Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Soul Survivor

Mar 31, 2014 Issue #49 - February/March 2014 - Portlandia Bookmark and Share

Sharon Jones has always been a fighter. Though she has been singing her whole life, doing talent shows and singing backup on some obscure albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she had to fight for anyone to think she could be more than a former Rikers Island corrections officer with a booming voice. When she finally released her debut full-length release at the age of 46, she had to fight to get people to believe she could be more than another soul revivalist act paying tribute to the golden era of Motown and Stax Records. Once she became an unexpected breakthrough sensation, she still didn’t stop fighting, tirelessly touring around the world in hopes of making enough money to buy her mom a house (which she eventually did). Even her music is steeped in conflict, with Jones typically sparring with thoughtless, cheating men who have earned her scorn. In the spring of 2013, shortly after finishing her sixth studio album with The Dap-Kings, Give the People What They Want, Jones was confronted by a foe arguably greater than anything she had encountered before. The album’s summer 2013 release date was cancelled. She had cancer.

On a chilly day in late November, a few days before she’s to perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Jones readily admits that she’s still in the middle of that fight. With a month of chemo to go, she is recovering in upstate New York, living with a nutritionist friend who can monitor her diet. Though original reports indicated that she was being treated for bile duct cancer, the reality was actually far more serious: the cancer already had spread to her lymph nodes. After having her gallbladder removed, as well as the head of her pancreas and a foot and a half of her small intestine, the diagnosis came back as pancreatic cancer, stage II.

“I really thought I was going to die,” she admits. “It’s really scary, and I hate being down this long. You see how I move onstage, and to be down for months and not moving, not practicing, that’s not good. All these years I’ve been on the road, the only time I really had to cancel was when my mom was sick a couple years ago in February. In fact, I just buried my motherit will be three years ago this Marchand I hadn’t even got a chance to mourn my mother, because I had been on the road since I bought her the house, put her in the house, and we were still touring. She got sick, she passed away, and we were still touring. Then I got sick. So it’s continually going on and on.”

There’s weariness in Jones’ voice when she remembers the past few years, but Give the People What They Want, finally released this January, is hardly a somber affair. Still, even though it was completed before her diagnosis, the album contains ominous undertones. From the defiantly disappointed “Stranger to My Happiness” to the provocative “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”a song whose title Jones says represents a sentiment that ran through her mind before she concluded her situation could have been worseit’s an album that features both rousing anthems and thoughtfully probing story songs. Even more symbolic is the video for first single “Retreat!”an animated depiction of Jones as a Little Red Riding Hood-like figure, surrounded by menacing black wolves that pursue her across an open forest. Unable to escape, Jones suddenly grows immense, hundreds of times her original size, and sends the wolves scurrying away from her as she chases them.

“When I recorded ‘Retreat!’ I was thinking of this guy, like, ‘You crazy! You play with me, you mess with fire.’ That’s a whole different story now. I’m telling my cancer that, my sickness. I look at the little wolves as my cancer, and I’m overpowering it. I’m telling the world that I’m backthis cancer did not get me down. ‘Retreat! Get behind me.’ When I get onstage, I know what I’m going to be singing about. I’m going to be telling both of those stories, telling this crazy guy to retreat, like a woman scorned. But also that I beat this cancer and I’m going forward.”

As she was cut from her breastbone to her navelthe incisions falling near her diaphragmJones says she feared that she would never be able to produce the volume of air necessary to perform her most powerful vocals. After making her return to the stage in an impromptu performance at her church, followed by limited but encouraging rehearsals with The Dap-Kings, Jones says she knows she is on the mend. Even if her upcoming slate of spring tour dates is likely to be more low-key than usual, Jones will take the stage as a different kind of fighter, wounded, weakened, but ready for her next battle.

“At least now I’ve had this break here and I’ve been looking through life and where I came from and hopefully where I’m going,” she says. “I’ve got a lot more to do. I think that’s why God spared me. I have my saying, ‘I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.’ So I think we have just a little more music to get out here.”

[Note: This article first appeared in the February/March print issue (Issue 49).]


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