With the recent passing of singer-songwriter Sharon Jones, Barbara Kopple’s film Miss Sharon Jones! has become an even more emotionally challenging watch. Following Jones through her fight with pancreatic cancer and riding along on her tour with her band of 20 years The Dap-Kings, we get a picture of a woman for whom music was everything and quitting was never an option. Famously once told she would never get a record deal because she was, “Too fat, too black and too old,” Grammy-winner Jones told her life story with the song, I’m Still Here. Although the film did not make the Academy’s shortlist cut, I’m Still Here just won a Critics’ Choice award for Best Song in a Documentary and is an Oscar contender for Best Original Song.
AwardsLine spoke to Jones’ co-writers and Dap-Kings band members Cochemea Gastelum and Gabriel Roth. Roth also founded Daptone Records with Neal Sugarman–a label that also boasted Amy Winehouse among its artists.
How did the film come about and what kind of discussions did you and the band and Sharon have about making it?
Cochemea Gastelum: Alex (Kadvan), our manager had been wanting to get a documentary done on Sharon for quite some time. I don’t know if he’d been actively looking for producers but VH1 had actually come on as a producer, so they financed the project. Barbara Kopple came into the picture as the director. I don’t think it initially was going to be planned as her cancer battle. That happened after I think the wheels were already in motion for the film. Eventually, I think somebody who might have been involved in getting the project going dropped out, so Barbara finished the film herself.
Gabriel Roth: There was definitely a lot of times where she was like, “Get those cameras out of my face,” but her and Barbara Kopple connected very early on, and I think she understood why Barbara was doing it and why it was important. I think she wanted to be documented. She liked hamming it up and making people laugh. She liked having people around that she could perform for, you know? She’d sing and make them laugh.
When we all saw it together for the first time in Toronto, she seemed to really enjoy it. There were a lot of parts in that movie that people were really crying or very quiet for, and she was just laughing all by herself in the theatre. I think she was really proud of what she’d done and proud of her fight but also proud that people thought she was important enough to have a documentary.
What was the writing process for the song I’m Still Here?
Cochemea Gastelum: I’m Still Here we all wrote together in the studio. We were getting together to write what was going to be our next record. I think all of us were just in the room and I just happened to be sitting next to her and she had her notepad open and she said, “I want to tell my story.” I said, “Okay, let’s start from the beginning.”
She just started talking about leaving North Augusta with her mom, her mom taking her up to New York in the 60’s and we just kind of bashed her story into lyrics together then it just went from there. Everyone just started making their part and talking about the arrangement. When we credit that song, it’s credited as a Dap-Kings song because we all agreed that was one that we wrote all together.
Will more music be released?
Gabriel Roth: Sharon’s final record is going to come out hopefully next year. We have some songs that were finished, some songs that we were hoping to finish and we didn’t get done but we also have some older songs that we never released. There’s still a good amount of recordings of Sharon that have never been heard. I know a lot of that she was adamant about getting out there. We’re not done. She’s still going to be putting out records, which is a good thing. I think it’s important to get all the stuff out there.
Sharon has said you were all like family–why do you think the band worked so well together for 20 years?
Cochemea Gastelum: I think traveling around in a small van with nine or ten people you wind up getting really tight. You’re listening to the same music and you’re still acting like a kid and you would spend oftentimes more time with the band than you do with your family at home. The band is a very organic living thing, you know? Sharon is leading the band through her energy a lot of times.
It seemed like Sharon was determined to carry on with music no matter what.
Cochemea Gastelum: I think everyone wanted Sharon to be healthy first and foremost. She needed rest. When she got sick the first time, she had a really tough surgery, chemo and we didn’t work for about eight months. I don’t think she did any music during that time. It was after that that once we got back on the road, it took on an almost new urgency with her where she didn’t want to stop working. She didn’t want to cancel any gigs. She wanted to connect with the fans. She wanted to sing. That’s all she wanted to do was be in the road, work and just sing and that became her sort of therapy and I think actually she got to be an ever better singer and more engaging performer even, if you can imagine.
She would tell the story every night to every audience. It was just really incredible to witness. I would have loved for her to rest more and relax. We worked up until close to the end. When she got on stage, the pain would go away and she would just summon this thing. It was really incredible.
Sharon joked her first stroke towards the end was caused by Donald Trump because it happened as she was watching the election returns–I also heard she was singing?
Cochemea Gastelum: By the time we all showed up, she wasn’t talking. We were gathered around her and somebody picked up the guitar and just started playing, then she just started humming, which was amazing because she wasn’t talking at all. We all were just blown away. We all just started humming with her. She did pretty close until when she passed. Like a whole week, she was just humming. Little by little, at one point she started saying words, singing words at us. If you asked her a question, she couldn’t respond in any words. She started singing Go Tell It On The Mountain and it was just amazing. She was just singing for hours and hours. It was really beautiful. When (back-up singers) Saun and Star showed up, they started singing three-part harmonies. Her voice went right in the harmony and she started improvising on top of that. I’d never seen anything like it. It was really something.
Can you recall a favorite moment of working with Sharon over the years?
Gabriel Roth: There’s a lot of good ones. Whatever weird part of the world we were in, the night we got in, we would just gather in Sharon’s bathroom and we would smoke together. That was a really important ritual. There were so many beautiful tours that started that way with us in the bathroom together. She’d always be in the slippers and the robe from the hotel. It didn’t matter what time. Didn’t matter how late it was. As soon as the last person got in, she’d say, “I’m up. Come by.” We’d be in Helsinki or something and you’d go in there and she’d have her TV on.
Cochemea Gastelum: Yeah. People would even go in shifts, you know, to turn it off. I have this one story that I remember about her. I just laugh every time I think about it. We were in Glasgow, Scotland and a few of us were just hanging out after the gig in front of this hall. Three pretty inebriated Scotsmen came up to us. One of them had a kilt actually. They were just very upset that we were playing the Queen’s Hall. The next thing I knew, the little guy in this group of three instigators connects with our monitor guy, Ralph’s jaw and gave him a nice hook there. We were all just stunned. We all just kind of closed around these guys but no one really wanted to fight anymore. One guy was digging into his little pouch he had. I didn’t know what he had in there. It was getting pretty scary for a minute. All of the sudden, in the heat of this moment, Sharon just comes out from the tour bus, 4 foot 11 Sharon, and she immediately goes to the big guy and just starts stroking his shoulder and goes, “Oh, bubbadoo, what’s wrong, honey? What’s wrong, baby? You so big, you so upset. What’s wrong?” She just starts rubbing his back. This guys just like, “Uh, uh, uh” and just doesn’t know what to do. She’s walking away sweet-talking this guy. Next thing you know, the whole situation is completely diffused and they just go along their merry way. We’re just looking at each other like, “What just happened?” We go into the tour bus and we’re all just a little shocked and just like, “Damn, Sharon.” We’re looking at her and she says, “It’s a good thing he walked away.” Then she pulls out two steak knives from the back of her pants.
What in your opinion made Sharon’s voice and musicianship unique?
Cochemea Gastelum: I think everything that Sharon did was just so very in the moment. She couldn’t fake it at all. She wasn’t feeling it, you’d know it. Although, in the end I would see her more and more if something was bothering her, she would just truck right through. She had incredible focus. Also, she’s just got a very powerful spirit. Not only can she summon this power from her lungs and her body, she could just fill up an entire room with that. She’s one of the best of our time really in my opinion.