This past summer I had the pleasure of spending a day with Sharon Jones.
Well, pleasure may not be quite the right word. As anyone who has shared even a few minutes with Miss Sharon could tell you, time with that most underappreciated of soul talents was not an easy or necessarily upbeat affair. Jones could be a direct, ornery, at times even temperamental figure.
But the singer, who died Friday of cancer at age 60, also was a singular personality — not only because of her heaven-rattling voice, but because of her honesty.
I had come that day to an amphitheater outside Philadelphia to see Jones backstage at a Hall & Oates concert, where she and her band the Dap-Kings were the opening act. In recent years, Jones and the Dap-Kings had put out some great retrosoul records, including “100 Days, 100 Nights,” “I Learned The Hard Way” and “Give The People What They Want,” the last of which was nominated for best R&B album at the Grammys. I was writing about Jones in the context of “Miss Sharon Jones!” a warm and intimate look at the performer from the documentarian Barbara Kopple. (I chronicled that day here.)
From the first, Jones’ candor was apparent.
Whether she was telling you her thoughts on the music industry or her upcoming chemo treatment, her feelings about her legacy or the specifics of her platelet count, Jones gave it to you straight. Her remarks on these matters — very often unsolicited — came without the sugarcoating that so many of us apply to everyday conversation. Most of us talk but shrink away — we alter details, omit them, gild them — to avoid awkwardness, or not to be seen in a certain light. That was unthinkable to Jones.
Within a minute of introductions, she said, “My immune system is weak. I had to wear a mask through the airport,” and went into a description of the drug cocktail she was on and, very specifically, the symptoms they caused.
Introspection arrived a minute later.
“I just want to sell some records, want to do it for the band. Because I know what’s going to happen. When I go away from here,” she said, using her euphemism for death, “that’s when I’m going to sell millions. When I’m gone, they’ll say she was a good singer. I want them to say she is a good singer.”
To ask Sharon Jones to speak without candor was like asking Clarence Clemons to perform without a saxophone. It was her most powerful tool, and her most impressive trait.
What does this have to do with her music? A lot, actually.
This same raw honesty that anyone who met Jones off-stage experienced is precisely what she poured into her performances. At the Hall & Oates concert, she walked out, after barely being able to stand a few minutes earlier, and began talking about her illness. Jones was a woman going through chemotherapy at that exact moment. But she so treasured communication with the audience — so craved the chance to interact with them — that she stood up from a fetal position and just began getting honest.
She kicked off her shoes and started singing, began torquing and emoting, pouring every fiber of her being not only into the music but how she felt about the music, and about the audience, and about her pain.
“I don’t know how many of you know me,” she said, in the gospel-church speak-sing that was her trademark, a half-dozen horns and percussion instruments backing her words. “But I’m battling. No matter how much pain I’m in, I can always sing. This has been hell I’m going through. But I’m not sad tonight. It’s not gonna get me down tonight. I’m gonna sing. And then I’m gonna sing some more.”
You could feel the people in the crowd, many of whom didn’t appear to know or notice Jones at the start of the set, come to life and respond right there, in real time. This wasn’t just a soul singer. It was a singer baring her soul.
When the set ended, Jones came backstage for a post-gig meal with her group. Halfway through, she heard legendary rock n’roller Chubby Checker was outside the door and wanted to meet her. The gleeful reaction — like, pop-out-of-her-chair-and-sprint-across-a-room gleeful — was a thing of beauty. I’ve seen tweens told of free Taylor Swift tickets with less unabashed enthusiasm. That was Miss Sharon: if she felt it, she expressed it.
Jones died just six months after her 60th birthday. That is far too early — for anyone, but particularly for Jones, who, because of the cruelties of the music business, wasn’t allowed nearly enough time to share her gifts.
As she was prone to telling people (directly), she was “too dark” and “too short” to be granted entry to the music business. She spent her 20’s and 30’s in a church group, taking day jobs as a security or prison guard to pay the rent, before she was ever given the chance to perform professionally. Jones had to work twice as hard as those with far less skill. And she enjoyed a fraction of the success. She’d never won a Grammy, for instance, an unfortunate fact she was — what else? — honest in lamenting.
This has been a year of great musical loss. David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell and Merle Haggard — all are now, unbelievably, gone. But Jones holds a special place even in this firmament. Most of these figures were able to enter the business young and were with us for many decades. Jones barely gave us 20 years.
But she did give us something else. Ours is a time of so much fronting, an era when social media has made it possible, even desirable, to present a version of ourselves that has little relationship with who we really are. That makes it easy to walk around not hearing the truth about other people, not believing it about ourselves.
And that’s where Jones comes in. Pretty much none of us will ever be able to emulate her massive talent. But the singer also modeled a certain kind of behavior — one that was more honest, more true to who we are. In the wake of her death, it’s a lesson worth remembering. Sharon Jones would like it if we did.
And she would tell us if she didn’t.
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT