Sharon Jones beats cancer and fights to save soul

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Soul singer Sharon Jones is back in action after battling a rare cancer. Jones is on a campaign to bring soul music to the mainstream on her Give The People What They Want album tour. Photo credit: Kyle Dean Reinford Soul singer Sharon Jones is back in action after battling a rare cancer. Jones is on a campaign to bring soul music to the mainstream on her Give The People What They Want album tour. Photo credit: Kyle Dean Reinford

The opening track to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ Give the People What They Want is the burning and brassy “Retreat!” Nominally, it’s a song about the fury of a woman scorned, and Jones sings it masterfully, filling her vocal barbs with impassioned invective.

But for Sharon Jones, the song has a deeper, unintended meaning.

Last June, Jones was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, a rare carcinoma that blocks the tubes that push bile from the liver and gallbladder through the pancreas and into the small intestine. She underwent a seven-hour Whipple procedure—wherein various organs were partially removed or shifted to allow for a re-routing of bile—at a New York hospital.

She thought she was going to die.

Following the surgery, she laid in a hospital bed for 13 days. She was lying in that hospital bed when she first saw the animated video for the song, where Jones’ powerful vocalizations repel ever-circling wolves. Eventually, when the wolves have her surrounded, she invokes soul power and grows to giant size, as if empowered and emboldened by her music.

“I’m laying and I’m looking at this video, and I saw it, and then I was getting ready to look at it a second time, and Saundra [Williams], one of my background singers, she said, ‘Girl, I know you saw the meaning of that video,’” Jones said. “‘You saying retreat, and those little wolves running, that’s like you telling the cancer to retreat, and you overpowering the cancer.’ And I’m like, ‘Wow. Wow.’”

Jones went through her last chemotherapy treatment on New Year’s Eve, was declared cancer-free in mid-January, and hasn’t looked back since. The Dap-Kings returned to the stage in February, and swing through Charlottesville on May 29 in the midst of an extensive American and European tour.

Her hair still hasn’t fully grown back, but Jones insists that’s the only thing she’s lost. The Dap-Kings still put on their trademark nonstop soul marathon, and Jones still brings it, sequined dresses and tiny heels and all.

“My energy, I’m feelin’ it,” she said. “I’m not doing everything exactly like we did it before, but I’m still shoutin’, I’m still jumpin’, I’m still movin’. I’m feeling good. That energy’s still there. That’s a blessing. That’s how good God is.”

Jones, who grew up singing in churches in South Carolina, credits her faith—along with her fans—as a large part of her successful recovery, but she thinks the almighty spared her for a higher purpose—saving soul.

“That’s why God spared my life,” she said. “These people need to know that soul is here.”

The Dap-Kings were the first act of Brooklyn-based Daptone Records, an independent label started by Dap-Kings Gabe Roth and Neal Sugarman 13 years ago. The aim was to bring soul music back to the masses. The company roster now includes Antibalas, Sugarman 3, Charles Bradley, and the Menahan Street Band, but Jones remains its flagship act, one that almost singlehandedly brought soul back en vogue in the mid-’00s.

While Daptone expertly captures the vintage vibe of Motown and Stax—it built its own studio in Brooklyn, and uses old-school recording consoles and analog tape to capture the sound of its influences—it’s also come with a trade-off: the “retro” tag, a label the 58-year-old Jones dreads.

“To me, retro is some young person trying to sing like some old person back in the day,” Jones protested. “And here I am, when I open my mouth, soul music comes out. Ain’t nothing retro here.”

Daptone has never been shy about its commercial aspirations, and neither has Jones. “You don’t hear us in the mainstream,” she said. “Why aren’t we mainstream? It’s a good question.”

After toiling in relative obscurity for years, Jones and Daptone found a certain amount of exposure in the mid-’00s with 100 Days, 100 Nights, which broke the Dap-Kings out of its niche audience. (Even though the Dap-Kings’ earliest work, like the James Brown-ish hard funk of Dap-Dippin’ With…, might be the group’s strongest material.) While NPR and the mainstream music press—and, uh, alt-weeklies—have heaped a lot of laud on the Dap-Kings, Jones still feels soul gets slighted, adding an alternate meaning to tracks like “People Don’t Get What They Deserve.”

“Not me, not even Dap-Kings or Daptone, not even us,” Jones said. “But the other record labels, even all these young people out here trying to come up with this new soul thing and keeping soul music alive, we’re not getting what we deserve. We deserve to be recognized. Recognize our music. Recognize soul music.”

That’s Jones’ ultimate goal. And she’ll sing “100 Days, 100 Nights” as many times as that requires. After all, Jones posits, Tina Turner didn’t get tired of “Proud Mary.” Aretha didn’t get tired of “Respect.” “I’m not tired of doing nothing yet,” said Jones. “When I get tired of it, it’s time to sit my lazy behind down. That’s all that is, it’s laziness when you’re tired of doing your own stuff.”

“I’m not tired,” she concluded. “I’m just getting back out here.”

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