Jay-Z and his ilk could learn a lot about the “Hard-Knock Life” from Sharon Jones.
Born in Augusta in 1956, the iconic singer grew up in the shadows of segregation in the South. She was told she too black and not attractive enough to be a solo artist. She put in years as a part-time wedding singer while working full-time jobs as a corrections officer at Rikers Island and an armored car guard for Well Fargo Bank.
When she was “discovered” by bassist/producer Gabriel Roth in 1996, while working as a backup singer for soul/funk artist Lee Fields, she was 40 years old. And by the time Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings released their critically acclaimed debut album on Roth’s Daptone Records label in 2002, she was 46.
But the toughest fight of Jones’ life began in the summer of 2013, when she doubled over on stage during a concert. The diagnosis was Stage II pancreatic cancer. Jones’ doctors removed her gallbladder, a 1.5-foot long piece of her small intestine and a section of her pancreas. The band, still riding high on the success of 2011’s Soul Time, was forced to cancel a tour and delay the release of its sixth album, Give The People What They Want. More importantly, Jones worried she might never sing again.
Fortunately, the 57-year-old firecracker not only survived, but bounced back with a vengeance. Since releasing Give the People What They Want this past January, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have been turning in some of the most passionate performances of their careers. We were delighted to have a chance to speak with Miss Sharon during a brief break in a grueling tour schedule about her childhood in Augusta, her deep love of soul music and kicking cancer’s butt.
You spent some time in Augusta as a child, and have been living there full time for a few years now.
Yeah, I moved to New York when I was three. By the time I was five years old, we were coming down South every year to be with my father. I went to the third grade in Augusta, and that’s how I got to sing in the church and go to Bible study classes. Up until I was a teenager, I went back and forth to Augusta.
What are your early memories of life in Georgia?
I remember one summer, when I was nine or ten, James Brown came to the club one night. I remember staring at him standing on the stage. James Brown started dancing, and I remember telling my father, “Look, daddy, he’s floating!” He looked liked his feet weren’t touching the floor. In Augusta, I remember being able to run free. When we were kids, we didn’t have a bathroom or running water. We had to carry water to the house. Our heat was from a stove that you fed with wood and heated up in the morning. I remember my grandmother cooking on that same stove. Years later, they tore down the outhouses and added running water. I watched all those changes in that neighborhood over the years, and now here I am, back in it. I remember in 1967 seeing them building a house when I was there one summer, and now I’m actually living in that house!
Did you realize how different the South was when you lived in New York?
Yeah, I’ve always known that. For one thing, being born in 1959, I went through segregation. So I remember the bad parts: One time I wanted some water and I didn’t want to drink the water from the nasty fountain that had “Colored” on it, which I didn’t understand at the time. I said, “I want to drink from the clean fountain!” My mother said, “No you can’t.” My mother got a plastic cup and went to the Colored water fountain. She had to put that water in a cup for me, because I refused to go up to it and touch it. I remember when they segregated the schools—the meanness in how people used to treat us. It didn’t phase me, because I knew those things were going to change and my mother never taught us hatred. I guess I didn’t know how to hate because of being in New York and being around different races all the time. That’s one of the things I give New York credit for.
Where did your deep love of classic soul music come from?
Soul has always just been in me. When I was coming up, as the music industry changed, I wanted to change too. I was always singing Otis Redding, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and anything from Motown and Stax. But I also listened to the Rolling Stones, Three Dog Night, The Mamas & the Papas, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra… whatever the radio stations played. Back then we didn’t have a ton of stations, like we do now. Soul music was the trend back in the day, but then rock ‘n’ roll comes along, with Elvis and then the British Invasion.
Why do you think it took so long for your brand of soul music to get noticed?
When I was in my 40s, they told me that I don’t have “the look.” I was too black for what was going on in the music industry at the time. So I had to bow down and out of that.
And then you met the Dap-Kings…
Right! When I first saw these three young white boys, I thought, “What do they know about soul music?!” But that’s all they were doing – soul music. The drummer at the time was just 16 years old, and Gabe was 22 or 23. Now he‘s a dad with three kids! It’s going on 19 years between us. But when I first got with them, they weren’t serious. They were cutting singles and putting them out there, fooling people to think it was done in the 1960s. When I heard the singles, I’m like, “We got something here. We can bring soul music back!” And we started Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. It’s the last job I ever wanna have!
I obviously have to ask about your battle with Stage II pancreatic cancer.
I moved to Augusta in 2010. I had just gone through the stress of my mother being sick and then burying her, and next thing I know I’m sick with cancer! The last four years, I haven’t been able to exhale. I’m just beginning to relax a little bit now, and I’m on the road four months after chemo… My publisher didn’t think I should tell my fans about the cancer, because it was too close to the release [of Give The People What They Want]. They said, “We might lose fans if they think you’re going to die.” This was in June/July. I said, “I’m not going to not communicate with my fans for months about what’s going on with me! I don’t care if I lose fans, because then they weren’t really my fans to begin with!” My hair was gone [from chemo] and I wanted to post pictures to let my fans know.
How did your fans respond?
They started sending me mail, and that inspired me even more. I think God saved my life for me to make this music, brought me together with the Dap-Kings, and blessed me to do what I’m doing. When I was in that hospital, I kept singing the old gospel song (sings), “I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me….” Why would he give me cancer now, when I’m at the height of my career? It was all part of the trials and tribulations. My last show was May 2 (2013), and I didn’t sing anything until October. I went home for my pastor’s anniversary and I got to sing that Saturday at a dinner, and then that Sunday I got to sing in church. That Monday, we had rehearsal with the Dap-Kings to get ready for the video and go over some of the songs. I got stronger and stronger, but then I had a setback because my white cell count was low. It tires your body. When I did the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I was in bed for four days after that. I went through a lot, but here I am.
Now that your cancer is in remission and you’re touring behind the new album, do you feel like you’re more determined than ever to give the best performance you can every time you step onstage?
Yes, absolutely! I’ll be 58 years old soon. I know I’ve got years to go, but I look around at Mavis Staples and some of the other [classic soul singers] coming back. They come back to the old school music because of the bands around here keeping it alive. It disturbs me that the music industry does not recognize soul music. That’s my determination right now, for them to recognize that soul music is here and that we need our own category I would love to see that happen before I decide to retire. When I retire, I want to make sure that I can find some young, talented soul singers. We’ve got to keep soul alive!