Most of the time you don’t know when something will be your last time. When I took my son to see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers last May, I didn’t know we’d never get another chance to see that band. There have been rare exceptions – like Warren Zevon, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen. They all recorded their final albums knowing their death was near. But more often than not, when an artist dies while still in their prime, we’re left with the sense of unfinished business. We’re left to wonder what they might have accomplished had they not been taken from us too soon. Well, in late 2016, we lost Sharon Jones to cancer. Her band has released her final album; recorded in the last two years of her life. But unlike the artists above, Jones chose to sing about her life as a woman, not her imminent demise.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings are a journeyman old school Rhythm & Blues band that has been touring and performing since she turned 45 and recorded her first album, Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings in 2002. The 2016 film, Miss Sharon Jones! tells her story, and her struggle with cancer. The movie’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack introduced one of the great R&B singers of our time to a larger audience. The Dap-Kings, serious players in their own right, worked as individual players on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album, and they performed at Sturgill Simpson’s band at the Grammy’s back in February, and the Dap-Kings Horns have recorded with Bruno Mars and on the latest album by Kesha.
So given all that she’s gone through, Soul of a Woman is an album that celebrates life and the connections that fill it with meaning. It makes no mentions of cancer or death. In fact, with tracks like the sprightly pop “Come and Be a Winner” and the light funk of “Searching for a New Day,” it’s clear that Jones is looking forward and not back. “Matter of Time” opens the album with her one somewhat political anthem. It celebrates the time to come when justice and unity will bring all of humanity together. But much of her attention is focused on the coming and going of romantic relations – whether confronting a man with the “Rumors” that are going around the he is “no good,” or letting one loose in “Pass Me By.”
Throughout the album, the Dap-Kings touch all the classic R&B bases, Hammond swells, a rhythm section that can lay down a solid dance floor groove or pull back and keep it tight and soft, guitarist Binky Griptite playing tastefully while the horns produce the band’s biggest sound and more often then not take the songs and Jones’ vocals to the next level. There are not a lot of people making soul music like this anymore. And now Sharon Jones won’t be making music like this any longer. But this lovely album lives on to remind us of the Golden Age of R&B, while celebrating one more talented singer who left us too early.