On March 11, 2011, my friend Don Rhodes took me to a show at the Imperial Theatre in Augusta, Georgia to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. We walked in the backstage door and watched the sound check from the wings. Don introduced me to Sharon who in turn told me that she had heard a few of my songs and liked them. (Um. What? This is the lady who I had heard on a SXSW sampler and whose band was idolized by the likes of Amy Winehouse and more). Later on, she gave me a signed poster from that show and it has been hanging in my home ever since. Needless to say, the performance I watched the Dap-Kings give that night was a memory for life and, meeting Sharon that evening, little did I know, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Sharon Jones was born in Augusta, Georgia and raised across the state line in North Augusta, South Carolina. (We share a hometown). When she was young, she moved with her family to Brooklyn where she worked numerous jobs (a corrections officer at Rikers Island among them) while singing every chance she got. Sharon sang background vocals for many bands in NY and led a wedding band. It wasn't until later in her life that Sharon, with a bunch of incredible musicians, formed Daptone Records and began to bring Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings to international acclaim.
Not too long after I met her, Sharon moved her and her mother back to North Augusta and she bought a house a few blocks from my childhood home. In early February 2014, I returned to North Augusta from a tour of mine to play a show at Lookaway Hall. It was a small listening room type show. Halfway into my first song I realized that Sharon Jones was sitting there in the audience. After the show, Sharon came up and gave me a big hug and told me how much she loved my rendition of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World". She told me how she used to play that song all the time in her wedding band days.
These first two experiences with Sharon showed me how down to earth she was. Sharon was the most humble, most friendly, non-bullsh*t, and fun person I have ever met in the entertainment world -- and I have opened for, and met, many Top 40 or stadium selling artists. Too many of them, unfortunately, are self-centered and not personable. Sharon was the antithesis of that. She was an immense joy to be around. Her smile and energy filled the room whether she was onstage or just in the room as a friend. As a musician, I understand that when you spend most of your time on the road, in hotels, and in venues around the world, the last thing you want to do usually, on your few nights off, is to go out and be in the places where you spend all your working hours. Sharon coming to my show that night showed how much she wanted to be there. I know for a fact that she frequented many local Augusta musicians' shows. I can't say that Augusta has been a city that has been super supportive of its music scene in the past, but Sharon Jones, a woman who had a real excuse not to support local music (busy, touring the world, selling out the Sydney Opera House for instance, fighting cancer, playing Tonight with Jimmy Fallon)... SHE came out and supported and sang along at our (local Augusta musicians') shows. She came to three of my shows and I know she supported musician Celia Gary's shows, attended local house concerts in North Augusta, and sang with Ed Turner & Number 9 at least twice.
I had the pleasure of spending Christmas Eve with Sharon for two years when she and her sister joined in on my family's tradition of gathering together with good friends for dinner on the night before Christmas. She called me on the phone a few times and I called her and asked how she was doing as she fought back against the cancer. I have never met anyone that fought for what she wanted in life the way Sharon did. Record executives had told her she was too black, too short, too fat, and too old to ever come of anything. Through her hard work and determination, she wrote her own script and made her own career. She did not let other people's assumptions, or cancer for that matter, be limiting factors on what she was going to do with her life. Sharon was a dear friend and an incredible inspiration to me (and, obviously, to many, many other people). On top of that, her music made us feel, smile, and dance!
Another favorite memory of spending time with Sharon was when Don Rhodes hosted an early birthday party in North Augusta for her because she was going to be on tour the night of her birthday. Don, Sharon, and several other friends, including Flo Carter, gathered around the dinner table for Chinese takeout and beers. We sat around and laughed and talked and gave Sharon the birthday gifts we had gotten for her. Nights like those I will remember forever. Those are the kind of nights for which we are alive - Not the ones where our names may be in lights - but when we get to share with friends and family how much we love them.
I knew that this had been a really rough year for Sharon. I didn't get to see her this year. She was battling the cancer that had come back after remission, trying to rest and recover in NY, all while promoting her music and a new documentary about her life called Miss Sharon Jones.
Sharon and the documentary's producer toured the country this summer and fall premiering the film and hosting Q&A's onstage afterwards. Philadelphia, New York, LA, many others... and Augusta. Sharon wanted her hometown people to get to see the film. So, I bought my girlfriend and I tickets and we went.
When my girlfriend and I arrived at the Imperial Theatre for the Augusta premier of the film - the same place where I had met Sharon 5 years before and she had given me that signed poster - the audience was told that Sharon had fallen ill earlier that day and that she could not be with us that evening. We were told that Sharon was very upset about it. My heart pained for her. We all watched the incredible documentary and laughed and cried and cheered (the theatre literally erupted into loud cheers several times over the course of the film). (Watch the trailer for the film here). When the Q&A session came around, someone facetimed Sharon so that she could see all of us missing and and cheering for her. The following day, she was supposed to be an honored performer at the White House by request of President Obama and the First Lady. It was an incredible honor that Sharon had always dreamed of - playing at the White House - but she was not well enough to make it. I was heartbroken for her.
I don't know how but I missed the news of Sharon having a stroke two weeks ago. A local newspaper called me up to interview me about some upcoming performances (see my last blog post and the Aiken Standard story). When the reporter asked me which entertainer I had been the most excited to meet I turned the question around and told her that through all the "famous" folks I've met that Sharon Jones was the greatest person of them all and that her fight and passion and generosity was everything to me. At the time, I had no idea that my friend had suffered a stroke.
Last Friday , I was playing a show in downtown Augusta. I pulled in my driveway well after midnight and checked my phone for the first time that evening to see all the headlines of "RIP Sharon Jones." I cried out. I miss you my friend. We all do. Much love to you and thank you for all you gave to music. Thank you for all you gave to me: the hugs, the laughs, the meals together with friends, and the passion to never, ever give up on what you want in life... how your hometown and where you come from matters... all the important things. You changed my life and give me forever smiles my friend. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
If you're reading this and you're not (yet) a massive Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings fan, listen or watch at any of these links.
Watch the NPR Tiny Desk Christmas Concert
Watch the trailer for the documentary Miss Sharon Jones - Then go watch the whole film!
For fun kicks: Sharon and I both played roles in Flo Carter's music video for "This Train." I was a gambler and Sharon was a train conductor. Watch that video here. Another fun memory that one is.