Today is November 2 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you gather strength from distress?” Many artists, writers, and actors, like soul singer Sharon Jones, navigate the chaos by learning to gather strength from distress.
For years Jones dealt with record label officials telling her she was “too short, too fat, too black and too old.” Jones was 40 years old when she was able to release her first record. In 2014, Jones was nominated for her first Grammy, in the category Best R&B Album, for Give the People What They Want.
Jones was born in Augusta, Georgia, the daughter of Ella Mae Price Jones and Charlie Jones, living in adjacent North Augusta, South Carolina. Jones was the youngest of six children; her siblings are Dora, Charles, Ike, Willa, and Henry. Jones's mother raised her deceased sister's four children as well as her own. She moved the family to New York City when Sharon was a young child. As children, she and her brothers would often imitate the singing and dancing of James Brown.
From 1970 to 1996 she held various jobs to support herself. A regular gospel singer in church, during the early 1970s Jones often entered talent shows backed by local funk bands. Session work then continued with backing vocals, often credited to Lafaye Jones, but in the absence of any recording contract as a solo singer, she spent many years working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island and as an armored car guard for Wells Fargo, until receiving a mid-life career break in 1996 after she appeared on a session backing the soul and deep funk legend Lee Fields.
The session was organized by Gabriel Roth and Philippe Lehman, then the owner of the now-defunct French record label Pure Records. Jones was the only one of three singers called to the session to show up. Having completed all the backing parts herself, Roth and Lehman were suitably impressed with her performance and recorded "Switchblade", a solo track with Jones. As a result of her performance, Jones would eventually be invited to join the Dap-Kings and in 2001 the band released Dap Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
Working with the Dap-Kings — who sometimes introduced her as “110 pounds of soul excitement” — gave Jones the opportunity to shine as an unstoppable frontwoman. As reported in the New York Times “Jones sang about love troubles, hard times and a woman’s strength, and she would race across the stage in high heels — and sooner or later kick them off — while shouting and shimmying in fringed, sequined dresses.” Ms. Jones and the Dap-Kings worked their way up from clubs to theaters and festivals and drew growing recognition from fellow musicians. At a 2011 concert in Paris, Prince showed up to play some guitar.
In 2015, a documentary titled Miss Sharon Jones!, directed by Barbara Kopple, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film depicts Jones' battle with cancer while continuing to perform with the Dap-Kings.
As she battled cancer Jones demonstrated how she gathered strength from the distress of chemotherapy when she said: “My body’s going through changes, but I don’t want to sit home and wait for this to take over me. As long as I can get on the stage and show some energy, I’m going to get on the stage until I can’t do it anymore.” On why she choose not to wear a wig following the loss of her hair due to chemotherapy she said: "I chose not to put a wig on. The reason why I chose to come out with the cancer thing is because there's somebody out there who can see that all sickness isn't unto death. That it's something you can't change at that point in time, so you just got to go with it. Don't be ashamed. Don't be ashamed of looking at yourself."
Sharon Jones died in 2016, with the band releasing the posthumous final album Soul of a Woman in 2017. As the New York Times reported in its obituary for Jones “Her death was confirmed by Judy Miller Silverman, her publicist. She said Ms. Jones died at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, N.Y., and was surrounded by members of her band, the Dap-Kings, and other loved ones when she died.”
Thomas Paine wrote “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.”
Jones dealt with one conflict after another yet continued to gather strength. When she made it as a singer she then had to deal with cancer. She represents a model for anyone willing to ‘smile in trouble’ and keep putting in the work required to translate one dream after another into reality.
How often do you gather strength from distress?
Do you believe ‘the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph?’
Do you believe ‘what we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly?’
Jones navigated the chaos for decades to make it as a singer. How long are you willing to gather strength from distress to translate your dreams into reality?
Do you have anyone in your life who you can stand by your side as you gather strength from distress?