The past year has certainly been a trying one for Sharon Jones.
Last summer, while preparing to release her fifth album with backing band the Dap-Kings, Jones—the celebrated soul singer and face of Daptone Records—was diagnosed with Stage II pancreatic cancer. Putting the album and all tour dates on hold, she underwent extensive surgery to remove a tumor, followed by months of chemotherapy that left her in a weakened state.
The thought of an ailing Jones would be a foreign concept to anyone who has witnessed her perform. She is a whirling dervish on stage, with a mighty voice that belies her diminutive frame—as a live act, Jones has few peers. Though the singer feared she might not survive her health issues, it should surprise no one that she not only beat cancer, but continues to thrive.
The delayed album Give The People What They Want, unveiled in January, is likely the best work she and the Dap-Kings have created. Leadoff single “Retreat!” is a glorious rallying cry, drenched with retro-soul sheen and triumphant horns. When Jones sings, “I’ll chew you up and then I’ll spit you out/What a fool you’d be to take me on,” she might as well be singing to her defeated illness, rather than admonishing a lover who wronged her.
Currently, Jones is back where she belongs—on the road with the Dap-Kings, bringing their airtight, infectious brand of soul and funk to adoring audiences. Just before her comeback tour got underway, I chatted with Jones about her recovery, new album and carrying the torch for classic soul music.
How are you feeling these days? Everything good?
Yeah, I’m getting my strength back. It takes a while; nothing happens overnight. My last chemo treatment was December 31. I’ve been getting myself ready for the road. My strength is coming back, but it’ll take a little time to get back to the way I was on stage. At first, I’m not going to come back out like a maniac, flying all over the stage like I used to. Remember that Flashdance song? [Jones sings “Maniac”] Well, I won’t be doing that right away (laughs). Right now, I’m a little nervous. But I know it’ll be a thrill being back in front of my fans, and in front of the band. It’s gonna be beautiful.
Are you now cancer-free?
Yes! They gave me a CAT scan recently and when it came back, they saw a spot. My heart dropped, but the doctor said, “Don’t worry, it’s probably just scar tissue from your surgery.” And that’s exactly what it turned out to be. So, I am cancer-free.
Congratulations, that’s wonderful! Was there ever a point when you feared that you wouldn’t get your voice back or be able to perform the way you used to?
There was a point in time when I didn’t even think that I was going to be here—I thought I was going to die. After my surgery, it was a long time before I even tried any singing. My surgery was pretty intense. They cut me from right under my breast, all the way down to the top of my navel. They removed my gallbladder and the head of my pancreas, and a foot and a half of my small intestine. Then I got an infection in there. I walked bent over from June to September of last year, as I couldn’t straighten up. I had no music on my mind. I didn’t even listen to it. Finally, I got back on the treadmill and I began to straighten up, and I slowly built up my strength.
What was your first performance after your illness?
It was when we did the Jimmy Fallon show, right around the time the new album came out. And I was so nervous, because that was the first time me and the Dap-Kings had played in front of a live audience since May 2013. We appeared at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, but we were lip-synching and not playing. The first real performance was Fallon. And then we did Ellen, then Conan and Jay Leno. Every TV show, I was nervous. I freaked myself out and thought I’d sing the wrong verse.
You sounded great on Jimmy Fallon; nobody would have known you were nervous. And I loved hearing you sing with The Roots as the show went to commercial breaks. You even got to do the air saxophone toss with Jimmy.
Playing with The Roots was so exciting. For the commercial breaks, we didn’t get to do an entire song, it was only 15 to 20 seconds, so that was different. That night, I did not know Jimmy was gonna do that air saxophone thing with me! That wasn’t rehearsed.
Your latest album is amazing. I know your illness delayed its release for several months.
The album was done, and then I got diagnosed with cancer. We had already spent nearly a year making the record. Last August was the scheduled release date, and we were supposed to go out on the road, but everything just came to a halt. For the single “Retreat!” we made an animated video because I was too sick to appear. But now I’m healthy and I’ve got a mic in my hand again. I’m back to give the people what they want, and what I want to give them is soul music. That’s also what I want the American music industry to recognize. I watched the Grammys and there was no category for soul. They’ve got R&B, rap, reggae—but no soul.
We need more American artists doing original soul music. It’s been going on 19 years that me and the Dap-Kings have been doing what we’ve been doing. When we first started, we had a different name, The Soul Providers. Early on, people wanted me to sing James Brown songs. I didn’t want to do his songs or be a James Brown impersonator, but when I do a show people tell me I’ve got his spirit.
So, you’re not tired of people still referring to you as “the female James Brown?”
They can keep calling me that until the day I die! I don’t feel insulted. In fact, it’s an honor.
Your recordings sound timeless. When people hear one of your songs, they could totally believe it was recorded in the 1960s.
If we didn’t put the date on it, I don’t think people would know when it’s from!
Do you and the band use a lot of vintage equipment to get that vibe?
We record on mono equipment like they did in the ’60s to get that sound. You can do all you want with equipment, but it’s the musicians also. It’s what’s coming from your heart. We don’t write songs that are meant to imitate other songs, but people tell us it’ll remind them of tunes from another era. It just comes out that way because it’s in our heart.
That sound is not something that you can fake—you’ve got to have that passion behind it.
Exactly. You’ve got to have the passion and the knowledge. The Dap-Kings are all avid record collectors. They collect all the old soul 45s and when they’re writing, they have that knowledge of music history. They live for soul music.
Since you’re about to tour around the world for a long time, what are some of the places that you enjoy playing most?
We have a great time touring the United States, and a good fanbase, but also I really love playing Europe and Australia because those fans are so hungry for soul music. When you go there, the fans are really into it. The shows are always sold out. In Europe, there are a lot of other bands playing soul right now too. In the United States, we get a really diverse audience. We get a lot of college students and young people at our U.S. shows.
The first place I ever saw you perform was at Southpaw, a small club in Brooklyn. Unfortunately that place doesn’t exist anymore, but I’ll always remember the unbelievable energy at that show. In those small rooms, it’s like the fans are one with the band.
Oh, yeah! I’ll never forget that little place! We love playing those intimate venues.
Daptone Records has really carried the torch for soul, funk and gospel recordings, and they’re a nice old-school success story. What’s it like being part of that label?
We’re a family there. Everyone gets royalties for songwriting, and we take care of each other. All of us there were involved with building the company in a physical sense. I helped put in the electrical outlets. I helped put up the soundproofing for the vocal booth. We built Daptone with our own hands.
Maybe it’s too early to ask this, but what are the plans for your next record?
We do have songs that are already written, but weren’t used on the latest album. We did 22 songs for Give The People What They Want, and only used 10. So we have a dozen songs that we could potentially put toward another record. I’m quite sure we’ll write more stuff. Usually our problem, when we put out a new record, is that we tour for about two years afterward. So we’re only putting out an album maybe every three years. The fact that we have some songs already done might speed that process. Maybe next year, we can get another album out already.
I know that early in your career, you spent time singing in a wedding band. Do you have fond memories of those days?
Yes, I do. And would you believe that Saundra [Williams] and Starr [Duncan], my backing singers with the Dap-Kings, were in my wedding band with me? We go way back.
I’ll let you get going, Sharon. It’s great to see you back out there—I’m glad you’re recuperated and I wish you all the best on this tour.
Thank you so much!
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings will perform at Union Transfer in Philadelphia on May 30, and at the Lowdown Hudson Blues Festival in New York City on July 16. Give The People What They Want is available now on Daptone Records. For more info, go to sharonjonesandthedapkings.com.