Thursday, January 11, 2018

Famous Fat Celebrities -- Sharon Jones: "Too Fat, Too Black"

I just came across the biographic details of an amazing entertainer with whom I was unfamiliar. Her name was Sharon Jones. She was a soul and funk singer so full of energy and fierceness on stage that she was sometimes called "the female James Brown."

She led a fascinating and inspiring life, full of hardships overcome through sheer guts and hard work. Against all odds, she achieved fame and renown in middle age. And when she was handed a difficult diagnosis of terminal cancer at far too young an age, she persevered with her life's work and continued breaking barriers for women and people of color for as long as she could. She died a peaceful death, full of music and grace, surrounded by her family and her band. Hers was a life well-lived.


Sharon Lafaye Jones was born May 4, 1956 in Augusta Georgia. She was born to Ella Mae Price Jones and Charlie Jones. She was the youngest of six children. After Ella Mae's sister died, she raised her sister's four children as well, so Sharon grew up as one of ten children.

Sharon's father was abusive and home life was chaotic at times. According to one source, she had a brother who went crazy after a brush with LSD, and her mother shot at her husband when he was unfaithful during her pregnancy.

In time, her mother moved the children away to New York and raised them by herself. Sharon grew up in Brooklyn. She would sometimes return to Georgia during her summers, but it was New York that she considered her home and that strongly flavors her work.

Musical Style and Influences

It was in Brooklyn that Jones began singing in church with her sister and absorbing the gospel style. This deeply-felt, soulful, and energetic music fused with the urban styles she heard all around her in New York and became the backbone of her style.

Another primary influence was James Brown. Her mother knew James Brown and Sharon grew up listening to his music, but she never tried to imitate him. You can see his highly-charged soul style in her performances, but she had her own twist on the music that made her truly unique. She was a fiery and truly commanding presence on stage. 

Other early influences included Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Thom Bell, Otis Redding, Ike & Tina Turner, Marva Whitney and the entire Motown stable of artists.

Jones described her style as soul and funk music. She lamented the fact that music awards put soul and funk into the R&B category because there supposedly weren't enough soul and funk performers for separate recognition. The industry believed that soul music was an outdated relic of a bygone era, but she set out to prove them wrong.

Her band's music typically had a strongly driving beat with a hook of horns and saxes. The band had a baritone sax, alto sax, and trumpet propelling its funk, underlaid by more typical instruments like electric guitar, drums, and bass guitar.

Too Fat, Too Black

Despite her talent and unique style, Jones had a hard time getting signed by a major record label. Record executives told her she was "Too fat, too black, too short, and too old" to make it in the business.

Ironically, her weight was barely mid-sized by community standards. Furthermore, there is a strong precedent for famous fat black women singers in African-American music (Bessie Smith, Ma Rainy, Big Mama Thornton, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Jill Scott, Queen Latifah, and many others). Still, those are the exceptions. Most record executives of that time placed a strong emphasis on conventional physical beauty for new singers trying to break into the business. In that recording industry in that time, she was seen as too heavy for a non-established singer and not worth taking a chance on.

"I looked at myself and saw ugliness," she said.

But she wouldn't let that keep her music down. Although she had to resort to other jobs to support herself, she kept singing and plugging away. She reminded herself that when she was a teenager, she saw a psychic who predicted a number of things that later came true. The psychic supposedly told her that she would receive recognition only late in her life, but would travel and have music and fame.

She cites this as helping her through the lean years when she had to live with her mother and work varied jobs like wedding singer, armored-car guard, and corrections officer at Ryker's Island. She had faith that in time, her ship would come in.

Eventually, it did─but not until she was over 40 years old. This is an almost unheard-of age for finally achieving success in the youth-oriented recording business, but she did it, against all odds.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Jones' first big break came in 1996 when she answered a call for a back-up singer for a recording. Musician and producer Gabriel Roth was so impressed by her talent that he had her record a single of her own. Through several record label ownership switches, that recording managed to survive and attract attention.

In the late 90s, she joined a small independent record label with Roth called Desco which began promoting her. Her fame began to grow.

That record label eventually folded too, but then Roth formed Daptone Records in 2001 and this one succeeded. Musicians from various bands joined with Jones and Roth and formed Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. They sought to play classic Soul music with their own unique twist. They became the leading act for Daptone Records.

The company got a run-down house in Brooklyn and remodeled it from the studs up. Sharon Jones helped with the remodeling, doing much of the electrical work herself. The building contained the offices and recording studios of the company. They made a conscious decision to only use analog equipment for their recordings, forgoing digital tools in order to make their music more authentic. They began gaining success with the college radio crowd and online via the internet.

Photo: Fred Tanneau, Getty Images
Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings put out a number of albums over the years. The first one that really attracted attention was Dap Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, which received strong notices from fans, DJs and collectors in 2002.

They added three more albums, including Naturally (2005), 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007), and I Learned the Hard Way (2010). As a result, they began to be seen by many as "the spearhead of a revival of soul and funk."

To increase their visibility, they toured relentlessly and performed with such diverse performers as Phish, Lou Reed, Hall & Oates, Michael BublĂ©, and Prince. Jones  appeared in the 2007 film The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. Amy Winehouse took inspiration from Jones, and the Dap-Kings played back-up for some of Winehouse's recordings. Later, she and the band played in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade and did the closing song for the TV series, Luke Cage.

Through the internet, she and the band were able to cross over and appeal to a multi-racial audience. She had a fiery presence onstage that left a strong impression. The New York Times said, "With her high-power vocals growling over the Dap-Kings’ caffeinated soul, Ms. Jones channels the power of James Brown in his prime."

She began receiving more fame for her work, despite loyally staying with the small, independent record label. However, it wasn't until near the end of her life, in her late 50s, that the band and Jones really gained the recognition they deserved. Unfortunately, it was then that illness struck.

"I Have Cancer; Cancer Don't Have Me"

Photo: Jesse Dittmar, New York Magazine
In 2012, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings began recording the album, Give the People What They Want. This is the work that would eventually earn them the recognition they so richly deserved, but it wasn't achieved without difficulty.

In 2013, Jones was diagnosed with bile duct cancer and then pancreatic cancer, stage II. Doctors removed her gallbladder, part of her pancreas, and 18 inches of her intestines. She then  underwent difficult chemotherapy treatments.

She asserted, "I have cancer; cancer don't have me." Although she did no music for about eight months during treatment, she and the band eventually went back to the studio and worked on material for the album on the days when she felt strong enough. Sometimes she was so fatigued she could hardly manage. She feared that she would not live to see the album released. Eventually, she rallied and they were able to finish it. The album was released two weeks after her final chemo treatments.

Give the People What They Want garnered a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album in 2015, despite being from a small, independent, and relatively unknown label. Jones was disappointed that there wasn't a separate category for Soul, but was still glad to finally receive recognition for their work. She told Rolling Stone Magazine, "The only thing I wanted to accomplish was to finally get recognized by the music industry."

For a while, her cancer went into remission and she continued with her career. She and the band toured and she performed as energetically as ever despite hip pain and neuropathy in her hands and feet that made it hard to dance. The band recorded a holiday-themed album called It's a Holiday Soul Party and released it in November 2015. Jones and the band continued to influence other artists such as Adele and her fame continued to grow. Talk shows like The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon, and Conan O'Brien had them performing for wide audiences.

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple made a documentary about Jones' life and music called "Miss Sharon Jones!" (available on Netflix and Amazon) which did a great deal to cement recognition of her talent. It wasn't intended to be about her cancer, but in the end it gave a gripping and unsparing look at her life during cancer, chemo, and rehabilitation to get in shape to perform again. The film documented the whole journey and ended with her triumphant return to the stage and the finishing of their watershed album. Jones said:
The movie wasn’t done because I got cancer; that movie is about part of my life, and cancer is going to be with me for the rest of my life...Do I lie down? Do I give up my career in music, in singing, because of chemo? Or do I go out and live my life?...To me, life is about how well you take it.
During her remission and comeback, the band enjoyed widespread acclaim as they toured, but it wasn't to last. Sadly, at the 2015 premiere of the documentary, she had to announce that the cancer had returned and she would be returning to chemotherapy that week. She stated that it wouldn't stop her from continuing to make music, saying, "I'm going to do what I have to do. I'm going to sing."

She toured while taking chemotherapy treatments. She was still touring until a few months before her death in 2016, though she did have to cancel a concert for President Obama at the last minute when she developed pneumonia. Sadly, she never got to reschedule it. She died a month later.

The following is a music video she made while first ill called "Stranger To My Happiness." She said it was a tremendous struggle to finish the video at times, but then she just decided to double down and gut it out. A casual observer would never know she was sick from her performance. The only clue is her bald head and the chemo port visible on her chest.

It's really great that in such an incredibly looks-focused industry, she did not hide her hair loss but went proudly onstage bald and still sexy as hell. She said:
I'm not a hair person. My hair on my head is my hair and I'll connect some braids onto it. But now to go out there without it, it's a new Sharon. Plus, I want my fans to go through what I'm going through. If they see this maybe they'll understand. And maybe my story will get across to someone else with cancer. Maybe they'll say, “Keep moving!” But basically it was to inspire myself. But you know, whenever you do something for yourself, you're doing something for someone else too.
Performing energized her and gave her life meaning, even as she struggled with her health. In the documentary, she notes how performing was incredibly therapeutic for her:
"When I walk out [onstage], whatever pain is gone," Jones says. "You forget about everything. There is no cancer. There is no sickness. You're just floating, looking in their faces and hearing them scream. That's all that is to me." 

In 2017, her bandmates put out another record, posthumously, called "Soul of a Woman," full of tracks she had made towards a new album. On the band's website, they write:
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.”

Sharon suffered two strokes in November 2016 and died a few days later. Her bandmates and family gathered around her for her final days and played music for her.

At first she could sing along, but after her second stroke she could no longer sing words. However, bandmate Gabriel Roth says that she often "moaned" along in tune with the music and eventually hummed along with it, especially the old gospel standards she loved so well. Even when she could no longer speak or answer questions, she could hum along and make 3-part harmony with her back-up singers, which greatly moved those present. Roth recounted:
She would smile and she would laugh at jokes and she'd look around and she seemed really happy to have everybody around her.

She didn't seem anxious or scared or anything. She just wanted to sing, you know, and every time there was a lull in the room she would start moaning some kind of gospel song or something and we'd very quietly come in behind her and play guitar. Or Saundra and Starr were singing harmonies with her.

And it was crazy. Even in that state -- if you asked her if she was in pain, she couldn't respond. She couldn't say one word, or say somebody's name or anything.

But she could find harmony notes with Saun and Starr, and sing three-part harmony and improvise these gospel moans. It was really remarkable, and it was beautiful. I've never seen anything like it.
Rest in peace, Sharon Jones. What a wonderful musical contribution you made to the world.


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