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Sharon Jones was an old soul in a changing world

Sharon Jones was an old soul in a changing world
Sharon Jones at the 2008 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio. (Los Angeles Times)

Sharon Jones symbolized endurance.

The endurance of an old-fashioned style as music changed around it. The endurance of ambition despite the record industry's neglect. And the endurance of a body that withstood disease until Friday, when Jones died of pancreatic cancer at age 60.

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Described by a bandmate on her debut album as "110 pounds of soul excitement," Jones sang funk-fueled R&B the way it used to be sung, back in the era of Tina Turner and Betty Wright and especially the late James Brown, with whom Jones shared a hometown of Augusta, Ga.

Her hand-played music — which she made in close collaboration with her New York-based backing band, the Dap-Kings — was willfully retro, showing little interest in the genre's sonic and thematic evolution since the early 1970s. Yet her powerful voice and her natural exuberance attracted an audience outside the vintage-soul cognoscenti.

A few years ago she and the Dap-Kings performed on a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade — hardly a record nerd's paradise — and their 2014 album "Give the People What They Want" was nominated for a Grammy Award.

The recognition came after decades of dismissal by label executives who said Jones was "too short, too fat, too black and too old," as she put it with characteristic frankness in a recent documentary about her life, "Miss Sharon Jones!"

And in her music you could hear how that rejection had toughened her. The Dap-Kings' sound is hard and lean, built on taut grooves set at quick tempos; Jones' singing was direct and to the point, mostly free of vocal ornamentation.

Where many R&B singers try to summon the feeling of a moment being savored, Jones — who supported herself pre-Dap-Kings as a prison guard and as a member of a wedding band — offered forward momentum. You wouldn't call it optimism, exactly, but a conviction that one's troubles could be outlasted.

More than boudoir fantasies, she was drawn to lyrics about survival, as in "Longer and Stronger," which was featured prominently in "Miss Sharon Jones!":

Longer and stronger, that's how I live

The more I get, the more I got to give

Fifty years of soul gone by, and 50 more to come

You think you've seen something, but Lord I've just begun

In other songs she described injustice with familiarity but zero self-pity. "Money don't follow sweat / Money don't follow brains," she sang in "People Don't Get What They Deserve."

Along with her gritty, no-nonsense vocals, Jones' hard-nosed worldview made the singer an object of fascination — some might say a fetish object — to younger artists eager to absorb some of her weathered credibility.

One of Amy Winehouse's producers, Mark Ronson, famously enlisted the Dap-Kings to accompany Winehouse on her smash 2006 album "Back to Black." And Michael Bublé, the polished neo-Rat Pack crooner, sang a duet with Jones in 2009.

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Remarkably, that transfer of energy from Jones to her admirers never reversed flow; she didn't start to make her music smoother or more modern after working with pop stars whose paths to success had been far straighter than hers.

Perhaps things would've gone differently if she hadn't been diagnosed with cancer in 2013, a development that stalled her career at a most unwelcome moment. Had she not gotten sick, maybe Jones would've given hip-hop a try, as Wright has in recent years by singing on tracks by rappers such as Rick Ross.

But it's hard to imagine. During a brief remission of her cancer, Jones went back on the road with the Dap-Kings, playing shows that made it clear how devoted she still was to her chosen style. And last year she released a Christmas album that paired traditional favorites like "Silent Night" and "Silver Bells" with an original called "Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects."

She also retained the instinct of a hard-working wedding singer. Before the cancer returned, Jones and the Dap-Kings were booked to play a New Year's Eve concert next month in Long Beach.

Her steadfastness will be missed that night, and beyond.

ALSO

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