Sharon Jones walks into the Black Cat Café in Sharon Springs, New York, a tiny village one hour west of Albany, and is immediately greeted with jokes and hugs by every employee. A fiery performer who spent decades in obscurity before becoming a Grammy-nominated soul and funk savior with her longtime backing band the Dap-Kings, Jones smiles as she takes her time getting to the table, making small talk with everyone in the restaurant.
The waiter approaches and Jones explains the sparseness of her lunch order. “I’m going through chemo and it messes with my stomach,” the 60-year-old singer says. The server went through chemotherapy himself to battle brain lesions caused by multiple sclerosis and the two discuss various treatments and pill side effects like old friends comparing war wounds.
As the café prepares Jones’ lunch – half a Cuban sandwich and a glass of water with honey – she describes a recent interaction with her iPhone. “I asked Siri, ‘How are you feeling?'” Jones says. “She said, ‘I’m glad to be alive.'” She laughs heartily, displaying a gallows humor she has learned to employ in recent years. “So I’m glad to be alive.”
In June 2013, doctors diagnosed Jones with stage two pancreatic cancer and immediately performed a whipple procedure, a complex operation that removed Jones’ gallbladder, the head of her pancreas and 18 inches of her small intestine. She went into remission nine months later, only to announce at last September’s premiere of a new documentary on her, Miss Sharon Jones!, that the cancer had returned.
“When I walk out [onstage], whatever pain is gone. You forget about everything.”
As with the initial diagnosis, Jones relocated from North Augusta, South Carolina, to Sharon Springs to convalesce at the home of her friend Megan Holken and fight the disease again. The cancer has spread, with tumors appearing on her lungs, liver and lymph nodes, and as she enters her room, decorated with Native American dreamcatchers and African art, the singer stares at an exasperating litany of medications she must take every three hours every day.
There’s Tizanidine, Oxycodone, Fentanyl and Celecoxib for pain relief, Creon for digestion, Metoprolol and Hydrochlorothiazide to regulate blood pressure, Mirtazapine for sleep and Lactulose solution for regularity. “Without these, I would be doubled over in pain,” Jones says.
Since the cancer’s return, which has now been elevated to stage four, she has been alternating between performing and recovering, traveling to Cooperstown 30 minutes away every Friday for two hours of chemotherapy supplemented by pills, spirituality and the stage.
The youngest of six kids, Jones discovered her love for the stage as a child. Her mom moved the family from North Augusta to Brooklyn to escape her abusive husband (Jones’ mother, then pregnant, once shot at her dad in a club after finding him with another woman), and there Jones began singing in church with her sister Willa. In the 1970s, she started numerous funk groups and earned extra money by performing in wedding bands and singing gospel music.
But despite her booming voice and outsized personality, she had trouble breaking out in the cut-throat music industry. “I wasn’t what they was looking for,” she says stoically. “They just looked at me and they didn’t like what they saw: a short, black woman.”
In the 1990s, a record producer told her she was “too fat, too black, too short and too old.” “I looked at myself and saw ugliness,” she says in Miss Sharon Jones!, the brutally candid film directed by Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing) chronicling the singer’s health issues and career.
Jones retreated from music, taking various jobs that included two years as a corrections officer at Riker’s Island prison. The job was a harbinger of her onstage persona: Commanding, fierce and demanding respect. “You had two or three officers for every 30 inmates,” says Jones, who at the time was skilled in tae kwon do. “The inmates didn’t scare me. I had to put a mean face on, but it went away in a second.”
In 1996, Jones was an armored car guard when she got a call from Gabriel Roth, current Dap-Kings bandleader and head of now-defunct funk label Desco Records. Roth worked with Jones’ then-fiancé and needed a back-up singer. Jones, then 40, arrived at the studio in full uniform – “gun hanging on my side” – to record a song called “Damn It’s Hot” strictly “for background money.”
More songs as a back-up singer would follow in subsequent years before Desco dissolved and Roth, along with saxophonist Neal Sugarman, planned their next move. Before Daptone Records even existed, the collective recorded their debut album Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings in a Williamsburg basement and sold copies out of Sugarman’s kitchen in Brooklyn.
“I know [the Lord] gave me this gift and I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”
“I said to Gabe, ‘I see something here. This record label can be the Motown or the Stax of today,'” Jones says. “Y’all running around just printing 45s like it’s a game. I said, ‘I hope you get serious because this is the last job I ever want to do.'”
Jones helped Roth build the label’s permanent studio-cum-headquarters in 2002, handling the electrical wiring herself and becoming the fledgling label’s linchpin. Jones and the Dap-Kings released a series of increasingly popular, horn-anchored soul and funk albums. After more than three decades of career fits and starts, Jones, in her mid-40s, was on her way.
The group continued to record and tour constantly, watching their crowds grow as Jones’ roaring voice, frenetic energy and gregarious personality surpassed the initial “female James Brown” comparisons. In 2012, they began recording their sixth album, Give the People What They Want, which would eventually earn Jones her first Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album.
But the following year, in May 2013, Jones entered an Augusta, Georgia, hospital. Her eyes were yellow. She had severe itching and chalky stool. She was rapidly losing weight and rarely had an appetite. The energy was gone.
The cancer diagnosis was swift and unimaginable. “I just started crying,” Jones says. “All kinds of thoughts went through my head because I figured that I was going to die.” She didn’t think she would live to see Give the People What They Want come out. (One chilling scene in the film finds a member of her team discussing the “What if…” scenario of a posthumous release.) But then, Jones says, she went into “survival mode, like, ‘You’re gonna do this.'”
As the film shows, performing is as effective a therapy as any pill. “When I walk out [onstage], whatever pain is gone,” Jones says. “You forget about everything. There is no cancer. There is no sickness. You’re just floating, looking in their faces and hearing them scream. That’s all that is to me.”
Offstage, there have been many bad days. Her worst in the past three years was immediately after the cancer returned. “I just laid in that bed and just … like, wow. Couldn’t do anything. Won’t do this again. Am I gonna make it again? I was like, ‘Why? Why am I gonna fight?'” Jones recalls, wiping a tear away with a napkin. “Megan said, ‘Look, you’re not giving up on me. You’re a fighter.’ She had tears coming out and I’m turning my eyes down. And I just … she was right.”
In addition to performing onstage, she found solace in her spirituality. “I just said, ‘Lord, you’ve got something in store for me. I get it. Use me,'” she says. “He’s keeping me here for something. I know he gave me this gift and I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me. I would lie to everyone if I said, ‘Why me?’ It’s like, ‘Hey. It’s you. It’s happening, so deal with it.”
But there’s a difference between “Dealing with it” and “Sharing it with the world.” Jones initially balked at the idea of a documentary. “You’re gonna be all up in my face,” she told Kopple. “That’s fake and phony. It’s gonna be like those Kardashian girls.” Kopple gave Jones her past films and convinced the singer and the Dap-Kings to participate. Jones had one demand: “You’re not going to catch me in my pajamas getting out of my bed.”
“She really opened up her life to me in the most intimate and life-and-death kind of situation,” Kopple says. “She’s so honest. She’s not homogenized for a moment. What you see is what you get.”
Displaying that characteristic honesty, Jones reveals that she’s ambivalent about her future in music. She admits she sometimes can’t hit the high notes she could even two years ago and envisions a time when she can retire and travel the world. But for now, she still has the desire to sing and perform and, she says, “I’m gonna do it up until that desire is gone.”
The unrelenting energy is still there: Jones wants to record a gospel album with the Dap-Kings and the group has live shows scheduled throughout the summer. “I have this saying: I have cancer; cancer don’t have me,” she says. “I’m gonna keep on going. I’m gonna take this medicine, and it’ll be alright.”