Year of loss continues with Sharon Jones

This has been a rough year for music fans.

The list of performers lost seems longer than ever, starting with David Bowie in January and Prince in April and continuing with a recent flurry that included Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell.

As tragic as their deaths were, at least they were fully appreciated during their careers — multi-platinum sales and large fan bases (at least Bowie and Prince), induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other honors for all of them

The saddest thing about the death of Sharon Jones last week at age 60 is that too many people had no clue who she was when she died.

Jones arguably was the greatest contemporary soul singer at the time of her death. She was seeped in the traditions of such legendary artists as James Brown and Otis Redding without being a mere nostalgia act. The songs of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings felt as alive and vibrant as any music being made today.

Jones also was one of my favorite interviews. I had the pleasure to talk to her three times over the years and she always was bracingly honest. At the same time she was opening for Prince at Madison Square Garden and appearing in Denzel Washington’s film “The Great Debaters,” she was living in “the projects” in Brooklyn and driving a 6-year-old Honda, an upgrade from the 1988 Honda she needed to replace the first time we talked in 2007.

”I don’t want people all up in my business, but I do want to be recognized,” she told me in 2011. ”Why can’t we be at the Grammys for best album of the year? Why do the same eight or nine people win all the awards like no others exist? You have to get weird, hang upside down, make a dress out of meat. What do I have to do, get out of a limo without no drawers on? All we want to do is make good music and get people to hear it.”

She also didn’t shy away from implicit racism of a music industry that found it easier to sell that sound with the Dap Kings backing a skinny white woman — British singer Amy Winehouse — than with a diminutive black former Rikers prison guard. If you own and love Winehouse’s “Back to Black” (and I do), go out and buy “100 Days, 100 Nights,” “I Learned the Hard Way” or any record Jones made with the Dap Kings or at least look up her soulful take on “This Land Is Your Land” on YouTube.

Jones was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer in 2013, which stalled the band’s career right before it was set to release a new album, “Give the People What They Want,” and tour Europe, where the band’s following was bigger than in the U.S. Less than a year later, Jones was back on stage, part therapy and part necessity.

“I can’t afford to stay off (the road) anymore,” she said in 2014.

It appeared she’d beat the disease, but the cancellation of a European tour earlier this year was a hint that her health problems might not be over, and she suffered a stroke earlier this month.

My regret is, while I own all the albums, I barely saw her live. I turned around in Parkman once rather than braving the blizzard to get to the Beachland Ballroom. I missed a show at the Rock Hall because I was in the hospital with pancreatitis.

The only time I saw her live was at the Beachland in 2007, when the Dap Kings were playing the Ballroom and the Pipettes (a retro British girl group) was playing the tavern. I was on the guest list for both and figured I could catch the second half of Jones after seeing the Pipettes. They started later and played longer than I expected (they also were better live than I thought they’d be). All I saw of Jones was her encore — an amazing version of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

The Pipettes imploded shortly after that tour, so at the time I was glad I made the choice to stay in the tavern. I always figured I’d get another chance to see her, a chance that never came or, more accurately, a chance I never made happen.

I’ll have to settle for the recently released documentary “Miss Sharon Jones” and those YouTube videos.

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com

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