In the mid-point of this year I wrote an article that attempted to put the events of 2016 — at that juncture — into philosophical context. I was thankful to be alive during a period where greatness walked among us, and saddened to see them ascend to legend while leaving us to examine the fantastic artifacts they left behind, with no further additions.
The death of Leonard Cohen beat me up because his wordplay meant so much to me as a struggling artist and as an admirer of what language could do. Yet I knew he was sick and in advanced age, so I reckoned his life’s arc was more in regress than progress. I could cope with that.
I’m not sure how to handle the news about the passing of Sharon Jones. The recent movie Miss Sharon Jones chronicled her life, her sideways entre into music through Rikers Island as a corrections office, and her battle with pancreatic cancer. The movie also showed her win against that bout, but she suffered its return right around the time of the film’s release. What was to be a victory lap is now a remembrance, a remainder of a legacy that demands to not be forgotten.
What a legacy! With her mighty backup band The Dap-Kings, Jones made soul music…real soul music. I’ll attempt to frame this without sounding dismissive. Soul, or rhythm & blues, or R&B kind of made a left-turn in the mid-1970s. Dance music came to define disco, or the other way around. Soul was moving more into the territory of slow jams, the boot-knockin’, baby-makin’ sounds that I suppose we are still enjoying today, but it is different from the commonly-remembered lexicon of “soul.” The soul music of Jones with the Dap-Kings brings to mind the best of the Stax label, or the Motown label, or Freda Payne singing “Band of Gold” on the Invictus label. Or Dusty Springfield. Real instruments. Real groove. Get up, sing it out, shout it out, actually shake it off — this is a revival, don’tcha know!
We’re probably well past that time where a classic-sounding soul song is going to get serious airplay unless it is done in some nodding, self-referential way like, say, Meghan Trainor’s “All About Dat Bass” or Cee Lo’s “F*** You.” Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings did it for real. No CGI dragons thrown in. What you got was all they were giving and, man, it was more than enough.
But 60 years? That’s all we get with Sharon? No, there’s no way to couch that in a feel-good candy wrapper of gratitude. 60 years is not enough, and really we didn’t even get all of that. Talk about unfair? May the surviving legends of soul sing her praises because she did so much in those precious few years. She is the Most Honored Daughter Of Soul, and don’t you forget it. Don’t forget her.
Sharon Jones, dead at 60. How I’ve hated this infernal year.