Sharon Jones may have been born in a storeroom in the segregated black section of the old University Hospital because they didn’t have a room for her mother, but she was truly a citizen of the world.
Jones, who died Friday, Nov. 18, at age 60, was arguably the most famous internationally-known person of any kind to come out of the Augusta area except for James Brown himself.
She performed constantly at gigantic music festivals in Europe and elsewhere to thousands and thousands of screaming fans, and she sold out such huge venues as the Sydney Opera House.
Name a country and she probably was there.
One time, I called her thinking she was at her North Augusta home and asked if she wanted to go to a local entertainment offering the next day, and she said, “Don, I can’t do that. I’m in Venezuela.”
It is such a shame her life ended in a New York hospital because I’ve met few people who loved life and loved average people as much as Shéron Lafaye Jones (her birth name).
I did not know of her when asked to write about her upcoming concert at the Imperial Theatre in March 2011, but then again, she hadn’t heard of me either. But, it didn’t take long to find out how much rhythm & blues fans loved the recordings she and her band The Dap Kings were doing on vinyl records and CDs.
Thanks to entertainment writer Steven Uhles, I read about her previous Augusta show with The Dap Kings in 2006 at the Soul Bar nightclub on Broad Street.
And I read that she had sung on most of the soundtrack for Denzel Washington’s movie The Great Debaters, performed with Prince at Madison Square Garden after he had caught her appearance on the PBS series Austin City Limits and had sung the classic rock hit Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes with Michael Bublé on Saturday Night Live and recorded it as a duet on one of his albums.
Over the weekend, Canadian crooner Bublé posted on his twitter account, “I am deeply saddened to hear the news about Sharon Jones. It was an honour & privilege to perform with the queen of soul. #ripsharonjones”
When I first talked to her by phone, she broke the news that, after 50-something years of living in New York City, she was moving her 78-year-old mother, Ella, and her sister, Dora, to a house she had bought in North Augusta.
We met in person backstage at the Imperial during an afternoon rehearsal, and it was as if we had known each other forever.
Jones liked being treated as a regular person when she was home and didn’t like being regarded as a celebrity. She usually was seen around town wearing no cosmetics, dark glasses and a large, floppy hat with cut-off denim jeans and a tour T-shirt.
She liked to blend in and interact with employees and customers at regular-people stores like Huddle House, Family Dollar or some other place she liked.
I can tell you where she spent the last two May 4th birthdays of her life, because I picked up the tab at both of those sushi places on Washington Road just like she picked up the tab for my Christmas Eve birthday at Red Lobster.
We celebrated her birthday early in 2014 at my house on April 18 because she was starting another European tour on April 30 that would include stops in The Netherlands, France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and Finland.
I got take-out Chinese food and had some of her family and friends over. We sang Happy Birthday to her, of course. But local celebs Flo Carter and Carey Murdock made the night special singing a duet just to her of the Louis Armstrong hit What A Wonderful World with Murdock on guitar. She absolutely loved it. She loved Carter so much that she instantly agreed to portray the conductor on Carter’s This Train (Is Bound For Glory) music video.
Right from the start of our friendship, I made it my goal to make sure she had fun and be relaxed when she was home because she had so much stress on the road. Usually that meant fishing. If other people were nearby when she was fishing off banks or docks, she would smile and chat with them. Rarely did they realize they were talking to a star who had been on all the late-night TV talk shows.
Sometimes she picked me up at my house at 4 or 5 in the morning to hook up with some professional fishing guide she had hired. She would be driving on that two-lane, winding forest road leading from Martintown Road in North Augusta to Clark’s Hill Lake Dam and be playing the unreleased recordings of what would be her Grammy-nominated Give The People What They Want album. And she would be singing along to know the words to the songs when she went out on tour to perform them.
There is at least one more album that was being mastered at the time of her death, and it contains her bluesy autobiographical I’m Still Here, which starts off talking about growing up in North Augusta. She proudly played the raw recordings for me and two other friends fishing with her last spring. And to tell you the truth, I think those songs are even better and stronger than her Grammy-nominated album.
Jones loved to hear local singers, but often told me that she would rather let them perform than be in the spotlight herself. But she always performed when asked. You can always tell when people love what they do, no matter what they do, if they do it when they don’t have to do it. That make sense?
She loved going to the Aiken and Augusta fairs and walking around in late afternoon and into early evening when the fair lights came on. She would sit on the bleachers and watch the dog and pig shows or wire walkers and be eating a turkey leg or fries with vinegar at the same time.
One year we came upon Nelson Curry of the Klass Band Brotherhood, who turned out be a distant cousin, and he told the audience that it was his dream to perform at least once with Jones. So she got up on stage and did a fiery stage number with him and his band.
I told her about how good Ed Turner and Number 9 are and how he loves her music. He was rehearsing at his house for a 2014 Rock & Soul Revue weekend at the Imperial when I asked to bring a friend over; knowing he never liked having outsiders at his rehearsals.
He said, “Yes,” and when Jones and her cousin Lena Wideman walked in his living room, I thought they all were going to Rock ’n’ Roll ’n’ Soul Heaven by the look on their faces. Jones loved their sound so much that she told Turner that she would think about doing a song with him on the condition her appearance would not be advertised. As a result, both the Friday and Saturday night audiences were surprised when Turner announced her as a guest performer. They blew the audience away with their rendition on JB’s It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.
There are dozens of stories I could tell about the goodness, amazing talent and incredibly sensitive nature of this wonderful woman who loved to call the Augusta area her home. Jones was so happy being with her family and friends and gave so much of herself to help groups like the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils students, University Hospital breast cancer awareness programs, Augusta Museum of History, North Augusta Arts & Heritage Center and on and on and on.
She would sometimes wonder aloud why she didn’t sell more millions of copies of her albums and didn’t win any major music awards while lesser and younger stars were being honored. But I predict her status will grow in the coming years, and that whole new generations of music fans will come to love our own Sharon Jones. And, God, we’re going to miss her so much.
TWO MORE MUSIC LOSSES: We also lost singer-songwriter Holly Dunn on Nov. 15 in Albuquerque, N.M., at age 59; and singer-songwriter Mentor Williams on Nov. 16 in Taos, N.M., at age 70.
Williams was the long-time companion of country star Lynn Anderson who died last year and the brother of singer-songwriter Paul Williams, known for The Rainbow Connection sung by Kermit The Frog.
Dunn had several hits on MTM Records including her classic Daddy’s Hands.