by Jana Riley
If ever there was a person who lived and breathed the very essence of soul music, it was the late singer and Augusta-area native Sharon Lafaye Jones. A powerhouse of talent with a relentless spirit, Jones passed away in November of 2016, leaving behind a memorable legacy that will surely inspire others for years to come.
Born to a large family in Augusta in 1956, Jones had many impactful experiences in the area: some painful incidents as a person of color growing up in the South at a time when racial tensions were high, and other empowering moments such as discovering her voice during a Christmas play at eight or nine years old. Her mother had a casual friendship with funk legend and fellow Augustan James Brown. Jones and her siblings reveled in imitating the singer's voice and dance moves, an inspiration that would become apparent later in life. When she was a young girl, the family moved to Brooklyn, and she spent most of her formative years growing up in the city. Though she spent most of her life in New York, she referred to Augusta as "home" until the day she died, heard in various interviews, concert recordings, and often in her 2016 documentary "Miss Sharon Jones."
Over the years, she came back to visit family and perform concerts in the city, even though her dynamic voice also took her to far-flung, international destinations; she always found her way back to the small, southern place of her earliest memories. Eventually, she bought a home not far from where she grew up in North Augusta, a simple place to rest in familiarity between concerts and events.
While a young woman, working as many jobs as should could manage to support her mother and siblings, Sharon Jones continued to sing her heart out, entering funk band talent shows and eventually sharing her talent with a Sony record executive. Scoffing, the man told her that she was "too fat, too black, too short, and too old," to be a star and sent her on her way. Jones vehemently disagreed with the executive's assessment, and his negativity soon became fuel for the fire within her, feeding her determination to share her talent with the world. In between her shifts as a correctional officer at Riker's Island and armored car guard for Wells Fargo, Jones utilized her vocal talent by singing at weddings and providing backup vocals for other artists.
In 1996, Jones got her lucky break. Out of three singers called by Desco Records to provide background vocals for a Lee Fields album, Sharon Jones was the only one to show up. True to form, Jones deftly handled the challenge, cutting all of the background parts herself and shocking the record producers with her range and talent. Jones became a mainstay at Desco records, singing behind and alongside many famous soul and funk talents, and releasing her own singles through the label. When Desco Records folded in 2000, co-owner Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Man) and Jones sourced some of the most talented musicians they knew to create a new group: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Together, the team began to make some of the best soul music this side of the century. By 2002, a new label, Daptone Records, had formed, and the group released its first album - called "Dap-Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings," fronted by the intense and powerful voice of Miss Sharon Jones. Now in her forties, Jones had finally become the star she was so destined to be.
As time went on, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings rose to success, while Jones turned up the talent, the toughness, and the dedication to her craft. The group, who quickly became known as a "family," wrote songs together, produced music videos, and toured internationally. Concerts were often sold out, with audiences entranced and inspired by Jones: oft-barefoot, hair swinging, jumping and jiving all over the stage with more energy than one could imagine resided in her petite frame, earning her unofficial title as "The Female James Brown." Adored by her fans, Jones embraced her stardom, almost never turning down an opportunity to share what she believed was her God-given talent.
With every new record release came a new wave of fans and positive acclaim; as their work rose in popularity, so did the soul and funk genres. Their catch song "100 Days, 100 Nights" was a smash hit, eventually being used in television shows and commercials, and it quickly became the group's most recognizable song. With their rising fame came calls from talk shows, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings performed on a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float in 2013. In 2014, they received their first Grammy nomination, for Best R&B Album ("Give the People What they Want").
During that exciting time, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Not one to back down from a challenge, Jones fought the illness with her typical tenacity, undergoing surgery, toughing out chemotherapy, and working (even dancing) through the immense physical pain. Deciding not to hide from her diagnosis, Jones, who was well-known for having long, beautiful dreadlocks that should would shake and spin while performing - opted to perform bald after chemotherapy. Her short-to-nonexistent hair became her new visual trademark, not having an ounce of impact on the ability of her soul to shine brightly.
Where some may have been crippled by the bleak outlook of her diagnosis, Jones remained radiant and optimistic, characteristics that are evident in the aforementioned "Miss Sharon Jones" documentary, which begins with the telling of her life shortly after her diagnosis. Remission came with great celebration, and her band took to the road and skies for another international tour, this time with more fans than ever. Often, Jones was still weak and in pain from the toll the chemotherapy had taken on her body, but once she hit the stage, there was no slowing her indomitable energy. Full of life and love, Jones inspired, excited, encouraged, and rejuvenated others with her spirit, and for this, she is still loved and revered by many.
During a Toronto screening of her documentary in 2015, she revealed that the cancer had returned, along with her determination to beat it once again. Though she fought valiantly, Sharon Jones passed away on November 18, 2016 after suffering a stroke. She was 60 years old, but only two decades into her action-packed life as an internationally-adored sensation.
A woman who proved that it is never too late to follow your dreams, Sharon Jones was not simply a treasure to her native Augusta, but for the world. Bigger than her talent, Jones represented loving, fighting, and succeeding. She broke through barriers and formed her own place in society as a strong, independent, resourceful black woman who had something to say - and said it loudly and proudly. Though she is no longer physically present, her inspirational spirit of passion will live on indefinitely. Rest in Peace, Miss Jones, and thank you for sharing yourself with us.