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Remembering The Soulful Voice Of Sharon Jones

Nov 19, 2016
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Singer Sharon Jones helped revive soul singing with her powerful, energetic performances. The 60 year old died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this appreciation of her music and her life.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Onstage and in recordings, Sharon Jones' high energy spirit shone through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "100 DAYS, 100 NIGHTS")

SHARON JONES: (Singing) One hundred days, 100 nights to know a man's heart. One hundred days, 100 nights to know a man's heart and a little more before he knows his own.

DEL BARCO: Freelance music journalist Matt Rogers got to know Jones over the course of 15 years documenting her life and career.

MATT ROGERS: Her music was termed neo-soul or retro-soul, but, you know, she and her band did this long enough to where there was nothing neo or retro about it. It was just as original as the music that had inspired her and her band in the first place.

DEL BARCO: Aretha Franklin and gospel were her influences as she grew up in South Carolina. Earlier this year, she told WHYY's Fresh Air that the first time she ever performed was during a church nativity play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JONES: I played an angel, and I got to sing "Silent Night." And I was like maybe 8, 9 years old, and I remember, you know, doing that. And I'm like - and those people at church - that little girl can sing. And I think right then and there I knew that I was going to be a singer.

DEL BARCO: Jones started life the youngest of six children born in a hospital storage room in Jim Crow Georgia. Her mother was not allowed in a real hospital room. Her parents separated, and she continued to face prejudice growing up in Brooklyn and prejudice of a different sort trying to break into the music business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JONES: I was told I didn't have what it took which I knew I was a singer. But they was looking for looks and style and...

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Right. You were told you were too short and too black...

JONES: Too fat.

GROSS: Too fat.

JONES: Yeah, yeah. I didn't make it there with that, you know, when I was in that youth in my late 20s, 30s.

DEL BARCO: She worked as an armed guard for Wells Fargo Bank and a corrections officer at Rikers Island. It wasn't until she was 40 years old that she made her recorded debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

JONES: (Singing) I'm burning up. It's so, so hot. I got to find some place in a cool spot. I got to go where I can get some cold air. I need a good, cold breeze just from anywhere. I said, oh, I'm burning up. Damn, it's hot.

DEL BARCO: Jones formed a powerful bond with her band the Dap-Kings. Together, they literally built their own label and studio Daptone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JONES: We built our record label so I can have an album out, and we don't have to worry about if I sold five or 5,000 or 500.

DEL BARCO: It took a while for Jones and the Dap-Kings to find success, but through relentless touring, they made a name for themselves. Jones was in her 50s when she finally began to enjoy international recognition. Then three years ago, she was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer. But she kept performing, and she allowed herself to be filmed throughout her diagnosis and treatments. The documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!" shows her singing in a small church in Queens for the first time after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MISS SHARON JONES!")

JONES: (Singing) And I sing because I'm happy. And I sing because I'm free.

DEL BARCO: Cancer came back, but her friends say that to the end, Sharon Jones was able to sing through her pain. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.