And when all the votes were counted, Sharon Jones won in a landslide.
On Monday night, the city council of North Augusta, South Carolina, voted unanimously to name a new outdoor amphitheater in town after Jones, the late-blooming R&B and soul singer who died in 2016 of pancreatic cancer. The venue, currently known as the Riverside Village Amphitheater, will soon be rechristened the Sharon Jones Amphitheater. “This is so cool,” says Gabe Roth, who helped bring Jones out of obscurity when he signed her to his Daptone label in the Nineties and paired her with their house band, the Dap-Kings, for a series of acclaimed albums. “No one was able to lift the room like she could. It’s great to have a place where people will hit the stage and think of her. She would have been thrilled.”
Members of Jones’ family attended Monday’s council hearing, which resulted in a 6-0 vote in favor of Resolution 2020-52. “She would be flabbergasted right now,” says Jones’ sister Willia Stringer. “We didn’t live far from there. My father used to walk down with us down to the river. Back then, there was nothing there but trees and the river.”
Although Jones spent most of her life in the New York area, she was born across the river in Augusta, Georgia, and lived with her family in North Augusta, South Carolina, for the first few years of her life. Yet she would regularly return to North Augusta to see family and chill out. “She could be herself here,” says Stringer. “She would come back and go fishing. She found that relaxation here.”
In her late years, Jones brought a house in town for her mother. “She had a lot of love for Augusta,” says Roth. “When we got to play down there, she was so proud. She’d bring everybody out. It always felt like a homecoming.”
The idea for renaming the venue, which sits on the Savannah River, began with Augusta Chronicle columnist and veteran journalist Don Rhodes, who befriended Jones over the years. Rhodes began talking up the idea in his column and to the town’s current mayor, Robert Pettit, who admits he wasn’t familiar with Jones’ work. “I kept harping on him,” says Rhodes. “In North Augusta, there’s no public park or building named after a black citizen, and I said it was the right thing to do. And who else should be it named for? There’s nobody else from North Augusta who had that kind of worldwide fame.”
Pettit agreed: “She didn’t have a big hit, but she was certainly well known, and we talked about it enough times so that people were aware of her and the idea.”
The small city, which has a population of approximately 23,000, has changed radically since Jones’ early days. Stringer recalls the racial prejudice the family encountered before they left for the North: “We had to go through the back door to get something to eat at some places.”
Adds Rhodes, “Sharon would tell me these stories about experiencing discrimination when she was growing up. She was born in a linen storage closet of the black wing of the hospital since they hadn’t have a room for her mother. She would tell me about white people siccing dogs on her and throwing rocks at her just because they could. But her life had a coming-around, full-circle thing to it. She saw how much the area has changed.”
In October, a new collection of rare Jones covers, Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Rendition Was In), was released on Daptone; it includes her versions of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” Prince’s “Take Me with U,” Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me,” and, naturally, the Kenny Rogers and the First Edition hit “Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Roth says a good deal of unreleased Jones material remains in the vaults, both studio and live recordings, but the process of sifting through it remains painful.
“It’s hard to work on it,” Roth admits. “Even this collection, it was hard. You hear the outtakes and you hear messing around and talking in the studio, and it makes you long for those days.”
Current plans call for a dedication ceremony for the venue in March, complete with a day of live music, but as Pettit says, that schedule could change: “COVID,” he says, “remains the big guy in the room.”