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Sharon Jones on Beating Cancer, Going Onstage Bald, and Fighting for Soul

Sharon Jones

Sharon Jones was ready to the hit the road. In spring 2013, the vivacious 57-year-old Dap-Kings frontwoman plowed through a riveting SXSW showcase and chatted with reporters about the electrifying soul band’s forthcoming fifth album, Give the People Want They Want, scheduled for August. Next up: a European tour.

But soon, the singer’s personal and professional life came to a screeching halt. After months of medical tests last spring, doctors diagnosed Jones with bile-duct cancer, later revealed to be pancreatic cancer. Daptone Records indefinitely postponed the album’s release and canceled the band’s upcoming gigs; soon thereafter, she went under the knife to remove a tumor, followed by chemotherapy that sidelined her from nearly all musical activity. “I didn’t think I was going to be here,” Jones tells us now. “I thought that Give the People What They Want was going to be the album that people would buy, but not see me perform. I thought these songs would never be performed by me. I thought I was going to die. I knew it.”

Jones survived: On New Year’s Eve, she finished her final chemo session in upstate New York. And now that she’s successfully beat cancer, the soulstress must now get her groove back before the Dap-Kings kick off their tour in front of a hometown crowd at NYC’s Beacon Theatre in early February; the album is out Tuesday. According to her, that means getting back into performance shape, re-learning the songs she couldn’t sing for months, and learning to balance her lingering symptoms with a full return to the spotlight. We spoke to her about scheduling doctor appointments between TV appearances, fighting for soul, and moving past the cancer.

First off, how are you feeling at the moment? The new album is about to be released, and you’re weeks away from touring.
Nervous. I’m looking at my body with the effect of chemo still. Going back on, I’m not going to have hair. The way my hands, nails, and feet look — chemo turned everything dark. But I want to do it. It don’t make sense to lay home for another eight or nine months until my hair’s grown and all these symptoms have cleared up. I just want to get back out there.

I’m flying to L.A. to do Jimmy Fallon, Conan, The Tonight Show. Then I’ve got to come back to the doctor and see if my blood, my white cells, are built back up. They can take this port out of my chest. They got to cut me and take this thing back out, so that it can be healed by the time I start hitting the road in February. It’s a lot. In the next few weeks, I’ve got to start singing and vocal training — getting my muscles, legs, arms, and heart rate up. I like to get on the treadmill and jog while singing a scale to get the wind back into me. The last time I jogged was in September. After that, the chemo started to drain me. I couldn’t walk up 16 flights of steps without feeling like I had run a mile.

That must be a daunting task, given how much energy you exude onstage. You’re not simply standing in front of a microphone.
Once the chemo stops and wears off in the next couple of weeks, I’ll have my strength back in the next month. I’ll have to run across that stage. That’s the scary part. It’s going to be different. I’m just going to go with it. That’s what soul music is all about.

When did you first notice something was wrong with your health?
I was onstage one night and was singing. I hit one note and I just doubled over. It was like being punched hard in the back. I couldn’t put my back up on the plane seat because of the pain. I got massages, thinking it was muscle spasms. The doctor told me at the time that it was my pancreas. I didn’t even know.

Then my eyes turned jaundiced, so yellow, and my urine was so dark, like the color of brandy. I started itching, and my stool turned the color of chalk. Doctors started running tests. It took so long with insurance. I started losing weight. I went from 156 to 124 pounds within three weeks. It was horrible.

Finally, they gave me the CT scan at the end of May. My doctor told me I had to have the Whipple. At first, they told me it was just bile-duct cancer, but once they went in, they removed the gallbladder, the head of my pancreas, and a foot-and-a-half of my small intestine, and built me another bile duct and connected it to my stomach. It turned out to be pancreatic cancer, stage two, so very aggressive.

You obviously were off the road after you underwent surgery and recovered. Did you do anything music-related during those months?
Honestly, no music at all. For me, music is my joy. It’s my happiness. As long as this medicine, this chemo is in my body, I didn’t have my love, my joy. From June to September, there was no music or trying to sing. I tried a little singing in October: I went to church and I sang for the first time. I then had a rehearsal with the Dap-Kings in October. After the chemo, I’ll start back at singing.

You mentioned you won’t have hair onstage. Are you going to wear a wig, a hat, or anything else on your head?
I don’t think I’m going to wear a wig. If I put it on, being bald, it’ll probably fly off my head. I’ll be uncomfortable. I’m thinking about opening with a big Afro wig and then maybe snatching it off my head. [Laughs.] Then I’d explain my story. For the TV shows, maybe I can find a nice hat to put on. Maybe in a few month’s time, it’ll grow long enough and I can connect some braids to it. Until then, I’m just going to go natural. You can’t hide it.

After your final chemotherapy, how long will it take for everything to get out of your system? What changes for you in the long term?
The doctors are really amazed at my recovery. I haven’t had bad side effects except for the coloring of my hands, the sores in my mouth and on my feet, and my hair. I made changes. It took me a couple times to get used to taking enzymes and to eating the right foods. I changed all my eating habits with my miracle green drink that gets me all my vegetables. It’s made a big change in my life and helped with the healing. If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to put it in my body. Everything to me now is organic, natural, right from the farm. I hate taking medicine. I don’t like taking pain pills. The only thing I’m taking now is the enzymes that help break down food for my pancreas and gallbladder. I do take blood pressure pills once in a while.

What’s your next goal beyond this record, now that you’ve survived your battle with cancer?
My next goal is for the music industry to recognize soul. They should have another category for soul at the Grammy Awards. They’re trying to say there are no soul singers — that soul music died in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I want the industry to know that soul music hasn’t died. You’ve got Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, Naomi Shelton. We’re soul singers. Let it be recognized that soul music is here.

People credit you and the Dap-Kings as part of the neo-soul comeback over the last decade.
It happened way before then. They only recognized it because of Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson. Jay Z and certain people got interested in it, but we’ve been doing this since the ’90s. That’s good that it was called neo-soul. Then that died down as Amy left. Now they call it R&B. But when I see Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake considered R&B or soul singers, they’re not. They’re making great pop music. Why are you calling pop music soul or R&B? It’s not right. We need to be recognized again. Soul singers are here. Soul music is here. All I want is for soul music to be played on every station, not just a handful of stations.

We’re going to continue to keep doing what we’ve been doing. If anyone wants some pop, I’ll come over and sing on your album. But I’m going to sing soul. If you want me to sing pop, don’t ask me. I’m not the one. But if you want me to sing soul on your record, I’ll do that.

A great example of that would be your performances with Lou Reed.
Lou Reed had no idea who I was. It was Hal Willner that asked me and Antony [Hegarty] to come on his 2007 Berlin tour. When we got to Australia, where I have a big fan following, reporters asked Lou, “How does it feel to have the magnificent voice of soul, singer Sharon Jones, behind you?” Lou had no idea. He wanted me to sing a verse of “Sweet Jane.” I hadn’t heard it. They played it for me and pulled the lyrics out. I started singing it. He was like, “You’re singing it wrong, I sing it like this.” I thought, “If you want me to sing it, I’m going to do it my way.”

I didn’t hear that recording until that Monday after he died. That was my first time hearing it. It freaked me out. It was amazing. I remember the night when the audience ran out of their seats up to the stage. I got the goosebumps. And I thought about Lou. I didn’t originally know who Lou was, but he let me be myself. That was pretty cool.