“I’m bad,” Sharon Jones intoned on her accidental 1996 debut “Switchblade,” a jumps-out-of-the-speakers funk record cut during a Lee Fields session for which she was the only back-up singer to show up. “I told you I was bad. I told you, but you wouldn’t listen! Now look at you.”
For far too long, people weren’t listening. Jones, born in the same corner of Georgia where James Brown grew up and raised in Brooklyn, fought to bring her indelible voice to the people her entire life. In between sessions as a backup singer and shifts as a corrections officer on Rikers Island, she was told over and over that she was “too fat, too black, too short and too old” to make it in the industry. Finally, at 40, she cut “Switchblade”—the beginning of two decades of performances (and six albums, and a Grammy nomination, and a documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!) that made it abundantly clear what everyone had been missing all that time.
After fighting cancer and winning once, Jones passed in late 2016 at 60—too soon by any calculation, especially to those who had witnessed the raucous live shows she insisted on giving up until just months before her death. Her final album, The Soul of a Woman, will be released posthumously this Friday (Nov. 17). It’s characteristically raw and evocative, and totally transporting—Jones’ talent for reviving the R&B of the late ‘60s and ‘70s without ever sounding cloying or dated endures.
“I felt Sharon was, at the end, really singing better than she had in a long time,” says Neal Sugarman, Dap-Kings (Jones’ backing band) saxophonist and co-founder of Daptone Records (her label). “She was grasping her mortality—singing her heart out as much as she could, knowing that it may not go on forever.” The project was recorded throughout 2016, despite the fact that her condition was deteriorating. “In some ways [the recording process] was exactly the same, because it was the same group of people,” he says of Soul. “But there was also this sense of, ‘What can we play that’s going to make it great for Sharon?'”
Most of that was about hewing to fundamentals. According to Sugarman and Dap-Kings bassist/Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth, Jones far preferred live performance to the studio, occasionally missing studio dates to rest up for shows during the album’s recording. There were a few things she insisted on, though. “If the groove wasn’t right she would tell you, and she would work with the band in the studio until she had what she wanted,” says Roth. “If you asked her to do a line or verse or song over, you knew it was going to be different. She always sang it differently, depending on how she felt it.”
The project’s classic feel also manifests in the technology—like all Dap-Kings albums, it’s an analog recording. “The 8-track tape kind of forces everybody to just step their game up,” Roth adds. “These records sound great because everyone’s playing their ass off. With a tape machine it’s much harder to fake somebody’s performance or hide imperfections—you approach it a little more like you approach something live, because you know that there’s some weight and significance to what’s happening in that moment.”
The band’s fluid funk and Jones’ unassailable charisma are translated on the record, a boon for fans who were converted by the captivating live Dap-Kings experience. “There’s something…I don’t want to say more real, but a little more visceral, a little more transient about what you’re hearing,” says Roth. “You’re hearing a moment that actually happened in the studio. You don’t get that on a lot of records. Most are just put together like a piece of equipment or something.”
The album is split aesthetically: half sweeping and orchestral, half bluesy and stripped down. “If there wasn’t that urgency to finish it, it may have been two different records,” says Sugarman now. The band had wanted to try some more ambitious orchestral arrangements, like the bombastic “Girl (You Got To Forgive Him),” but decided to pivot during the recording process. “Not that Sharon didn’t love it, but that’s not her sweet spot,” he continues. “We wanted to give her things she could really sink her teeth into, because we weren’t sure we’d have the opportunity to again.”
The result is a few quieter pieces, like “Pass Me By” and “Just Give Me Your Time,” that land like a gut punch — especially given the circumstances. “In the end, it was kind of perfect because it shows all the different sides of Sharon and the band,” Sugarman concludes.
There was no question about releasing the project after Jones’ passing, though the process of promoting the album is not without its challenges. “It just felt more important, you know? More important to get it out there,” says Roth. “What’s hard is digging up the assets,” says Sugarman. “Yesterday I spent a lot of time building the EPK [electronic press kit], rummaging through the studio archives. You hear Sharon talk, and it’s trying. It’s like…’Oh, shit.’”
The Dap-Kings know that Sharon’s fans will likely have a similar experience when hearing the album. “Sharon had this way of making everyone who had seen the band feel connected to her,” Sugarman says. “For those fans, I think the first listen is going to be incredibly difficult. But then you just get past it, and it’s great music.”
Losing Jones and fellow Daptone revivalist Charles Bradley, who passed away in September, in the space of a year has left the label without two of its anchors. “Without Charles and Sharon, it feels a lot harder — but as important as ever — to keep making good music,” says Roth.
“We’re still doing records we want to do, that sound the way we want them to sound, and we’re not answering to the demands or expectations of anyone in the music industry higher than the second floor of our Daptone studio — but there are going to be some different kinds of records,” Sugarman adds of the label’s future. They launched a rock imprint, Wick Records, last year, and say that 2018 will be their busiest yet. “But it’s definitely a phase 2, in a sense,” says Sugarman.
In the meantime, they’ll be promoting The Soul of a Woman, hoping the album can be a testament to Jones’ remarkable persistence and joie de vivre. “You hope that the music and the feeling and the song can inspire people to be better or do better things, or to feel better if they’re in a tough spot,” says Roth of the album.
“That’s what Sharon was so unbelievable about, just singing from the heart. Just reaching people.”