Sharon Jones on Beating Cancer and Career Advice From Inmates

The celebrated soul singer opens up about her recovery and new album

Sharon Jones
Vincent Sandoval/FilmMagic
Sharon Jones
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Sharon Jones had a bad 2013. The 57-year-old soul singer was diagnosed with bile duct cancer just after finishing her new album, Give the People What They Want. It forced her to postpone the release of her LP, cancel all her tour dates with her longtime group the Dap-Kings and have highly invasive surgery, followed by grueling rounds of chemo.

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She's all better now, and her new album – another excellent set full of brassy, vintage-soul grooves – was finally released this week. Rolling Stone recently spoke with Jones about her recovery, her frustrations with the music industry and her stint as a corrections officer at Riker's Island. 

I read you had your last chemo treatment on New Year's Eve. How did you celebrate that night?
I didn't really want to celebrate because I was still weak. But I had chemo up in Cooperstown, at the medical center. They had a gala for New Year's Eve. I wasn't gonna attend because my immune system was weak. I didn't want to be around a bunch of people and catch a cold. But then at the last minute, I changed my mind. I went ahead and gave my $200 for a ticket, and I had a ball. I had so much fun, man. I got to dance. 

Then a DJ came into the room and starting playing Aretha Franklin's "Respect." I grabbed the microphone and started singing. You can't play no "Respect" and not let me sing. It was amazing, even though half the people there didn't even know who I was. Oftentimes people don't know who I am. I don't take for granted that they do. 

Did you worry that chemo would weaken your singing voice?
It wasn't the chemo that weakened my voice. It was what happened first. On the 10th of June I had the Whipple procedure. They had to remove my gall bladder, the head of my pancreas and they took out a foot and a half of my small intestine. Then they built me another bile duct and connected it to my stomach. They had to cut me right across my diaphragm, all the way down to my navel. That was hard. I didn't do any sort of singing until October. I sang "In the Garden" for my pastor, and my voice came back slowly after that. 

Are you officially cancer-free?
On January 23rd I go back to the hospital. They're gonna inject me with the dye, give me a CAT scan and make sure they got all the cancer. They want to make sure my white blood cells are back up. Then they gotta remove this port from my chin where they put the chemo in. I don't want to go on the road with this port in.  

Did your impression of America's medical system change during your ordeal?
The medical system, the insurance, the money I'm paying . . . it's so many thousands of dollars! It's ridiculous how much they charge you for a needle or any little thing. I went to Rite-Aid the other day and I show my insurance card. I needed Creon, which is one of my enzyme medications. He came out with this sheet of paper and wrote out that I had to pay $580! I was like, "Excuse me? Are you damn crazy? How the hell are you gonna charge me that much?" Then he checked my insurance and came back with $35. I was like, "How'd that go from $580 to $35?" 

It doesn't many any damn sense. I was like, "Wait, if I didn't have insurance you would be charging me more? Poor people should be charged even less!" People are dying! They are letting people die! It's sad. The doctors in the hospital will not operate on you. They will not take you. And so you're just gonna die.

I want to switch gears here and talk about your new album. What were your goals going into it? What did you want to accomplish this time out?
The only thing I wanted to accomplish was to finally get recognized by the music industry. If you know the awards, answer me this question: Do you see an award for soul music? No. They have R&B, funk, hip-hop and all sorts of contemporary things. I don't know why I keep saying this and I don't know why I keep using their names . . . And I'm not dogging them. I'm not slandering them. I'm not saying they are bad musicians. But how can Taylor Swift or Justin Timberlake win for R&B and funk? They are pop singers. 

You don't have enough soul artists, so they put pop music under R&B and funk. When people ask what music I sing, I say soul, R&B and funk. And at the awards, we aren't recognized. Why? Because we're an independent label. We've been going on here for 19 years and these people don't even know. How are we not even recognized?

Every time I see your name in print you are labeled a "retro" singer.
Yeah! I'm not some kid from the doggone past. They just don't recognize me. I'm sitting at home every time there's a Grammy. It's like, "What is Sharon doing tonight?" I'm sitting home watching it. But it's OK. But if you go to Europe, there are a lot of young, independent labels that's doing soul music. You might call them retro because they're young and they're trying to imitate somebody. But I ain't retro. Don't call me retro.

The Beacon Theatre show kicks off a pretty long tour. I imagine it's going to feel pretty triumphant to walk back on that stage after all you've been through.
It's gonna be amazing. I'm praying that in a couple of weeks, I'm gonna have a little bit more energy than I have right now. They're gonna get a great show, but don't expect that power, that energetic Sharon for another few months. 

I'm getting these little peach furs on my head. I wonder how my hair is going to look short now that it's growing back. I don't want it to be skimpy-skampy. I don't want to shave it now that it's coming back, but I might have to. Everything on my body turned real dark. My toes, under my feet, inside my mouth, under my tongue – I just turned really dark. I'm still here, but it's gonna take a while to get back to normal. Chemo kills all the good cells along with the bad. I have a feeling they got everything, though. I'm not worried about it. 

Do you think you could have handled success when you were 20?
You know what? I probably could have, but I probably would have been on some stupid major label and you do one song, and if I don't do it right I wouldn't have stuck around. So to me, everything worked as planned. Who knows how things would have happened back then? I was wild when I was young, getting involved in stuff. And thank God I'm where I'm at now.

Tell me a story about working as a corrections officer at Riker's Island.
One day I told the inmates that I sing and they wouldn't lock up until I did a verse of [Whitney Houston's] "The Greatest Love of All." They refused to go into their cells until I sang the whole thing. I knew when I was there I wasn't meant to be there. Even the inmates told me that. They said to me, "Miss Jones, you aren't meant to be here. You're too nice."