Even given the bumper crop of macabre milestones that 2016 has turned out to be, losing Sharon Jones last Friday was a tough one. Merle Haggard and Leonard Cohen’s mortal flesh seemed to, gradually, melt away to reveal a more ageless essence of folk wisdom and humble poetry. Both Prince and David Bowie were so chameleonic and ultimately unknowable that when the shockwave created by their unexpected deaths began to recede, it left behind the shadow of a doubt that neither man could have possibly been 100 percent human in the first place. But Sharon Jones sang like her life was on the line long before it actually was.
Beyond that elemental voice, a big part of what made Jones such a compelling artist is that it took her so long to become a star. Born in 1956 and a singer all her life (both in and out of the church), she didn’t link up with some members of the Dap-Kings, the ensemble of Brooklynites who went on to top the pop charts backing the late Amy Winehouse on 2006’s Back to Black, until 1996. Jones and the Dap-Kings’ first album, 2002’s Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, helped reawaken younger listeners’ interest in the rubbery grooves of vintage R&B and funk, which — like Jones herself at first — many within the music industry wrote off as too raw to ever appeal to a mass audience, but has since developed into a full-blown craze. Certainly Houston’s own The Suffers have walked through a few doors that Jones and the Dap-Kings helped open, to say nothing of the hordes of twentysomethings who cram into monthly local shindigs like A Fistful of Soul.
The Dap-Kings’ name rose quickly to the very top lines of the big U.S. and European music festivals, including a memorable spot at Free Press Summer Fest 2011 (the same year they jammed with Prince in Paris), until the cancer diagnosis that forced Jones to postpone the release of the Dap-Kings’ 2014 album Giving the People What They Want. Her spectacular rebound made a triumphant story arc for the recent documentary Miss Sharon Jones!, which screened at Houston’s 14 Pews in August and is available on iTunes, but her health had begun to cloud over again recently. Even as the awards and other accolades for Miss Sharon Jones! continued to pour in, she had begun canceling appearances, like a performance for President and Mrs. Obama at the SXSW-sponsored South by South Lawn event last month at the White House.
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Also last month, the Dap-Kings reissued what would become their final studio album with Jones, It’s a Holiday Soul Party, on green vinyl. Originally released last year, it had sold out of its original pressing. Jones’ death can’t help but cast a bittersweet pall over such a festive occasion, but Holiday Soul Party deserves to remembered as a superior holiday album as well as a very good SJDK album. The originals display ingenuity and street-smarts; Jones’ “Ain’t No Chimneys In the Projects” is a cinematic, string-shaded cousin to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street.” “8 Days (of Hanukkah)” flips soul music’s love of counting off various dance steps into a joyful and humorous celebration of the Festival of Lights.
Some traditional songs here — “Funky Little Drummer Boy,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” — take all the liberties that arrangements by an ultra-talented group like the Dap-Kings will allow; their knowledge of R&B and funk history is matched only by their chops to play it. “Silent Night” graciously nods its head to B.B. King’s “Three O’Clock Blues.” Others their only task is to lay back and let Jones take over: “White Christmas” lets her go full-on Tina Turner, “Silver Bells” puts her gospel roots in the foreground, and her totally straight reading of Texas City native Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home For Christmas” is pure perfection. The world is a little darker because Sharon Jones is no longer with us, but the glad tidings of Holiday Soul Party are at least enough to keep the darkness at bay as long as this record is spinning.
Still, oh what a Christmas to have the blues.