‘Just Keep Singing’: Remembering My Friend Sharon Jones

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Three years before Austin-based blues singer Nakia competed on the first season of The Voice, a chance encounter with the legendary Sharon Jones, when she pulled him up onstage at the Austin City Limits festival, changed his life and led to a long friendship. In this personal essay, he writes fondly of his time with Jones, who tragically lost her battle with pancreatic cancer last Friday, Nov. 18. 

Sharon Jones and Nakia at La Zona Rosa in Austin, TX September 2010. Photo: Chris Carrasquillo
Sharon Jones and Nakia at La Zona Rosa in Austin, TX September 2010. Photo: Chris Carrasquillo

By Nakia

I had just taken a bite of pizza when my phone began ringing. Normally I wouldn’t answer a call from an unknown number, but the area code was 212 and sometimes I do business in New York, so I slid my iPhone open. “Hello?” There was a moment of silence and then…

“Is this Nakia? This is Sharon Jones.”

I dropped my pizza on the plate, muted the call, and shouted to my husband Robert and anyone else in that Italian restaurant within earshot: “Oh my God! This is Sharon Jones!” I couldn’t believe it.

Sharon and I had met one fateful afternoon at the 2008 Austin City Limits Music Festival. I was performing there the following day, and had used my artist wristband to gain access to the VIP area of the stage where she and the Dap-Kings were set to perform. As I watched from above, I spotted Sharon sitting on a chair backstage, sipping something and praying. Then, as the band began to play her intro, she slowly slipped her heels back on… and the instant her feet hit the stage, she completely came alive.

This was my first time seeing Sharon, and I had no idea that she had a history of calling audience members up onstage. But sure enough, during “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?” she whipped around, looked up at the VIP area, and pointed right at me. Instantly overcome with excitement, I zipped down the stairs fast as I could. And, like Sharon before me, as soon as my feet hit the stage, something in me changed. I am getting chills just typing this out…

It wasn’t butterflies. It wasn’t nerves. It was an energy that — I would learn later — only filled my body when I was near Sharon. I started dancing, and swaying, and really getting into the story of the song… and as it nearing the end, without knowing anything about me, Sharon put the microphone in my face. Instinctively, I began singing out responses to her calls. When the song was over, I left the stage, fell to my knees, and burst into tears.

I bumped into her once again and quickly handed her one of my CDs and thanked her before she started the interview circuit in the press area. Then I headed home and scoured the Internet for a way to connect with her again. I found the email address for one of the Dap-Kings, Neal Sugarman, on the Daptone Records website, and fired off a message that was probably way too long, asking if he could put me in touch. I figured nothing would ever come of it, but I had to try.

One month later is when she called.

During that conversation, Sharon was genuinely interested in who I was and what I had going on musically, and she immediately offered a press quote for me to begin using in the promotion for my new record. We laughed and agreed to meet up again when she was back in Austin — which wound up being almost a year later, when she continued her new tradition of inviting me up to sing songs that I did not know. The most memorable of those times was at the now-defunct La Zona Rosa in September 2010. Sharon and the band were recording another album and had been playing some of the new tunes on tour. Just as they started one of those songs, Sharon brought me up, sang a bit of it, and then just cut me loose — expecting no less than the best I could give in that moment. “Give It Back” was the name of the song, and Sharon told me afterward that the band had only performed it three times before that night. Thankfully, my husband captured the moment on his iPhone.

Throughout the years, Sharon always stayed in touch, and we became close. She even helped me when I was on The Voice by sharing my voting info on her personal profile. And I’ll always remember her advice when I’d told her I’d made it past the “executive auditions” and would be doing a Blind Audition for The Voice. I called her and asked how she could maintain her powerful vocal performances several nights a week. She said, “When the rest of the band wants to go out and have fun, you stay your ass in the hotel and rest. Sleep always wins the next day.”

I was taken aback when Sharon first called to tell me the news of her cancer. She said she wanted me to hear it from her first, before it was announced. I was speechless and scared; my father had died from pancreatic cancer only four months after his diagnosis, and I was terrified the same would be true for Sharon. But in the recent documentary Miss Sharon Jones!, you can see exactly how she proved me (and everyone else) wrong. Sharon set out to fight cancer and get the most out of the time she had left. She was blessed with an amazing family of musicians, managers, and friends who lifted her up and kept her going.

When it was announced in 2014 that Sharon’s cancer was in remission and her album that had been put on hold was being released in conjunction with a concert at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, I got tickets and flew out to catch the show. As expected, she brought the whole place to its feet, down to its knees, and back up again. Sharon wasn’t just a singer. She wasn’t just a performer. She was a force of nature like no one had ever seen before.

That fighting spirit rubbed off on me. When I got down on myself after The Voice and the gigs started drying up for a while, Sharon told me, “Just keep singing. That’s what you are here to do. Sing, Nakia, and everything else will work itself out.” I promised her I would.

The last time I saw Sharon in person was at a gig in Austin. She was spry, full of energy, and quick with a laugh and that infamous side-eye of hers. However, the week before her documentary’s premiere, she called me to say she was going to need more cancer treatment and she’d go on for as long as she could, but she was scared. It was the last time we spoke.

The last time Nakia saw Sharon in person, backstage at Austin360 Amphitheater. July 2015. Photo credit: Nakia
The last time Nakia saw Sharon in person, backstage at Austin360 Amphitheater. July 2015. Photo credit: Nakia

Last week, I was catching glimpses of Sharon in my thoughts, her songs in my head. She was even in one of my dreams. So I reached out to Dap-King backing vocalist Saundra Williams, one half of Daptone recording artists Saun & Starr. I told her Sharon was on my mind and not answering calls, and asked if she had an address for flowers. Saundra texted back an address, but before I could get the order sent, the next day, Sharon passed away. I texted Saundra again and she immediately rang me back. We cried into each other’s phones, unsure of what to do or say — other than to remind one another of how much love we shared because of Sharon.

I spent that evening at home, looking at old photos and videos and just marveling at how much of an impact Sharon had had on my life and my career. She was and always will be my queen. She inspired me and countless others in so many ways. She was a gift from the heavens that I was blessed to have crossed paths with, and I am truly a better person for having known her.

When I think the music business is too hard, I think of Sharon Jones. When I think I am too old for this, I think of Sharon Jones. When I think people aren’t out there listening, I think of Sharon Jones. When I think I can’t sing another note, I think of Sharon Jones. When my body aches from dancing and falling onstage, I think of Sharon Jones. So I’m keeping my promise to Sharon. I am going to keep on singing. Everything else will work itself out.