Homecoming Queen

By  |  January 19, 2015
Sharon Jones, Augusta (2015). Photo by Tim Duffy Sharon Jones, Augusta (2015). Photo by Tim Duffy

North Augusta Baptist Church is a humble house of God, steepleless and cast in brick, with a pair of squat towers flanking the stained-glass black Messiah on its façade. Last summer, I got my picture taken next to the marquee out front, which advertised an upcoming Youth Revival weekend—fitting enough, since my being there related to a former young congregant. In the mid-1960s, soul singer Sharon Jones gave her first public performance here, as a singing angel in the Christmas pageant when she was in the third grade.

Several days after my visit, in the vacant lobby of a Marriott Suites in Alpharetta, a suburb north of Atlanta, Jones remembered her childhood in Augusta—or more accurately in “Georgia-Lina,” as James Brown, the city’s most famous denizen, dubbed it. Augusta, Georgia, and North Augusta, South Carolina, across the Savannah River, are effectively one place, locally referred to as simply Augusta.

“Oh, it was a different world,” she said. “It was a different world.”

Jones grew up not in Georgia-Lina, but in New York. In 1959, catching the tail end of the Great Migration, her mother, Ella Mae Price, moved north with her three little girls, escaping an abusive relationship with their father. Sharon, the youngest, was three. From then on, her childhood was divided between Brooklyn and Augusta, where she and her sisters spent summers with their father and brothers, as well as all of Sharon’s third-grade year, when her parents tried getting back together.

Down south, Sharon discovered music—at church, on the radio, and in the audience with her father at a James Brown concert one summer. “He jumped on the stage,” Jones recalled, and the J.B.’s dropped into something and James Brown started moving his feet. “I was eye-level with the stage. And I was like, ‘Dad! Look, Dad, he’s floating.’” Her course was set.

Though Jones has a fondness for her early days in Augusta, she also recalled the shock of encountering segregation and intolerance for the first time. In New York, she attended an integrated school and one of her favorite teachers, Mrs. Chandler, was white. In South Carolina and Georgia, white adults were scary and mean. “They put the fear in you,” she said. Even the birds were racist. “There was a store on the corner, a little candy store right off of West Avenue, and as soon as black kids went in there, they had a bird trained to use the n-word: niggers stealin’. You walk in the store: niggers stealin’, niggers stealin’.”

Despite memories like these (she has plenty), Jones is not bitter about this chapter of her past. But she is not naive. “Those summers I went back,” she told me, “they was hell.” This reminded me of what James Brown sang in 1974: “It’s hell down here!” Intentional or not, the reference was apropos.

Since 2002, Sharon Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, have been the world’s standard-bearing funk-bringers. And while their albums are a place where serious deep-soul music persists, Jones—like Brown—has been anointed because of the spectacle of her live show. On Sharon’s stage, delivery and dance moves are queen, and in her audience one can rediscover the lost arts of performance: command, direction, showmanship, sincerity. She could win a room on the hearty and heartfelt substance of her voice alone, but Sharon Jones doesn’t ever simply sing; she sings and shuffles, she sings and dips, she sings and screams and goads and charms and, yes, she floats.

Though Jones lived in New York for more than fifty years, made her career there, and is closely associated with the city—her stint as a correction officer on Rikers Island is routinely invoked—she is a Southerner again. She now lives in a quiet neighborhood on the same street as her old church in North Augusta. It’s been nearly five years since she came home.

 

Don Rhodes has a faint white mustache and a tendency to salivate when talking that lends him a grandfatherly aspect, although he is spry for a man in his late sixties, and remarkably sharp. He is known around Augusta as Ramblin’ Rhodes, and if you get a chance to meet him there in his hometown—where he has lived his entire life, save a few wilderness years spent downriver in Savannah in his twenties—you won’t need to ask how he came into this nickname, which also serves as the title of his weekly country music column in the Augusta Chronicle. Ramblin’ Rhodes, the man, possesses two primary qualities: an extensive and ranging knowledge, both informational and anecdotal, and a charitable, if mildly aggressive, loquacity. He cannot help but share what he’s learned from having “written about all this a whole lot,” as he told me. “All this” refers specifically to the milieu and minutiae of Augusta—its geography and politics, its culture and history, and especially its many famous sons and daughters. Besides his column, which he’s been filing since 1970 (country music historian Robert Oermann designated “Ramblin’ Rhodes” the longest-running country music column in America), Rhodes has written numerous books, including Say It Loud!: The Life of James Brown, Soul Brother No. 1; Ty Cobb: Safe at Home; and Legendary Locals of Augusta. “Let me know if I’m boring you,” he said more than once during our morning together. “I don’t know when I’m talking too much.”

It was a Sunday in early July, and Rhodes had agreed to give me a tour of the city in his old Cadillac. As I tried to get my bearings, he steadily narrated the city’s history, constantly interrupting himself to point out landmarks: President Woodrow Wilson’s prim boyhood home; the Augusta Exchange Club Fairgrounds, shabby from disuse, where Ty Cobb played his first professional ball; an unassuming office complex that once housed the Soundcraft recording studio where James Brown cut “Get on the Good Foot” and Larry Jon Wilson later recorded “Sheldon Churchyard”; the nightclub turned funeral home, a curious low-slung concrete building beside the highway, where Michael Jackson was allowed a private early-morning viewing of James Brown’s body before his final memorial at James Brown Arena after his death in 2006. We crossed the river many times, and I understood the Georgia-Lina designation.

The night before, I was given an introduction to Augusta by one of Rhodes’s colleagues at the Chron, a middle-aged music writer named Steven Uhles. Uhles has been following Sharon Jones since her first hometown show, in early 2006, at the Soul Bar, a tiny venue on Broad Street. That performance, he wrote at the time, was for Jones “a literal and spiritual homecoming,” and it was the spark, perhaps, for her eventual permanent return.

After dinner at a new barbecue restaurant, Uhles took me downtown to meet Coco Rubio, the man whose gamble in 1993 to open the Soul Bar on the desolate main stretch jump-started the revitalization of Augusta’s center city. It was hard for me to imagine a vacant Broad Street, which is one of the widest boulevards in the country and lined with stately old buildings. That night it was lively with pedestrians of all stripes. As Uhles parked us behind the strip, he recalled the days when you wouldn’t want to leave your car on Broad. Now you simply can’t get a spot.

We found Rubio in the sound booth at Sky City, his newer, bigger venue down the street, where he was working a bill of local bands. While casually manning his post, leaning forward occasionally to idly thumb the knobs and levers on his wide soundboard, Rubio talked about the old days, when most of the buildings downtown were abandoned and he threw secret shows on their upper floors. Between sets we visited the greenroom, where the next band ate vodka-infused watermelon from a Tupperware container, and everyone canvassed for the hometown vibe. A couple of the musicians had recently relocated to Charleston, but they were thinking of coming back. At one point, Rubio took out his phone and showed me a candid portrait he’d taken of James Brown hunched over a pool table at the Soul Bar, beaming from across a supersaturated expanse of turquoise felt.

 

Everybody I met in Augusta had a James Brown story: the Godfather of Soul roaming around town in his baby-blue Rolls-Royce, showing up unbidden at parties and concerts, hanging around like he was anyone while making sure everyone remembered exactly who he was. Many people also had a Sharon Jones story.

Since Jones moved to Augusta in 2011, she and Ramblin’ Rhodes have become fishing buddies and close confidants. On Sunday morning before our driving tour, he took me to one of her favorite spots, the Huddle House on Ellis Street, where our waitress, Sandra, laughed when he mentioned I was interested in Jones. “Sharon?” she said. “She ain’t better than me, but she’s good.” From our booth you could nearly see the site of the old University Hospital where Sharon Lafaye Jones was born on May 4, 1956, in a stockroom, because they didn’t have a bed for her mother in the Lamar Wing for blacks, or more likely the family couldn’t afford one.

During our day together, Don told me numerous stories about his friend Sharon. Three years ago, he invited her to the Rhodes family’s annual Christmas reunion at his sister Ann’s place two hours south in middle Georgia, “off in nowhere.” To his surprise, she accepted, and she even sang “Happy Birthday”—a tradition, since many of Don’s family members have holiday birthdays—in the manner of Stevie Wonder. The next year, they were out on the lake fishing together when Don got the call that Ann had succumbed to cancer. In the car, he marveled at whatever fate had brought them together, a gay white Southern man and a black woman from Brooklyn. “Five years ago, she didn’t know who I was,” he said, “and now we’re best friends.” Then he apologized, wiping his eyes, and I realized he was crying.

That morning, not far from the stretch of highway where in 1988 James Brown had led cops on a brief, twenty-miles-per-hour chase on shot-out tires—not exactly high speed, as was widely misreported—Don turned into a residential neighborhood in North Augusta and parked out front of a small yellow-brick bungalow on a corner. He’d taken me to Sharon Jones’s home. I wasn’t anticipating a house call, but Don hopped out and knocked on the carport door and Dora Jones opened it. A tiny and energetic woman, much like her famous younger sister, Dora welcomed us inside as if she’d been expecting our visit. The living room was tidy, but felt unfinished. Their brother Ike sat in a recliner watching an old Western. On one wall hung a GONE FISHING sign. As usual, Sharon was away on tour.

Dora and Don, who was clearly a regular guest, pointed out a few souvenirs from Sharon’s career, including the framed thank-you letter from Michelle Obama, whom Sharon met in 2012 when she and the Dap-Kings performed in a Marvin Gaye tribute concert at the Kennedy Center. On the floor in one corner, a collection of photographs and memorabilia waiting to be hung resembled a kind of makeshift shrine to Sharon. Dora told some stories from their early childhood in that very neighborhood, how they would fish in the pond and cool peaches in the stream. She remembered Sharon singing “Jesus Loves Me” and telling everyone that she was going to be a famous singer one day.

 

The kind of music Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings make is, in one word, soul, though to really get at it you need a train-car handful: sweet-and-sour soul-searching dap-dippin’ back-pocket funk. James Brown is the chief inspiration for Jones’s professional partner, the songwriter, producer, and Dap-Kings bass player known as Bosco Mann (his given name is Gabriel Roth). Fifteen years ago, Roth founded the Brooklyn-based independent label Daptone Records with saxophonist Neal Sugarman to create an outlet for vintage funk and soul, old school rhythm & blues—with an emphasis on the former in both of those classic binaries. Roth and Jones met in the nineties through her ex-fiancé, a musician, and they quickly recognized a kindred aesthetic. Though she often says she had been told by industry suits that she was “too fat, too black, too short, and too old” to be a successful singer, Jones had maintained her chops in wedding bands and church choirs. To Roth, it was only her voice that mattered. From day one, she has been Daptone’s doyenne.

Whatever you call her music, don’t say “revival,” a term the Dap-Kings get leveled with too often, and one she hates. Many people discovered Sharon Jones in 2006, after the Dap-Kings were tapped to play behind Amy Winehouse on her second album, Back to Black, which would win a host of awards and continues to sell millions. Jones resented that a little, understandably, since her own critically acclaimed music had always fallen short of a broad reception. In 2015, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings finally received their first Grammy nomination, in the Best R&B Album category, for their fifth LP, Give the People What They Want. They lost to Toni Braxton & Babyface, who have won eighteen Grammys between them.

The simple cover of 2002’s Dap Dippin’ with . . . Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, their debut album (and 001 in the Daptone catalog), is made up mostly of black space. The title runs across the top in a primary color treatment. Below it, way off toward the right-hand margin, stands Jones in a glittery red dress, and next to her, running off the sleeve, is half a saxophone player, the identifying details of his face cut off by the cover’s edge, an effect that encourages the listener to imagine the rest of the Dap-Kings, whoever they are, in line behind her out of frame. Jones, mic in hand, hip turned out, left arm confidently cocked, is singing back toward the center, into darkness.

I imagine her belting the album’s first song, “Got a Thing on My Mind,” a defiant blaster that can serve as a thesis statement for her career. “I got a thing on my mind / I’m sure I’m gonna find it,” Jones sings, packing the lines with all the pent-up ambition of a forty-six-year-old woman who’d never been given the shot she knew she deserved. “Don’t let nobody tell me my bangin’ won’t come true / ‘Cause I ain’t lyin’ down ‘til I get my dues.”

She hasn’t gotten them yet, and so she continues.

 

The night of our meeting at the Marriott, Jones was to perform in Alpharetta on the Wheels of Soul tour with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. I was nervous about confessing that I’d visited her house without her invitation—that I stood in her living room and talked about her with Dora, who told me that I was now part of the family. But Jones reassured me. “You didn’t weird me out, that’s okay. That’s Don.”

She was in street clothes: loose pants and a plain black vest, with silver star-shaped earrings for just a hint of style, which she shows in spades when she wants to. The outfit could be called “fisherman casual,” and this more or less encapsulates her normal, offstage persona. Sharon’s father taught her to fish when she was a girl and it is an obsession. (Although she didn’t know until years after he died, it was also from her dad that Sharon inherited the musical gene—he’d been a singer in barbershop quartets.) That night at the concert, one of her buddies from Augusta told me about the time she called their mutual friend at 3 A.M. from Germany, during a European tour, to ask about how the fish were biting back home.

Generous in conversation, Jones talks fast, indulging tangents and incidental whims. I imagined her and Ramblin’ Rhodes in a small boat in the middle of a lake somewhere, trading gossip and reeling in bass. We had been talking for almost an hour when she whipped out her phone and began scrolling through her photo history. She was looking for photos from a concert she’d attended in her hometown in January. It was a show put on by the James Brown Academy of Muzik Pupils (JAMP), a program founded by Brown’s daughter Deanna Brown Thomas that employs former J.B.’s sidemen to teach Augusta kids how to get down. As Jones searched back through her library for the JAMP pics—”Them little babies is crazy!”—I was granted a viewing of her year in reverse.

“That’s me and Queen Latifah actin’ stupid.” Jones tilted the screen and showed me a handful of blurry mirror selfies of her and Latifah alternately mean mugging and cracking up.

“That’s me with Green.” Sharon and CeeLo had each performed in a David Byrne tribute show at Carnegie Hall in March.

“That’s me and Binky at the Grammys.” She and the Dap-Kings’ guitarist and emcee, Binky Griptite, were dressed to the nines.

“How was that?” I asked, forgetting about the outcome.

“Sucked. I left an hour and a half before they ended.” She swiped on.

“Oh, there go the babies.” She’d found the JAMP show. “Ain’t they the cutest little things?” She played a video she’d taken at the concert in February at Augusta’s Bell Auditorium. “They are tight! Adults can’t play like the way they play. People think they can play funk and soul—no, baby, this is how it’s done!

“This is Christmas Day—look what I’m dressed in.” Last year, Jones, who has performed on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, rode in a trolley with Don Rhodes in the North Augusta Christmas Parade, singing “White Christmas” in a white coat and Santa hat.

I asked Jones why she’d decided to move back to Augusta, after so many years away; her visits back grew infrequent after her dad died when she was twelve. After her grandparents passed away, she stopped returning at all, until her band booked the 2006 show at the Soul Bar. Sharon explained that she returned for her mother. In 2011, Ella Mae was dying of cancer, and Sharon—who, despite her great career success, was living with her mom in the projects in Queens—had finally saved enough money to get them out. She wanted her mother to spend her last days back home, so Sharon bought the yellow house in their old neighborhood in North Augusta. Dora, who’d been living alone in the Bronx, came, too. “She lived nine months after we got in the house,” Jones told me, of her ailing mother. “That was the hurting part.” When her mother died, in March 2012, the Dap-Kings were on the road. A year later, Sharon was diagnosed with bile duct cancer.

The illness and accompanying chemotherapy kept her from touring for almost a year and delayed the release of Give the People What They Want. She got right back to it as soon as she was able. During this time, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple followed Jones and the Dap-Kings while Sharon fought and overcame the cancer and returned to performing. Then in early 2015, a month before she would attend the Grammys as a first-time nominee, Jones had to have a procedure to remove a new tumor. “So there has not been a break for me since 2010,” Sharon said.

I asked if a break was on the horizon. Jones told me her plan is to “keep going. Just keep going. Just keep doing it, you know?”

A couple weeks before we met in July, an MRI revealed that the cancer had reappeared; Jones had a tumor on her liver. She hadn’t announced it publicly yet, she told me, but it was back again and she was tired. Not exhausted, it seemed, but annoyed. “I don’t want it to keep reoccurring,” she said. “I don’t want it every six months—messing with the cancer. It’s the worst.”

Jones finished out the summer tour with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, dancing and screaming—I can attest as a witness—with no perceivable lack of her famous energy. But in August, instead of going into the studio to record a planned seventh album, she went back into surgery.

A month later, Kopple’s documentary Miss Sharon Jones! premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. After the screening, Sharon came onstage, alongside her oncologist and her band, and revealed the latest cancer news. The audience was shocked, since the documentary ends triumphantly with her healthy and touring. Jones vowed that she would keep singing, no matter what. Nothing would keep her from, she said, “giving the people what they want.” Three days later, she began another round of chemo.

 

Should Sharon Jones get her way, we the people will continue to get what we want for a long time to come. Her dream, she told me, whenever she gives up touring regularly, is to become a producer. She wants to discover talented kids at home, through the JAMP school, and bring them up to Daptone to make records. She’ll settle in at the house with her siblings, get a fishing boat, and finally remove the tags from the new grill she received as a house-warming gift five years ago. Don will come over with his partner, Eddie. Maybe Uhles and Coco will be there. They’ll talk about James Brown.

In the months since we met, I’ve been keeping up with Sharon’s recovery, listening to the Dap-Kings’ latest, It’s a Holiday Soul Party, and checking in with Don back in Augusta. Around the time when Sharon made her most recent prognosis public in September, he had an accident. Sharon called him in the hospital from upstate New York, where she was undergoing treatment. “The type of person she is,” Don said: “more concerned about me falling off the roof than her cancer coming back.”

Reading about Sharon’s perseverance and steadfast character in spite of her latest setback, I’m drawn to something she told me at the hotel that day—this cool, cryptic, tossed-off line that could be the refrain to a great funk song. “I know I’m a little older. I don’t know how long I’m gonna be here,” she said, with all her unrestrained honesty and confidence, “but right now, while I’m here, you better get it.” We were talking about her music, and the comment seemed not directed at me but more of a note to self. Sharon Jones, you better get it.


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Maxwell George is the Oxford American’s deputy editor.