Sharon Jones was finally living the life she’d always longed for. And it was about to slip away.
She had grown up in the projects, worked menial jobs for decades and spent countless Sundays singing in church choirs, daydreaming of stardom all the while. Unlike most us, who outgrow such fantasies after childhood, Jones held steadfast, picking up occasional session work and backup member duties over the years. But her persistence was incessantly tested. Only when she reached her late forties, an age where many musicians begin mulling retirement, did Jones finally have her breakthrough, a debut studio album dubbed Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, released in 2002. Her fifth follow-up to that disc was slated to hit stores this past summer. By then, Jones had become a critically lauded singer, credited with leading the revival of old-school soul.
She looked forward to the album’s tour. But persisting back pain during early shows lead to a doctor’s appointment. He diagnosed Jones with cancer. Not only would her gigs have to be put on hold—she was only given a few months to live. It meant not only the end of her life, but the close of a career that she’d barely had a decade to enjoy.
And yet, none of it left Jones feeling bitter.
“I think one of the things I felt most was fear. I really thought I was going to die,” she tells Paste during a recent phone interview. “It was just me and the doctor there at first, and that’s when it really got to me. But by the time I told everyone else, I had already gotten all my fear out, all the crying and all the sadness.”
She wasn’t just putting on a brave face. For Jones, fearlessness had long become a reflex.
She certainly couldn’t show fear during her first New York engagement (she and her family fled from her abusive father in South Carolina to the Big Apple when she was a little girl). That initial gig had neither the glamor of a concert hall, nor the looseness of a dive bar. Before she could sing for a living at such venues, Jones had to put in her time at a day job that was much more restrictive, to say the least. Those early crowds were far harsher. They were deadly, literally—murderous, thieving, manipulative. Before her major label signing, Jones spent years working as a guard at the notorious Rikers Island prison. And even the best behaved inmates would make any concert heckler seem tame.
“One of those guys, he could make a fist bigger than my head, and one day he said ‘Ms. Jones, if I snatched you up in this cell, what would you do?’” she recalls, before adding: “And I said ‘You know what young man, what reason do you have to snatch me up? For one thing, you probably have two or three girlfriends coming to see you in here, bringing you all kinds of stuff. And if you do snatch me up in that cell, if you took anything from me, I’d either have to be unconscious or dead.’”
Jones says the inmate gave her a sideways look, then laughed and strolled off. She adds that his departure didn’t happen a moment too soon.
“If you’d looked down at my pant legs at that moment, truly, you’d have seen my legs were just clunk-ka-clunk-ka-da-clunk shaking. After that I went over to another guard and whispered ‘I can’t move!’” she says with a laugh.
On another occasion, Jones walked by a cell only to hear the fellow inside shout “Sharon!” It was one of her neighbors from the projects in Brooklyn. As she walked closer to the bars between them, he asked: “Sharon, can you tell my mother for me…”
“No,” she cut him off, before adding: “You get on the phone and tell her yourself. I’m not here to take messages for you. And another thing: in here, you call me Ms. Jones.”
Onstage, she commands the same respect, albeit through different means. At Rikers, Jones relied on stiff posturing for survival, but onstage she’s now famed for her nimble shuffles and frenzied steps, all in time with the grooves of her band, The Dap-Kings. She also strikes a different tone with her current audiences than the throngs of inmates she once presided over—one that’s much less stern, but all the more intimidating to muster up.
“I worry, with new songs, if I’ll be able to remember the lyrics. And the new songs have call and response with the band, so I have to sing the right lyrics, because they gotta answer,” she says of the more elaborate tunes that were to be featured on her sixth album, which was postponed from its summer release after her diagnosis. “So I told my band, ‘if I ever mess up, y’all just sing the right thing back to me and that’ll get me back on track.’ Sometimes I’ve forgotten songs entirely, and I had to laugh and tell the audience ‘I’m sorry y’all.’ It is what it is; you can’t panic and run off. You either gotta make it funny, or let the audience know you messed up, or whatever.”
In that sense, showing her weaknesses in front of band mates and fans can be infinitely tougher than staying strong in the face of convicts. But in the end, Jones’ embrace of that vulnerability is the only thing that has helped her outlast the cancer.
“A couple of weeks ago, we were shooting a video for ‘Stranger to My Happiness,’” Jones says of the single for the album, which is out now, now that the doctor has given her a good prognosis. She began chemotherapy this past fall, and her last radiation session was on New Year’s Eve. While that treatment ensured her recovery, it also robbed Jones of her notorious energy. The ensuing side effects also made her apprehensive about public appearances.
“I didn’t want to do the video,” she reiterates, before describing, once again, how she had to face down a strange new fear. “I thought to myself, ‘My hair’s gone. My nails are discolored, will that show up? Will they be able to see the scar on my chest from the operation?’”
She did the video shoot anyway, despite her apprehension. She was bald and visibly ailing then, and at her performance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and during a cover story photo shoot for The Village Voice. Her willingness to showcase so much weakness has given her a whole new source of strength.
“I read as many of my fans’ notes online as I can, and so many of them say things like ‘Thank you Sharon, I have cancer, you inspire me now, I thought I was gonna have to wear a wig and blah blah blah.’ Then some of them are like, ‘You’re going through the hard part right now, as soon as this is finished you’re gonna get all your energy back. It didn’t take me long, just a few weeks.’ They’re inspiring me to get better, because they’re sincere with their love and their prayers and their thoughts.”
Despite her illness, Jones felt some sense of duty, as if she were still donning her uniform and walking the halls of Rikers every day. If James Brown is forever renowned as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, then Sharon Jones should be dubbed The Public Servant of Soul.
Her fans may be forever grateful for her candor and disclosure, but Jones freely admits that it’s been even more beneficial for her.
“I’m still learning the album; there’s maybe another five songs that I really got to study,” she says of the tunes on the aptly titled Give the People What They Want. Jones says her recent ordeals have given those tunes a whole new meaning, especially the brawny, brassy, opening number, “Retreat.”
“I recorded that song last summer, before everything. Now I think, ‘Wow, it tells a whole other story,’” she says. “Instead of me telling this guy, ‘You’re crazy to mess with me, I’ll burn you up,’ on the song, now it sounds like I’m talking about the cancer. Now it sounds like ‘Retreat, my sickness. I’m coming on, step back, there’s a crazy woman coming in. It is what it is, I’m gonna keep going. No shame, no fear here.’”