Sharon Jones obituary

Powerful soul and funk singer with the Dap-Kings hailed for her stage presence

Although she began to achieve success only after she had reached 40, the singer Sharon Jones, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 60, had spent her life working towards a musical career. A passionate devotee of the classic soul and funk music pioneered by the likes of James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, Jones could have made a perfect fit for record labels such as Motown or Stax had she been born a decade earlier.

It was not until 2002 that she released her first album, Dap-Dippin With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, after which she went on to record a further five albums. In 2014, Jones and the Dap-Kings earned a Grammy nomination for their album Give the People What They Want. The next year, they released a Christmas album, Its a Holiday Soul Party, and this summer, the compilation album Miss Sharon Jones! was released, featuring music used on the soundtrack of the documentary film of the same name, directed by Barbara Kopple.

The bands raw soul power (including a roaring horn section) coupled with Joness huge stage presence and even bigger voice had helped them build a steadily growing audience from the release of that first album. This was driven by constant gigging and regular recording, with the albums Naturally (2005), 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007) and I Learned The Hard Way (2010) cementing the groups reputation as flag-wavers for the spirit of real soul and funk music. The Dap-Kings also played on Amy Winehouses album Back to Black (2006) and toured with her, which irked Jones somewhat.

But Jones began receiving prestigious invitations of her own. In 2007 she appeared as a bar-room singer in the Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters, and that year also performed with Lou Reed. She guested on Michael Bubls album Crazy Love in 2009, and, with the Dap-Kings, was joined on stage by Prince in Paris in 2011. In 2016 the band toured with Hall and Oates and was seen performing in the Netflix TV series, Marvels Luke Cage.

Joness belated but dynamic progress was scuppered by illness. In June 2013 she was diagnosed with bile duct cancer and underwent surgery, but subsequently had to have further surgery after her diagnosis was revised to pancreatic cancer. The Miss Sharon Jones! documentary was filmed while Jones was in the middle of her treatment. She explained that she decided to get involved in the film because it would be cool to let my fans see what Im going through. Maybe Ill inspire someone whos battling cancer to fight.

At the end of 2013 she was declared free of the disease. Give the People What They Want was released in January 2014, and Jones hoped the album would earn greater music business recognition for herself and her band and for their style of music. They should have another category for soul at the Grammy awards, she told Spin magazine in 2014. Theyre trying to say there are no soul singers that soul music died in the late 60s and early 70s. I want the industry to know that soul music hasnt died. Nonetheless, when she received her Grammy nomination, it was in the R&B category.

Jones was born the youngest of six children in Augusta, Georgia, to Ella Mae (nee Price) and Charlie Jones. In 1959 Ella Mae moved with Sharon and her two other daughters, Willa and Dora, to Brooklyns Bedford-Stuyvesant district, while her sons, Charles, Ike and Henry, stayed in Augusta with their father. The girls would spend summers in Augusta, and on one of these visits Sharon attended a James Brown concert with her father. Browns groundbreaking music and explosive performing style became a powerful influence on her.

She regularly sang gospel music in church and during the 70s performed with funk bands as well as picking up work as a backing singer, often as Lafaye Jones (Lafaye was her middle name). However, she was unable to make a breakthrough in her own right, and, as she later recalled in Miss Sharon Jones!, was once told by a record producer that she was too fat, too black, too short and too old.

She earned a living by working as a corrections officer at New Yorks Rikers Island prison and as an armoured car guard for the Wells Fargo corporation. These tough jobs perhaps helped Jones to develop her formidable stage persona, in which she would strut around the stage in an explosion of tassels and glitter.

The turning point arrived in 1996, when Jones was recruited by Gabriel Roth and Philippe Lehman (the latter the boss of French label Pure Records) to sing at a recording session for the R&B performer Lee Fields, with the backing band the Soul Providers. Roth and Lehman were so impressed with Joness work that they invited her to sing solo on a pair of tracks, Switchblade and The Landlord, both of which appeared on the Soul Providers album Soul Tequila.

Roth and Lehman subsequently launched the Brooklyn-based label Desco, for which Jones recorded three singles, Damn Its Hot, Bump N Touch and You Better Think Twice (all of which later appeared on the compilation Spikes Choice: The Desco Funk 45 Collection). In 2000 Roth and Lehman went their separate ways, and Roth launched Daptone Records. Its first release was Dap-Dippin With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the Dap-Kings having been formed from members of the Soul Providers and fellow Desco recording artists the Mighty Imperials. Roth (calling himself Bosco Mann) played bass. The album was recorded in a basement in Williamsburg, and the band sold copies of it from the saxophonist Neal Sugarmans kitchen.

It was when Kopples documentary was being shown at the Toronto international film festival in 2015 that Jones revealed that her cancer had returned. Defiant to the last, she had co-written a new song, Im Still Here, for the film, in which she sang: I didnt know if I would live to see another day, but Im still here.

She is survived by Dora, Ike, Henry and Willa.

Sharon Lafaye Jones, soul singer and songwriter, born 4 May 1956; died 18 November 2016

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