Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Teach and Learn: I Learned The Hard Way

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: I Learned The Hard Way
[purchase the soundtrack to Miss Sharon Jones!]

Most of us would prefer to learn things the easy way, but life often doesn’t cooperate. As Tina Turner, a clear influence on Sharon Jones, memorably said in “Proud Mary,”

You see we never ever do nothing 
Nice and easy 

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, in our featured song, recognize that sometimes you end up learning important things the hard way. Jones and her band play music that is characterized as funk, or soul, or R&B, in a retro style that would not be out of place in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and they do it quite well. And “I Learned The Hard Way,” is a story as old as stories, about a woman learning about the hidden infidelity of her man. Some reviewers appreciate their talents and uncanny ability to evoke the sound of that era, while some others criticize them for supposedly lacking new ideas. But it is impossible to listen to their music without acknowledging its quality, the tightness of the band, and most of all, the powerhouse that is Sharon Jones.

Jones’ story is pretty well-known—Born in North Augusta, South Carolina to a mother who was acquainted with James Brown (who Jones would later be compared to because of the energy and power of her live shows), her family moved to Brooklyn when Sharon was a child. Jones, like my parents twenty years before, graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School, and like my father, attended Brooklyn College. A gospel singer from an early age, Jones performed and recorded secular music in the 1970s, with limited success, sang in wedding bands and worked as a Rikers Island corrections guard and armored car guard for Wells Fargo. Jones learned the hard way that major labels were not interested in her, not because of her singing, but because she was, as one executive reportedly informed her, "too fat, too black, too short and too old."

But she pressed on, and in 1996, she sang at a session for Lee Fields, run by Gabriel Roth and Phillip Lehman, who after recording Jones’ background vocals, recorded a couple of songs with Jones singing lead. These songs were later released on an album credited to the Soul Providers, members of which would ultimately comprise the Dap-Kings. Roth and Lehman went on to create Desco Records, which recorded and released more of Jones’ work, before the label shut, and its principals split. Roth then formed Daptone Records with musician Neal Sugarman.

At Daptone, Jones and the newly formed Dap-Kings, released two well-received albums, before her commercial breakthrough, the 2007 album 100 Days, 100 Nights, and its title track. I Learned The Hard Way, another critical and commercial success, followed in 2010 (in the interim, she worked with Lou Reed, David Byrne, Phish and Michael Bublé).

But then, just as the late-bloomer was at the peak of her career, and with a new album essentially ready to be released, in 2013, Jones was diagnosed with first bile duct cancer and then pancreatic cancer. Jones underwent surgery and chemotherapy, resulting in the usual sickness and hair loss.

During this time, legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple filmed a documentary about Jones and her fight against cancer, Miss Sharon Jones!, which premiered at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. My wife and I had a chance to see the film this summer as part of a music documentary series at the Jacob Burns Film Center, and it is really incredible (and we got to hear a Q&A with Koppel). Not only is Jones’ story amazing, and her strength and courage remarkable, the film addresses issues like the effect on the Dap-Kings, who were losing their main source of income while Jones fought her cancer. There’s a great scene where Roth recounts his difficulty in getting a mortgage because of the publicity about Jones not performing, and other members of the band discuss the effects on them. Included in the film are scenes that show Jones, at her peak, showing her dynamic stage presence, along with more somber scenes filmed during her treatment and recovery. The movie ends in triumph, with the new album, Give The People What They Want, released, and Jones, weak, but unwilling to concede much to her limitations, performing at New York’s Beacon Theater before a packed house of ecstatic fans.

The soundtrack to the film is filled with older songs, but there is a great autobiographical new song, “I’m Still Here,” which I have posted at the end of this piece, because if you listen to it, you really didn’t need to read most of what I wrote:

Unfortunately, though, that isn’t the end of the story. Jones learned, presumably the hard way, that her cancer has returned, and she is again undergoing chemotherapy, while continuing to perform and record as best as she can. She remains undaunted, saying, "I have this saying: I have cancer; cancer don't have me. I'm gonna keep on going. I'm gonna take this medicine, and it'll be alright."

We were excited to see Jones and the band at the 2013 Clearwater Festival, but the appearance was cancelled due to her illness, and for some reason, we passed on seeing them at the Tarrytown Music Hall in late 2015. I do hope that her health improves, and that I someday get a chance to experience her live show, not only because it would be a great experience, but because it would mean that Jones, once again, triumphed over her cancer.

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