To lose Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley in the same year was a cruel and crushing blow to music. Sharon died from cancer one year ago today, having suffered from the illness for many years. Recorded during the last year of Sharon’s life, the new album Soul of a Woman is a testament to her indefatigable spirit. You won’t find her wallowing in misery or contemplating impending death, what the album does is subtly blend bombastic soul and gospel harmonies with quieter moments exploring life and love.
Daptone Records have concerned themselves with keeping classic soul music alive, seeking out forgotten and overlooked singers who deserve a chance in the spotlight and combining vintage recording techniques with modern songs. Sharon may not have started recording until she was forty but the life she’d lived only made her a better singer and more dedicated to working as hard as possible in her career. Daptone gave her a platform and there’s no better record label to be entrusted with Sharon’s legacy, as this album release proves.
The opener Matter of Time tells us instantly that this is still going to be an album with the rambunctious energy that Sharon was known for. It’s a song believing in the possibility of a better world it’s a matter of time before wrongs will be righted/ it’s a matter of time before all people will be united. This optimistic thread runs through the music too, the Dap Kings echoing her feelings through their playing.
If you had any worries about whether Sharon’s voice held up in the face of her health problems then Sail On! crushes those doubts. A funk number, brought to life by her roaring against the man who has done her wrong. Her vocal strength is again clear on the slow burning heartbreaker Just Give Me Your Time. The Dap Kings horn section has never sounded as good as on this one – and it’s tragic to think they are now a ship adrift without a captain.
Come and Be A Winner feels quite like What’s Goin On in its tone and sound. More contemplative than what we usually expect but Sharon is adept at this slower style all the same. The song is about empowerment, looking at the world that treats you like ‘a worn out shoe‘ and deciding all the same that ‘you’re a winner.’ You feel the deep appreciation of life in this song, good and bad. There’s no bitterness for how things have turned out.
Rumours is classic Motown girl group inspired. It’s a song for a no good bad boy, a fun little throwaway cut which you know Sharon would have enjoyed strutting about the stage singing. It’s impossibly sad to think that will never happen again. Pass me By and These Tears Are No Longer For You Baby are heartbreak songs, as this album was originally intended to be one made up of ballads. No more tears shall I weep or cry myself to sleep/ so long I’m moving on, she sings, reaching out to us across time and space. Poignant moments like this never fall into sentimentality, thanks to the core strength of the songwriting.
When I Saw Your Face is an ode to love at first sight, with the more orchestral sounds really adding to its beauty. Girl! (You Got To Forgive Him) concerns reconciliation and forgiveness. You wonder who the ‘him’ might be, since there seems to be so many men making mistakes right now. There’s no anger here, only an understanding of human folly and a hope that kindness can cure. The music has a dramatic feel, sounding like a lost theme song to a Bond movie.
Sharon and The Dap Kings hoped to release a gospel album one day and had recorded one song for this future project way back in 2007. Finishing this album is that song, Call On God, which she wrote in the 70s when singing in the Gospel Wonders choir. Sharon started her life singing gospel songs in church so it’s fitting that she ends her career with a tribute to man himself who will ‘be your friend’ and ‘carry you through‘. Even heathens like myself can’t fail to be moved by this spine-tingling testament to the power of faith.
Sharon went into the next life singing right until the end. Soul of a Woman proves that if we keep listening, a singer this good can never really die.