For twenty years, soul singer Sharon Jones cultivated a world-wide audience with her sensational albums, performances and stunning voice. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings have been heard in everything from FitBit commercials, to Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf Of Wall Street” soundtrack. Though her career took off later in life, it’s clear that Ms. Jones always belonged onstage. At the height of her career in 2013, Ms. Jones was soaring, until a devastating cancer diagnosis forced her to pause. During one of the toughest years of her life, Academy Award winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple followed Ms. Jones and The Dap-Kings in the stunning and captivating “Miss Sharon Jones!”.
That year, it was announced that Jones had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer and underwent surgery, which forced her to postpone the release of the group's fifth album, "Give the People What They Want." The diagnosis was later changed to stage II pancreatic cancer, for which Jones had surgery on her liver and underwent chemotherapy. The chemotherapy caused hair loss, and for a time she performed bald, refusing to wear wigs. During the screening of the documentary at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, Jones revealed that her cancer had returned, and that she would be undergoing chemotherapy again.
Jones died on Friday, November 18, 2016 in Cooperstown, New York of complications from pancreatic cancer, aged 60.
Four months before her death, I got the opportunity to chat with Ms. Jones about the documentary, her remarkable career, and her (at the time) ongoing battle with cancer. Dedicated to the Dap Kings and to her sound, it was clear to me right away, that Sharon Jones wasn’t going to miss a beat.
Read that interview below and on the next page, and then watch the film on Netflix, where it premiered today.
Aramide Tinubu: Hi Ms. Jones how are you doing?
Sharon Jones: I’m doing alright thanks.
AT: Wonderful, well I just screened “Miss Sharon Jones!” and I’m so excited to chat with you about the film, your career and how things are going for you.
SJ: OK that sounds good.
AT: What was your first memory of singing?
SJ: When I was a child in church, I did a Christmas play where I got to play an angel and I sang “Silent Night”, so that was my first memory of singing.
AT: Wonderful. Well I know that James Brown has been such a huge inspiration for you, and you got the opportunity to meet him back in 2006 before he passed away. I know your mother actually knew him because they were both from Augusta, Georgia. How do you feel about being called the “The female James Brown”?
SJ: Well, that is such an honor to even get that thrown at me. I didn’t even realize it. He represented so much, coming from Augusta especially. In Augusta his name means so much. You can’t bring up Augusta without bringing up James Brown. They’ve also taken to me like that. In the museum, they have a little exhibit of me. I’ve also met with his daughter Deanna Brown and the James Brown Academy of Music pupils. It’s a school where the children are taught how to read music and play instruments. For me to be called the female James Brown, and to see how these kids look up to me, it’s just been so good.
AT: That’s incredible. In “Miss Sharon Jones!” you said that everything in your life has just taken a little longer. I know that your singing career didn’t really launch until you were in your early forties, but what has this journey been like for you? Did you ever think you were going to be Grammy nominated or begin a record label? Did you ever think you would be where you are today?
SJ: Well, maybe at one point back in the day I didn’t think I would, but once we started going at at this and I went to Gabe and said, “Gabe you guys have to get serious about this. This is the last job I’m going to do; this record label.” I told him I wanted this to be a real label and focus on that. We got the building and I started painting and helping with that, so we knew then. The first three years we struggled. People think that we got together when our first album was out in 2000, but, got together around ’95 or ’96. It’s been twenty years now since I’ve known Gabe and some of The Dap-Kings
AT: Wow, it has truly been a journey then.
SJ: So over the last twenty years we’ve built ourselves to where we are now. It didn’t happen overnight. We put a lot of work and energy into it. To get that far, and then to be stopped in your tracks with the cancer; it was a blow. It still is a struggle right now, it’s a very big struggle right now for me.
AT: I’m sure, but you’ve been so courageous.
SJ: I’ve got to keep going. I’m not ready to give up yet.
AT: Of course not, and we’re not ready for you to give up either. Watching the film, you were so positive during your treatments. Where do you draw that strength from especially now as you continue to press forward, battling cancer again?
SJ: A lot of my strength comes from my faith. That’s where the majority of my strength comes from. And then the rest of the musicians and my love for the music, my love for my fans and the love the fans have for me. That’s where I get my drive. Just today, I had to call my preacher up and say, “I really need to pray, I’m getting weak.” I don’t want to get weak right now because that’s a cop out. The medication and the affects of the medication on me is a little different this time. So, I’m just trying to see how long I can go before I say, "I can’t do this", and I really don’t want to say, "I can’t do this".
AT: Because you can. You’ve done it before and you can certainly do it again. What struck me is that when you came back to the stage in February of 2014 and you had that performance at the Beacon Theatre, you struggled with your confidence but you were able to shake off the doubts. You said you wanted to not go back to the old Sharon, but instead reach the new Sharon. I watched you come alive on that stage and it’s just so important to remember that that’s possible.
SJ: Yes it is, and that’s why I keep going back to that. That’s where I’m getting my strength for this round too. I know I have to get out there and fight, and not let the pain get to me.
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AT: Why were you afraid to listen to your album “Give The People What They Want” when you were going through your treatments the first time?
SJ: I was just trying to focus on getting well. But, the music is still out here and I’m out here performing this time, so it’s a little different. Before, I had to lay at home in the bed and heal because I had that major operation. But right now, it’s just a matter of the chemo and letting it kill these cells. Just the day before yesterday I had my chemo, and my white blood cell count and platelet were bad so I had to have a blood transfusion.
AT: How are you feeling now. What are you biggest concerns regarding your health?
SJ: I want to continue on, but the affect of the medicine, the neuropathy in my feet and in my hands, it’s been there since 2014, but now it’s getting worse. It’s coming up my legs more. It’s just a matter of how much you can take. A lot of my performance is moving around. Cold weather also affects me and a lot of my shows are outside. So those are the things that I’m battling with now. Also, getting out here having to let me fans know, that I’m not in the best of health. They know this but I still let them know.
AT: I’m sure the outpouring of support lifts your spirits. Both of my parents went through chemotherapy, so I remember how it affects everything,
SJ: Yes. Unfortunately, I can’t be around my fans as much as I would like to. I used to go out and meet and greet, but my immune system can’t take it. This time I just fly through the airport with masks on. The medicine is also messing with my sinuses and congestion and that scares me because it seems like it messes with my vocals. So, I have to see how these shows are going to be. This run is my test to see what’s going on.
AT: I remember hearing you speak about executives at Sony telling you that you were too fat, too Black and too short to be a star. How did you silence that negativity?
SJ: God gifted me with my talent so I knew I could do this, I knew I could sing, I knew I could pick up an instrument and play it and I’ve never had any formal lessons. That’s what kept me going. When you open your mouth and those sounds can come out… I could imitate anyone, so I knew then that I had something going there.
AT: That’s the biggest silencer of all.
SJ: Yet it is.
AT: What was it like to get that Grammy nomination for “Give The People What They Want”?
SJ: Oh getting Grammy nominated, we would have loved to win but to be nominated and to get to one of the Grammy shows and to see what’s out there was incredible. But, I’m so thankful for where I’m at here, because there’s a lot out there. It’s scary out there.
AT: Yes, it’s so scary!
SJ: Being out here in New York, it’s like a pocket of people. It’s something more going on out there in that music world with all of that money and I’m not into that. (Laughing) I just want people to like our music and understand what it’s about. I don’t need that fame where I can’t walk out my door without people following me. I just want to be comfortable, and to have people know my name and love my music.
AT: Exactly! It's all about the music. Thank you so much for your time Ms. Jones, I know that you need to go get some rest, but I loved “Miss Sharon Jones!” and your music is just so stunning and soulful. I will definitely be praying for you as you press forward.
SJ: Thank you so much.
"Miss Sharon Jones!" was released by Starz Digital and is now streaming on Netflix. Watch a trailer for the film below:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a Black cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami