Sharon Jones just played at SXSW with Neko Case, but she doesn’t really want to talk about it. “Yeah, that SW thing…” she starts to say, and I remind her what it’s called. “It was different,” she tells me. “Lot of rock.” I think about this statement, casual yet judgmental, and then about how SXSW is the high point of many an indie rocker’s year. Hilarious. The hipsters love her, but Sharon Jones, Soul Sister #1, frontwoman for the hard-hitting funk band the Dap-Kings and the propulsive voice that can reimagine everything from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ to Janet Jackson’s ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately’, couldn’t care less. She’s pushing 50 and she has more important things to think about. Like her tour to Australia next month, which almost didn’t happen.
“At first they wanted me to come over and do some tracks with some very famous Australian group. I said, ‘I don’t want to go without the Dap-Kings. I want to go over there and do my show, not some track.’ That was last year, and I just refused. To me that’s not right, I don’t do tracks. I’m not going to sing with another band. I’m going to go over there and play with your local musicians? Come on, that ain’t right.” Sharon is fiercely loyal to her band, and it’s clear that as much as she loves to be in the limelight (she proudly told me that when she performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival last year, the head of the festival told her she was the best thing she had heard there in 30 years), she knows this whole thing could disappear in a moment. “I don’t know how long we’re gonna have what we have. I hope to see another 10 to 15 years, but can you see me at 65 running around that stage? There’s no way. I don’t know if I’ll have the energy. I’m gonna take it as it comes along.” When I tell her over the phone that I’m in my 20s and I don’t think I could run around onstage the way she does now, she laughs in a curiously childlike way.
Given her history, it’s not surprising that Sharon realizes how ephemeral it all is; after a steady stream of studio work in the 70s, she ended up working at Rikers Correctional Facility. “I thought I was going to have to end my singing career because they told me I didn’t have the look, that I was too dark, too short, too fat, and too old. Once I got past 25, they told me I was too old. I didn’t have what they were looking for.”
Fast-forward to 2006 and she’s in the studio working on a new album with the Dap-Kings slated for release in the late summer, she’s part of a kid’s jazz storybook album coming out in June on Verve: “I’m the elephant. I’m teaching kids how to scat, like the wheels on the bus, but to jazz music.” And when she gets back from Australia, she’ll be celebrating her 50th birthday. What will she do to celebrate? Why, whatever she wants, which is, of course, a show.
Keeping up a touring schedule as aggressive as hers means there isn’t time for much besides her music. Romance? “My mind ain’t on that stuff too much.” she tells me, “My man lives in Orangesburg, South Carolina. We get a chance to see each other three times a year. Last year we only saw each other twice. He claims that he’s there waiting for me, he’s not trying to go anywhere else.” She pauses before continuing, “If I ever want to settle down.”
Sharon Jones settling down anytime soon doesn’t seem likely. Last month, things were getting a little raucous and ten women jumped on stage. After trying to show them the dance she was doing, she gave up and said, “Excuse me, but this is my stage, this is my show.” And it’s safe to assume she did it with a big grin on her face. “I said, you all watch me, you all pay attention to me.” And they did. Sharon Jones has a voice so strong you expect her to anthropomorphize into a heavyweight boxer right there on stage, and her sense of levity doesn’t mask that steely personality for a second.
It turns out that while we’ve been talking, Sharon’s been sitting at Lucille Roberts in Queens, waiting for her kickboxing class to start. Just before we get off the phone, she figures out there’s another class after kickboxing. When she tells me what it is, at first I think I’ve misheard her. “Burlesque?” I ask. “Burlesque,” she confirms with that trademark laugh, and continues, “You know I might hang around. Knowing me I probably should hang around.”
Sharon Jones will celebrate her 50th birthday at Irving Plaza on May 20th. This woman knows how to party, and if this show is even half as good as last year’s Halloween Soul and Funk Revue at SOB’s, you won’t want to miss it.