Dap-Kings' Gabriel Roth recalls Sharon Jones' last days: 'She didn't want to stop singing'

Soul singer Sharon Jones, who died Friday at age 60 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, didn’t find commercial success until she was well into her 40s.

When she did, it was through her work with her longtime band the Dap-Kings. They backed Jones for nearly two decades, and were by her bedside when she died.

Jones, Roth said in an interview Saturday, suffered a stroke on Nov. 8 — election night -- as she was watching the returns. He immediately flew to Cooperstown N.Y., where she was in the hospital, and summoned the rest of the band. 

“She told the people that were there that Trump gave her the stroke,” said Roth, laughing.

“She didn't seem anxious or scared or anything. She just wanted to sing, you know, and every time there was a lull in the room she would start moaning some kind of gospel song,” he said. 

Here, Roth remembers the pain, and transcendent beauty, of Jones’ last days.

The announcement of Sharon’s death said that the Dap-Kings were with her when she died. Can you talk about that?

Well, she’d been fighting fighting cancer for a few years now, and there’s been all kinds of stuff coming at her. But the thing that actually got her in the last couple of weeks was, she had a stroke watching the election results. After that first stroke she couldn't move her leg, but she could still talk. 

I flew out and met her up in the hospital in Cooperstown, and I saw her and she told the people that were there that Trump gave her the stroke. She was blaming Trump for the whole thing.

Unfortunately -- that was on on Tuesday night, and then on Wednesday while we were there she had another stroke. After that, she couldn't talk or really respond anymore.

I called the band right away and everybody came up, and her family came up. She was surrounded by her real close loved ones. 

Was music involved?

Binky [Griptite, a Dap-Kings member] started to play the guitar and she started humming along. It was kind of remarkable. She was just moaning at first, and then she was moaning in tune and then she started following chord changes and pretty soon she was humming "His Eye on the Sparrow" with him.

We all just kept playing and singing with her, and little by little over the next couple of days she actually started moving her mouth and started singing lyrics. She just wanted to sing these gospel songs. 

Every time we'd stop, she’d just keep singing -- “Amazing Grace” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “This Little Light of Mine.” We just stayed with her and sang with her and played music with her.

Was she aware of her surroundings?

She still couldn't talk, and couldn't answer questions, but that part of her that's singing, that part of her that made music and that loved music and that was musical just didn't want to go. It was just so strong. 

And, you know, it was very sad, but it was also very beautiful and kind of amazing to see that. I mean, she was the strongest person any of us had ever known, and she just kept singing. She didn't want to stop singing.

That was really beautiful, really beautiful, and I'm really glad that the band had a chance to spend that last musical moment with her and sing with her.

The whole band was there?

Oh geez. [Counts] I mean, it was the whole band now. So that was nine plus [backing vocalists] Saun and Starr -- that's 11. [Lists other behind-the-scenes personnel]. Fourteen. People were coming and going. Other friends and family were coming and going the whole time. Over that whole week there was a lot of people there. 

And she would smile and she would laugh at jokes and she'd look around and she seemed really happy to have everybody around her.

She didn't seem anxious or scared or anything. She just wanted to sing, you know, and every time there was a lull in the room she would start moaning some kind of gospel song or something and we'd very quietly come in behind her and play guitar. Or Saundra and Starr were singing harmonies with her. 

And it was crazy. Even in that state -- if you asked her if she was in pain, she couldn't respond.  She couldn't say one word, or say somebody's name or anything.

But she could find harmony notes with Saun and Starr, and sing three-part harmony and improvise these gospel moans. It was really remarkable, and it was beautiful. I've never seen anything like it. 

There’s a lot of terrible music out there. For tips on the stuff that’s not, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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