Less a performer, more a natural phenomenon or wonder of the world, Sharon Lafaye Jones was – and forever will be – an inspiration. I first watched her perform with the Dap-Kings in 2005 in one of Manchester’s ultimate underground venues, the Roadhouse, for Fat City Records’ Friends and Family club night. It’s sad to think that all three of those Manchester institutions have all had the doors permanently shut on them. That gig was a significant musical moment for me, in terms of realising that pure soul music still existed, and that it was demanding attention.

Three years later, I met up with Sharon and the band for an interview at the Mint Lounge, again for Friends and Family. It was a few months prior to Obama becoming president, and Sharon was talking about his healthcare plans with her poorly mother (who was later to pass in 2011) in mind. She didn’t know me, but she welcomed me, told me she’d be ready after some “weed and chicken, honey,” and instantly we dived into music chat. That homely, enchanting, ‘you’re in my house now’ personality pulled in every single audience ever to watch her. Witnessing the band grow more successful and into grander venues upon return visits to Manchester, such as the Ritz and Albert Hall – the latter in particular was a stunning gig, paired with the legendary Lee Fields – multiplied the number of stunned faces encountering similar significant musical moments each time. People fell in love with her on every occasion.

It’s well documented that Sharon found her calling much later than she should have done. Rumour has it, she was the only one of three session singers to turn up for backing vocal duties on a 1996 Soul Providers LP, her vibrancy instantly catching the ear of Pure Records’ co-label head Gabriel Roth, aka Bosco Mann. It was nearly the time for Sharon to let go of her prison officer and armoured car guard roles and embrace the retro-soul scene. The thing is these guys did it so well that ‘retro’ quickly became a misnomer. Sure, it had an analogue edge, but this was soul music, pure and simple. Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings was the premiere release for Mann’s Brooklyn-based Daptone label, and set the ‘shitty-is-pretty’ standard (a reference to their old-school recording methods) for all the beautiful music that was to follow.

Catching the underground funk scene unawares, Sharon’s voice pummelled a wider audience with Greyboy’s ‘Got To Be A Love’ single on Ubiquity Records in 2004. The first song she’d written for years (much of her Dap-Kings work was written by Bosco), Sharon would later lament not securing a better deal for publishing with the label. Her second album, Naturally, quickly followed and opened up the sound a little (fine-tuning the Daptone Records house vibe) providing some of the band’s most memorable songs, such as ‘How Long Do I Have To Wait For You’ and ‘How Do I Let A Good Man Down?’

Meanwhile, Mark Ronson had enlisted Roth and the band (sans Sharon) to co-arrange and provide backing on much of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black album. Suddenly, the Daptone sound was worldwide, but not many people knew that’s what they were listening to. I always personally felt more should have been done to overtly point people Sharon’s way, but many did the research for themselves and the audiences started to grow exponentially. 100 Days, 100 Nights marked a slight change, as the band adopted a more Stax-oriented direction, losing none of their appeal and gaining thousands of new fans in the process. The fourth album, I Learned The Hard Way, was meaner and leaner, and their biggest album yet was about to drop in 2013, when Sharon was diagnosed with cancer.

The Albert Hall gig mentioned above was memorable for taking place after Sharon had received her initial all-clear from what had been diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. She spoke of her experience, later to form the basis of Barbara Kopple’s documentary, Miss Sharon Jones! (2015), about not letting the cancer beat her and not letting it change her life for the worse. The 2013 album, Give The People What They Want, which was nominated for a Grammy, had been delayed for a year after the label learnt of Sharon’s diagnosis, and this tour was an all-out celebration of her return to form. It may have looked like she was fresher than ever to us on the outside, but on the inside Sharon was finding it tough to match what came before. To the world, though, Miss Sharon Jones was back.

Which is what made the news of Sharon’s death all the more heart-breaking and shocking. How could such a light be extinguished so suddenly? The world has lost a huge talent, but her legacy will continue with the music of the Daptone label – not just a record label, but her friends and family, who were by her side when she passed. Sharon was all about positive vibes and moving forward, so I think she wouldn’t want us to mourn, but rather to celebrate her grab-life-by-the-balls approach and live as happily as we can, keeping the funk alive, in the world we all have to face.

Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford.

Jamie Groovement