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Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: Save the Last Dance for Me

Jeff Tamarkin | January 15, 2018

Sharon Jones refused to put much thought into retirement. Even as The Dap-Kings frontwoman reached age 60 and battled pancreatic cancer, the power-house soul singer never lost her exuberance and drive. Up until the time when it simply became impossible to carry on—she passed away on Nov. 18, 2016—Jones had only one way to get through the pain and sickness: Keep looking forward, keep singing. The title of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ Grammy-nominated 2014 album was Give the People What They Want, and that’s exactly what she and her band intended to do.

“She had this will to sing, to connect to people,” says Gabe “Bosco Mann” Roth, who serves as The Dap-Kings’ bassist, producer, bandleader and chief songwriter. (He’s also the co-founder of Daptone Records, the group’s Brooklyn-based label.) “Vocally, she got stronger and stronger her whole life, even the last few months. We were always completely blown away by that. Physically, she was a strong person. I would not want to get into a boxing match with Sharon Jones. But, mostly, it was emotionally intense.”

That intensity permeates Soul of a Woman, the seventh studio album by the singer and her longtime band, whose final lineup consisted of Roth, guitarists Joey Crispiano and Binky Griptite, drummer Homer Steinweiss, tenor saxophonist and Daptone co-founder Neal Sugarman, baritone saxophonist and Robert Walter’s 20th Congress vet Cochemea “Cheme” Gastelum, percussionist Fernando “Bugaloo” Velez and trumpeter Dave Guy, who also plays with The Roots as part of The Tonight Show’s house band.

Released almost exactly a year after Jones’ death, Soul of a Woman, which features all eight Dap-Kings and a slew of extended Daptone family members, is the final curtain call that the singer never wanted to take. But, when recording commenced, there wasn’t a sense among Jones and the band that it might be their last release.

“It was never like we sat down and said, ‘Let’s make our last album,’” says Roth. “We didn’t wait until the last minute and say, ‘Well, Sharon, you’re gonna die, so let’s record.’ That’s just what we do—when we’re out on the road, we’re always working on the next record. If you just wait until you’re done touring behind a record and then start recording, you’ll put out a record every five years. It wasn’t that intense [in the studio]—when the band was hanging out, it was always fun and relaxed.”

“Even though she was sick, we all thought she could beat anything,” says Gastelum. “We thought, ‘OK, she’s gonna kick its ass and then we’ll get back on the road.’ That’s certainly what she thought. We were never grim. She was a fighter, through and through. We didn’t really have it in mind that things were changing. Everyone was excited to make a new record and we all worked together on it with Sharon. We wanted to finish it and get it out there. Everyone was writing, and we had been playing a couple of the tunes on the road. That was really the vibe—to make the best record we could.”

The band members all learned of Jones’ illness shortly after she’d experienced pains in her back and side. “Then her eyes started looking yellow,” Roth explains, noting that Jones went to the doctor soon after and was diagnosed with cancer. “It was shocking to all of us. Sharon had been with us for a long time and we were really close; we were family.”

“It was heartbreaking,” adds Gastelum. “I didn’t really want to accept it. But she actually got stronger during the last few years of touring, and she was singing differently from night to night, really stretching out in ways I hadn’t heard before.”

“Standing in front of an audience, she would kind of explode; it was electric,” adds Roth. “She was singing so beautifully. Not just loud— even the ballads, the tender stuff—she had such control and there was so much emotional content to everything she was doing. And so much rhythm—she had such amazing rhythm! She would bring these songs to life and really push the band.”