KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES GIRL! A REMARKABLE STORY BECAME EVEN MORE INSPIRATIONAL.
BY BRIAN WISE
This article first appeared in January 2104.
Sharon Jones was no stranger to the fickleness of show business – and life.
After years working as a singer with limited success in small New York clubs, Sharon Jones struggled for more than 20 years as a prison corrections officer until her music career was suddenly reignited when she was ‘rediscovered’ by the Daptone label after guesting on some sessions for friend and fellow singer, Lee Fields.
Nearly thirty years after she had first tried to make it as a singer Jones released her debut album, Dap Dippin’ in 2002 with the label’s house band, The Dap Kings. It wasn’t just retro-soul: it put a whole new impetus into the real soul music scene.
Over the next nine years, Jones toured the world with the Dap Kings (even appearing in Lou Reed’s Berlin at the Sydney Festival) and released another four albums. Her dynamic live shows became almost as legendary as her ineffably enthusiastic personality.
But in June last year life stepped in with a dose of reality. It was announced that Jones had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer and would need to undergo surgery and chemotherapy.
A new album, Give The People What They Want, was put on hold and all touring was cancelled. The recovery has taken more than six months but by the time you read this Jones should have given her first ‘return’ show at New York’s Beacon Theatre prior to US dates and a European tour.
“This chemo is going to take a while to get over,” she says when I catch her by phone at her house in New York, noting that her treatments will be complete a week before the Beacon show. “It’s going to take a while… my hands and my nails, my feet and my hair, all my hair is gone. My nose… my eyelashes are gone, eyebrows… It’s a trip! And allergies, my eyes are puffy and running water. The effects of the chemo are going to stop. And my hair is starting to come back. You know, that’s it. I hope by then I need to have some hair. I’ll be looking like Whoopi Goldberg, she don’t have no eyebrows.”
“I think I’ve taken some time off, don’t you think?” she replies when I suggest that most musicians wouldn’t be rushing back to the stage. “I mean, to me, once the energy comes back and I can move, I think that would be the best thing for me, to get back out there. I’m not going to try to be a wild woman and go like a fool, crazy. I’ve got to follow my body and do as much as I can, when I can. That’s my goal. To get back out there.”
True to her past history, Jones is not letting the latest setback get her down. She has seen tough times before.
“I could say I’m feeling better this week than I’ve felt in the last few weeks,” she adds. “The chemo is winding down now. I’ve got three more treatments, so I’m counting down now. It feels like before, the closer I get to the ending, the worse my body was going through changes. But everything is cool. I’m feeling better this week. I’ve got a few more days to go.”
I suggest that it must have been a real struggle for Jones after achieving such great success in recent years.
“It was a struggle,” she agrees, “and at the beginning I was telling all the other interviewers that I thought I was going to die. I thought I wasn’t going to make it. And I thought it was my last hours. I thought people was going to be going out to buy Give the People What They Want and I wasn’t going to be here.”
Jones recalls the pain of an operation that removed her gall bladder, then the surgery on her bile duct and the after effects of an infection that she contracted. For the first few months after the operation she stayed with friends who cared for her.
“It was horrible, the first three months,” she says. “A couple of times I ended up back at the emergency doubled over. Then I really didn’t even get a chance to sing until October. So the last time I did any singing was May. Then [the single]‘Retreat!’ came out and that was good. That uplifted me and gave me a couple of awards.”
Jones says that song now has a different meaning than when she first started singing it at shows a year ago.
“Now you look at the ‘Retreat!’ video and it’s like hey, I’m telling the cancer to retreat now,” she says. “Get it behind you. So it’s all different – the whole album. I’m going to be back out. People are going to be looking at me with no hair, bald! I’m coming out bald! You know, a whole different… everything is going to be different. I’m just looking forward to it.
“You know, I’m thankful for my fans – the positivity, the prayers, that faith. I read all that stuff, it just gives me that strength. I say, okay, I’ve got something to live for!
“It was even worse for me because out of all these years that we’ve been singing, I’ve never been down and out,” continues Jones, “not off-stage that many months. You don’t sing for maybe two weeks or three weeks, that’s about it. And I’ve been doing that maybe in the last, 18 or 19 years. And so to get off and can’t work for a while, that was scary. “
Jones admits that her illness helped to put her life in perspective.
“Thank God I was in a position as a musician,” says Jones. “In my life, I travel a lot, and at least I didn’t have a family and kids and stuff. I have sisters and all. I can imagine if it’s a mother or father who’s got children to take care of and you can’t…….
“Somebody was literally taking care of me. It’s just tough, fixing food and bringing food. But thank God I have someone to do that. Everyone, between my management and my friends and my family, just everyone, the doctors, the nurses, the hospital… When no one is there and you’re on your own and you’re struggling, it’s hard. So I thank God for everyone in my life.”
I remind Jones about her shows with Lou Reed performing the Berlin album at the Sydney Festival and that Lou had just recently passed away.
“Oh my God!” she exclaims. “Wow! I know that was a night.”
She recalls how producer Hal Wilner had told her, “You know, he really loved you. People were saying Lou is hard to get along with, his attitude. But people just misread him. And whatever he felt, how he felt, that was who he is. It took him a lot to get where he’s at, and so what!
“With me, whatever problems we had or whatever we came across, we worked that out. There was no hard feelings. And it’s good to know that his last words were to tell his friend that he really loved you and he was there for your group and for yourself. Really for me, with my cancer, it’s encouraging for me too, to keep going.
“But I think it was great meeting him. And I even told him, I said, ‘Lou, I’m not comparing you to James Brown or anything like that. You have nothing to do with James Brown, your music. But being with you is like, I felt like this is what I would have enjoyed to do with James Brown.’ To sing, whatever. I told Lou that. Being with him reminded me of James Brown, I think that made him feel pretty good. But it was true.”
While the title of the new album is Give the People What They Want, Jones is fulfilling that goal by getting back out on the road as soon as the album is released.
Jones laughs when I suggest that she could have called the album Thank God I’m Still Here.
“That would have been too about me. No, Give the People What They Want is great because it’s not all about me, it’s about all of us. We want to give you all what we need, the Dap-Kings and that whole record, the music, all can show what we’re about. We want to put the soul music in gear.”
One of the things that Jones and the whole Daptone crew have done is to inspire a rejuvenation of soul music – especially in Australia. The new album will help to consolidate Jones’ place at the top of the movement. It is steeped in Motown-style passion and soul with a batch of songs dealing with familiar concerns (though in this case there are plenty of strong women to match the cheating men). And the playing from the Dap Kings is, as usual, sensational.
“We’re trying to keep it real,” says Jones. “The only thing is I want them to recognise it – because they’re trying to say that soul music died in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. But they’re wrong. There’s plenty of independent albums out here and young artists. You want to call it Retro, you can call some of them Retro, if they’re 20-something years old trying to sound like the ones that [came before]. I’m not trying to sound like anyone.
“I have soul to sing and that’s where I’m at. I’m 58 years old. So come on, I’m not a kid trying to imitate someone!”
Give The People What They Want is out now through Shock.