers. A young Translatlantic DJ and producer, Mark Ronson, then hired the Dap-Kings to back a beehived, tattooed, mouthy singer with a Camden drawl named Amy Winehouse on her sophomore album in 2006.

The Dap-Kings were a crucial part of Back to Black's success, and though Jones had no direct hand in the recording of Winehouse's opus, Ronson likely wouldn't have found the Dap-Kings if Jones hadn't built such a formidable following with them first. It was Jones who opened the door for this earnest English ambassador of blue-eyed soul, and that legacy is felt in the work of Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande and Kesha, who'd work with the Dap-Kings or past members of the group on remixes (like a cut of Grande's of "Honeymoon Avenue" that differs from the version that made it onto 2013's Yours Truly) and recent recordings (like "Woman"). (Gaga was reportedly so inspired by Winehouse and Back to Black in particular that she felt the late singer was "haunting" the sessions for her 2016 album Joanne, which was also produced by Ronson and features several past and current Dap-Kings in the studio band.)

As Winehouse's star grew brighter, so did the residual glow around the Dap-Kings, and the uptick in attention was complicated for Jones. At the onset, Jones felt that Winehouse and Ronson were cherry-picking the Dap-Kings' work and said so in interviews with The New York Times and MTV News. The characterization of this straightforward business decision and the birth of a fruitful creative partnership at the time was sexist and reductive: The situation was engineered by (well-meaning!) men, yet headlines like "Sharon Jones is Finally in the Spotlight — Thanks to Amy Winehouse Stealing Her Band" pitted the singers against each other when Winehouse and Jones were hardly standing on either side of Ronson and the Dap-Kings in a game of studio tug-o'-war. It further chipped away at these women's contributions and the importance of their stand-alone voices, as well, as if Dap-Kings instrumentals, incredible though they were, would connect with a mainstream audience without the voice and relatability of either singer. Still, the Back to Black experience gave them good, dependable work and paid bills that affected the band and the label at large, but it wasn't the music they wrote and championed — nor was it a true Dap-Kings endeavor without Jones.

"First, I feel kind of angry about it," she told the Times in 2007. "Well, if it took Amy to get the Dap-Kings heard, then it's a good thing. I say it's great. Thank you." (The platinum plaque for the Back to Black currently hangs above the toilet in the upstairs bathroom at Daptone HQ.)

The group continued to ascend to larger stages with the rollout of 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007) and I Learned The Hard Way (2010), and collected more fans — including some famous ones like Prince, who they supported at Madison Square Garden in 2011. Though soul proved to be a fertile, popular backdrop for exploring female empowerment and modern heartache from Back to Black and beyond, Jones had long since married a groove with the realest of real talk. "I Learned the Hard Way" and "Something's Changed," in particular, made her a role model for those hoping to stand up to haters, cheaters, doubters and anyone who'd mistakenly write them off: Every kiss-off track was an courageous mantra, and the woman who spent every moment onstage proving those record executives wrong amassed a catalog of songs that eviscerated opposition in whatever way her listeners needed.

On the cusp of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings' sixth album and after decades of fighting industry odds, Jones' biggest challenge came from within: She was diagnosed with bile duct cancer in August of 2013, right when she and the Dap-Kings were in the midst of recording her fifth studio album. The award-winning 2015 documentary Miss Sharon Jones! followed her and the Dap-Kings through her treatment, remission, healing, the eventual release of Give The People What They Want (which would go on to nab the group's first Grammy nomination) and her triumphant return to the stage in 2014. The premiere of the film at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival threw audiences for a devastating loop when she announced to the crowd — one that had initially gathered to celebrate her recovery and the film about it — that her cancer had returned, this time in her pancreas. In spite of the setback, she and the Dap-Kings continued to tour and work on new material well into 2016. 26 months after that dismal diagnosis, Jones died, on November 18, surrounded by her band mates, friends and family.

Services in Brooklyn were filled with music, laughter and testaments to her indefatigable spirit; obituaries cited her award nominations, her demonstrated influence, her bottomless work ethic and sheer determination to live the dream up until the end. Soul of a Woman, her final album with the Dap-Kings, would see its release a year after her death, and the work is every bit a tribute to the small-but-mighty singer who loved her band mates fiercely and the music they made together even more. It had rallying cries of a political stripe that spoke truth to power ("Matter of Time"); it had gospel refrains that threw to her roots ("Call On God"); it had soap opera drama tied up in sweeping symphonic breakdowns ("Girl [You Got to Forgive Him]"); it had a handful of songs ripe for a dance party to choose from ("Rumors;" "Sail On;" "Searching for a New Day"). It represents her depth and range as an artist, but most importantly, it represents her love for this soul and how much of it she was able to give us onstage, in the studio and over our speakers during the toughest trials of her life. It's also a testament to Jones' rare ability to embody the student, teacher, muse and maker all at once and fuse their voices into one. She learned the hard way — and we, and pop music at large, are in debt to that education.

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