Sharon Jones Keeps The Christmas In Christmas by Kurt B Reighley is from DINOSAUR’s vaults from 2015. The late Ms Jones spoke with Kurt in the fall of last year, prior to the release of her Christmas album, “It’s A Holiday Soul Party.”
It’s A Holiday Soul Party, the new seasonal full-length by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, bears all the hallmarks of a Christmas classic: snow, Santa, and lots of Jewish songwriters.
Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” originally composed in sunny California during World War II, gets a rhythmic update a la the golden age of Motown. And like Berlin, the Brooklyn soul combo had to summon the spirit of Christmas amidst a sweltering summer.
“It was hot!” recalls Jones, laughing. But after several years of one-off holiday singles—most notably 2009’s “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects,” which ranks right up there with James Brown’s 1968 jam “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”—the New York nine-piece wanted to bundle them up in one little package, and July and August offered a rare opportunity to head into the studio and finish the job.
Holiday Soul Party balances a variety of traditional tunes (“Silent Night,” “Silver Bells”) with originals like the tongue-in-cheek “Big Bulbs.” “Just Another Christmas Song,” composed by Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss, tips its stocking cap to ten Yuletide classics. “And I really wanted to do Charles Brown’s ‘Please Come Home for Christmas,’ because that my mother’s favorite,” explains Jones. “She used to sing that song over and over and over when I was a little girl.”
The set kicks off with a raucous “8 Days (of Hanukkah).” For Jones, who grew up Baptist and now identifies as Pentecostal, singing about the Festival of Lights posed some challenges. “I didn’t know what a latke, or a menorah, or a dreidel is,” she admits. “It took a few tries to pronounce things correctly.” Nevertheless, she sings of shopping for kosher brisket with impressive chutzpah.
Jones’ own Christmas traditions have tapered off over the years. “I used to help my sisters with their kids … put the kids’ toys together at night and hide the presents,” she recalls. “But I’ve been with the band so long, now I’m usually out on the road. I’ve gotten used to not getting gifts or having a lot of people around me on Christmas. I’m 60 years old so I’m pretty cool with it.”
While she typically avoids talking hot-button topics like politics and religion, Jones makes no bones about the vital role her faith plays in her life. “I don’t want to take the Christ out of Christmas,” says the singer. A fan of Shirley Caesar, Mahalia Jackson, and Sam Cooke, she plans to record a full-on gospel record with the Dap-Kings in the immediate future.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve been in church. Sunday school, Bible classes … you had to have that growing up in our household.” Not that she was a perfect angel. “As a kid you’d stray … but if you had the church there, you’d never stray too far,” she observes. “You knew you’d have somebody saying ‘God won’t like that!’ And that got me to where I’m at today.”
Perseverance helped, too. For years, Jones struggled against music industry biases, rebuffed for being too black, too short, too heavy … and then, too old. She was well into her forties when Dap-Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings launched her slow ascent to stardom in 2002. Since then she’s worked with Lou Reed and David Byrne, appeared onscreen with Denzel Washington (The Great Debaters, 2007), and seen the band’s sixth album, Give the People What They Want nominated for a Best R&B Album Grammy Award.
She’s also been sidelined, albeit briefly, by pancreatic cancer, for which she has undergone surgery and chemotherapy. Earlier this year, she revealed that it had returned, yet she retains an uplifting attitude. “I’m not afraid of death,” she insists. “I know God’s got me. When my time is up, my time is up. I’m comfortable in my life and I know where I’m at with my God.'”
But until its time to say goodbye, there’s songs to be sung. “I have to do what I got to do. Even though there’s chemo going in my body right now, I don’t feel tired.” With that, Jones launches into a gospel favorite popularized by Rev. James Cleveland:
I don’t feel no ways tired,
I’ve come too far from where I started from.
Nobody told me that the road would be easy,
I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.
“That’s my testimony,” she concludes. “God hasn’t brought me this far to leave me now.”
Photos by Jacob Blickenstaff. Interview with Ms Jones by Kurt B. Reighley.