Matthew Kauffman Smith’s Mixtape of Jones’s Best Music
The documentary Miss Sharon Jones is a good place to start discovering Jones, but the following is a mixtape of just 10 of her best recordings.
Sharon Jones couldn’t stop singing, even in her final days. Jones, the lead singer of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, died November 18, 2016, at age 60, from pancreatic cancer.
According to an interview with bandmate Gabe Roth in the Los Angeles Times, the entire band sat by Jones during her last days. Jones had suffered two strokes in a week, and could no longer speak. But when the band members played the guitar or sang gospel songs, Jones hummed and moaned along. Even when the band stopped playing, she still hummed and moaned.
It was a very fitting end for a woman who spent a lifetime using music to persevere. Two months ago, I reviewed the documentary Miss Sharon Jones, which chronicled her battle with—and comeback from—cancer, as well as highlighted her unlikely path to a singing career. Spurned by record executives, Jones worked as a prison guard, among other odd jobs, until Roth heard her in the late 1990s. Roth recorded a few songs with Jones for his own label, Daptone Records, and then formed the Dap-Kings, who released their debut album with Jones in 2002, when Jones was 46. The band released four more acclaimed studio albums, an album of previously unreleased tracks, and a Christmas album.
Jones always balked a bit at the notion that she was part of a “retro soul” movement, but for those who like 1960s soul, 1970s funk, and ageless rhythm and blues, Jones hits the mark. She was a 4-foot-11 woman who sounded 6-foot-4, and she was accompanied by a nine-piece band and two stellar back-up singers. The documentary is a good place to start discovering Jones, but the following is a mixtape of just 10 of her best recordings:
- “100 Days, 100 Nights”: Maybe it was because it was my first introduction to Jones, but this song remains my favorite of hers. It takes “one hundred days, one hundred nights to know a man’s heart, and a little more before he knows his own.” The backing vocals are great, the Dap-Kings have never sounded tighter, but Jones was always the star of the show, and this song is her showcase of vocal supremacy.
- “I Learned the Hard Way”: Jones’s specialty was to vocalize the feelings of a woman scorned. She could toggle easily between anger, regret, and longing, and this song is no exception. This is also one of the best examples of how well she worked with her backup singers, Saun and Starr.
- “Fish in the Dish”: Jones revealed in her documentary that she loved to fish, and this song is about the simple pleasure of Jones catching her own dinner. Fishing has never sounded groovier.
- “This Land Is Your Land”: This cover of the iconic Woody Guthrie song exchanges the original guitar strumming and twang with horns and confident vocals that announce that this land may be yours, but you’d better make room for Jones and everyone else.
- “Humble Me”: Jones had roots in gospel music, and that influence appeared frequently in her music, and shared it on more than one occasion over the years. This is her best gospel performance as she asks a higher power to help her remember who she is and to be happy with what she has.
- “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”: The title sums up this song about honest people who get the short end of the economic straw.
- “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects”: Jones said this original Christmas song came from her childhood when she asked her mother how Santa delivered presents to her neighborhood, where no chimneys existed. Her mom told her that magic chimneys appeared when the kids were asleep, but Jones realized later that her mom was the magic one.
- “Better Things”: Once again playing the part of a lover scorned, Jones sings way above the funky, playful grooves to belt out an upbeat, feel-good song about finding closure and moving on.
- “Retreat”: After Jones was diagnosed with cancer on the eve of the band’s release of the album Give the People What They Want, the band postponed the release and cancelled tour dates. When Jones was healthy enough to perform again and the album finally hit the shelves, this song started off the record with a bang, announcing that Jones was back and as good as ever.
- “I’m Still Here”: This was an original song written for the documentary, which means it is eligible for a best original song nomination for the Academy Awards. While Jones would be a sentimental choice, she is also deserving. The best line in the song recounts how record executives told her she was “too fat, too short, black, and old.” Jones proved repeatedly over the last 15 years that the record labels were wrong. And, thankfully, her music will continue to endure.
View the trailer to the Sharon Jones documentary.