Last December, Sharon Jones was preparing for the first show of a short tour. Her mind, however, was elsewhere. At home her oldest brother, who had long been suffering from mental illness, had taken a turn for the worse.
"I left that day," Jones told me. "I said, 'Mom, call the ambulance, let them get him.'" She called to see if they had.
"I heard screaming. They found him in the room dead," Jones remembers. "My legs just gave out. I'm in the middle of this hotel with 17 men and we got three New Year's [Eve] gigs to put on." Lost, but not wanting to disappoint, Jones got herself together as best she could.
"The people didn't know, and they was out there screaming, 'We love you Sharon,' and the tears are lapping down my face onto the stage." But after five or six seconds, Jones says, the tears evaporated. "Onstage that smile came back." In part, it's experiences like these that make Jones so good. And she's full of them. You hear it in her voice.
There were wedding (and funeral) bands, neighborhood groups, and deadbeat boyfriends. The projects and heartbreaks. There was the stint working at Rikers Island and even being told, straight up, that she was "too black" and "too heavy" for Sony Records.
Having taken so many shots, Jones reminds one of a boxer—one who, along with her amazing vocal punch, is blessed with a remarkable chin. But even after taking the heaviest hits, Jones says, she never stopped thinking of herself as a singer. Eventually she would pair up with the Dap-Kings, whose love and mastery of vintage soul and raw funk meshed perfectly with Jones' ferocious voice.
The group's stature has grown exponentially of late, as pop stars like Amy Winehouse and Jay-Z have called the Dap-Kings to back them up. But Jones isn't bothered. "The only thing that's bugging me is people thinkin' that it's buggin' me," she says. But the Winehouse effect accounts for only a portion of the group's draw. For the last 12 years the Dap-Kings have been recording and hitting the road aggressively, something which Jones is happy to do.
"When I was younger and I wanted to have that experience, I didn't get it," she says. "And now I'm 51, and I'm getting experience. And I think, 'Thank God, he's blessing me with this energy.'"
This trip, the group is touring on the recently released 100 Days 100 Nights, which leans toward classic soul and R&B, and although the album is expertly crafted, with the vintage styles captured beautifully on analog tape, the stage is home for Jones' heart.
"I don't need to stand in the mirror to sing to myself," says Jones. "I need to sing and people need to hear me and they need to see me and they need to feel what I feel when I'm singing."
And now that James Brown has passed, maybe it's time to pass on the title of "Hardest Working in Show Business" as well. If anyone has a claim to it, it's Jones—not only for her steady touring and blistering performances, or because she's burning down venues, carrying soul's torch, but for all the shit she took just to get here.