She never gained the popularity and name recognition as other soul divas. Still, Sharon Jones earned acclaim for her dynamic style. And Jones, who died at age 60 in 2016, is winning new fans thanks to the documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, which chronicles her determination to succeed despite the obstacles––including a bout with pancreatic cancer.
That documentary is competing against four other highly praised documentaries at the NAACP Image Awards.
On the surface, director Barbara Kopple created a cancer survival story. But she examines Jones’ unrelenting drive to make great music, even after being diagnosed with the disease, Variety said.
A native of Augusta, Georgia, Jones’ family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when she was a small child. The high-spirited Jones went on to develop her voice in church, influenced by the energetic performance styles of James Brown and Tina Turner.
The New York Times said she “sang and shouted the kind of gospel-charged soul and funk she had grown up on. Her voice had bite, bluesiness, rhythmic savvy and a lifetime of conviction.”
Jones, hungry for a big break, began singing in the 1970s with bands at night spots and weddings, as well as backup in studios. She eventually teamed up with the Dap-Kings, an R&B band.
Success took decades. Despite her obvious talent, critics said Jones lacked the right look, according to The Times. They said she was too short, overweight, dark and old.
Nevertheless, she persevered, recording her first album, Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, in 2002. That unlocked doors that were once closed, including a film appearance in the 2007 movie, The Great Debaters.
Jones’ journey as a professional singer started after graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn. Along the way, she took jobs as an armed security guard at Wells Fargo and a corrections officer at Rikers Island prison, while also taking classes at Brooklyn College.
If not for her personal strength, the world would never have heard Jones’ music. But what about the next Sharon Jones? How can children be nurtured to develop her or his talents? Certainly, schools can play a role.
Tight budgets, however, force many school districts to choose which programs end up on the chopping block.
“You can’t just offer, especially at the high school, math, science, social studies and reading,” Steve Ellis, principal at Fike High School in Wilson, North Carolina told the Associated Press.
The Washington Times reported that his school cut jazz band and piano classes. He expressed frustration that principals too often educate students on a shoestring budget and must cut elective programs.
To fill the budget gap, the Washington Times said many schools have turned to private and nonprofit organizations for funding, and seek opportunities for students to perform with professional groups.
Brown praised Jones for sharing her stage with students from the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils as her opening performers during a concert at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta.
Jones wanted to give young performers every opportunity to master the craft. She will always be remembered for her tenacity in pursuing her own career, even while undergoing chemotherapy. Kopple captured many of those key moments, including Jones’ return to the tour circuit bald.
In 2015, she sang a poignant autobiographical single: “I’m Still Here.” She sang, “I didn’t know if I would live to see another day. But I’m still here.”