Prior to her death from pancreatic cancer in 2016, Sharon Jones was nominated for her first Grammy award for the 2014 release, Give The People What They Want, toured and performed tirelessly, and was the subject of Miss Sharon Jones!, an acclaimed documentary by Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple. Yet somehow, the beloved and heroic soul singer found time to complete a studio album. Soul of a Woman features eleven songs recorded with her long-time co-conspirators, the Dap-Kings, which reveal that the emotion, dynamics, and drama of Jones’ voice remained at full power until her final days.
“The last couple of years, Sharon was battling,” says Dap-Kings bass player Bosco Mann who produced the album. “When she was strongest, that’s when we’d go into the studio— Sharon couldn’t phone it in, so we would only work when she was really feeling it.”
Though mostly raised in Brooklyn, Jones spent her childhood summers in Augusta, Georgia, where she was born. She sang gospel in churches her whole life and spent many years leading her choir at the Universal Church of God in Brooklyn. In the 1970's, she joined a handful of local funk bands, but was unable to crack into the recording industry. Later, she began singing in wedding bands, and worked such jobs as armored car guard for Wells Fargo and corrections officer at Rikers Island prison. In 1996, she sang back-up on a Lee Fields session that Mann was producing, after which he put her front and center, at age 40, for her first-ever recording as a front woman, "Damn It's Hot."
Jones and the Dap-Kings recorded their 2001 debut album, Dap Dippin' With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, in the Brooklyn basement, followed by a series of increasingly popular albums and 45's, and constant, ecstatically received touring. Their sixth record, Give the People What They Want, was nominated for Best R&B Album at the 2015 Grammys, and the group's last album, It’s a Holiday Soul Party, was released in November 2015, almost a year to the day before Jones would pass away at age 60.
Mann explains that the songs on Soul of a Woman are the result of two different sides of Jones’s singing. Initially, the idea for the album was to focus on more string-driven ballads, possibly leading to a tour incorporating symphonies or string sections. But as the band realized that Sharon might not have a lot of time left, they decided to record some more up-tempo and bluesy material to give her the kind of funky stuff on which she really feasted on stage. The selections on this album balance these elements, presenting a full picture of her range: “Side one is the more raw live side,” says Mann, “while side two is more moody and orchestrated—more of a departure from her carnivorous live persona.”
The raw energy of the band is apparent from the opening tracks, “Matter of Time” (nailed in its first take), and “Sail On!” “The band was really cresting on stage in the months before Sharon passed,” says Mann. “As a show band, I don’t think any band out there could have competed with us at that level. We hit the studio hot off the road and you could feel it in there.” On side two, ballads like “When I Saw Your Face,” “Girl (You Got to Forgive Him),” and “These Tears (No Longer For You)” spotlight Sharon as a songstress, carving more crafted melodies over the Dap-Kings more refined, early Gladys Knight-type of arrangements, lush with strings, piano, and timpani.
After so many years of working together, this final studio album from Jones and the Dap-Kings became their most collaborative effort. “Sharon wanted to hear the story and relate to the song on a personal level,” says Mann. “we were all living together on the road, so if somebody was going through something, she was right there with us. She couldn’t really sing something unless she could really own it and sing it from her heart.” The variety of moods on this record reflects the contributions of so many of the Dap-Kings. On "Come and Be a Winner," penned by guitarist Joey Crispiano, Sharon shifts to a more relaxed approach. “There’s a lot of feeling in her voice on that tune," says Mann, "but it’s more plaintive—after all this time, she could still surprise us with her range.” On the more light-hearted “Rumors,” written by percussionist Fernando Velez and drummer Homer Steinweiss, Jones overdubbed her own harmony vocals; “there’s a lot of raw joy in that one,” says Mann, “it’s very compelling in a simple, playful way.”
Of course, pulling off such diverse material requires musicians who are up to the challenge. Over the course of more than two decades, the Dap-Kings have become synonymous with the sound of old-school soul. They were a central element in Amy Winehouse’s masterwork Back to Black, and have worked with a wide span of artists, from Al Green and Syl Johnson, to Sturgill Simpson and Kesha.
Mann maintains that how the Dap-Kings work is just as important as what they play. The group recorded Soul of a Woman on an eight-track tape machine. “The musicianship and arrangements have to really be on point,” he says. “It’s the responsibility of the band to get the performance right—there’s no undo, no ‘give me another track.’ There’s a different sense of commitment. It means that you’re feeling a moment that was recorded by musicians, rather than a moment that was assembled by producers and mixing engineers, and I think people grasp that emotionally.”
The result is an album that captures a band and a singer at their peak—with, as Mann says, “lots of feeling, blood, sweat, and unfortunately, tears. It’s dripping with that stuff, and you can feel that. Sharon used to say ‘What comes from the heart reaches the heart,’ and I think everybody had that sense of pouring their heart into this record.”
“Every time she took the stage, it always felt like Sharon was leaving it all out there. So maybe it was more intense for the band towards the end, knowing what was coming, but that's the only way she knew how to sing her whole life—like it was her last day on earth.”