Sharon Jones was onstage in Idaho this past April, belting out her powerhouse soul, when she hit a note and doubled over in pain. It was like she'd been punched in the back, hard. She turned around to her band, the Dap-Kings, and cringed, but regained her composure to finish the show. The pain continued; she was unable to sit up on a plane afterward. She tried massages, thinking it was muscle-related, but in the next weeks, her eyes yellowed with jaundice and her urine became as dark as brandy. She lost 30 pounds. The band's album was three months from release. She and the Dap-Kings' rhythm and horns had been working on it for two years—their fifth full-length, titled Give the People What They Want. Doctors ran tests, eventually diagnosing the 57-year-old Jones with pancreatic cancer. Surgeries and chemotherapy followed. Music was on hold. The treatment left her unable to sing, and she was also grieving the loss of her mother. But Sharon Jones is indomitable. She's as solid as they come. Her last chemo session was New Year's Eve, and within weeks, she was doing shows. She was weak, but she was back: bald, bold, resilient, and beautiful. Giving the people what they want. The dignified working queen of soul. She spoke from Memphis, Tennessee.
Sharon, will you marry me? It's my day off, so no marrying today. I don't wanna do anything except chill. Maybe later? [Laughs] I'm making my green drink now. I'll do these green drinks for the rest of my life. I have to eat well. Spirulina is magic. Chia seeds. See, I get crazy and put in ginger, parsley, carrots, tomatoes, spinach, kale, banana, and some grapes. I do it right. People don't realize how important a bowel movement every day is. Sometimes I go three times a day. I got nothing sitting up in there. I'm healthy now; I have no choice. I didn't think I was going to be around to do this. I thought people would be buying this album after I was gone. I only thought that for a few hours, though. They got a gym here, I'm gonna do the treadmill, then I might get me a massage. I don't get to relax a lot out here on the road. I'm working all the time, so on a day off, I take advantage. Some of the guys are going to go see Graceland. I can't go, I need to rest the voice.
Are you an Elvis Presley fan? No. But I would have liked to get to see Graceland, to see what goes on there. Wait, I lied. I've watched every move Elvis made since I was a little girl.
The album is prophetic, what you say in "Retreat." Now your cancer is retreating. [I sing the song.] [Sharon sings back] "I'll burn you up if it's my desire, do you hear what I say?" Now that's what I'm saying to the cancer. Re-TREAT. The album was finished before I got diagnosed. During the making of the album, I lost my mother, and Neal Sugarman lost his brother to cancer. The album is dedicated to them. I was sick and couldn't tour, so they came out with the animated video. The video changed the whole meaning of the song. Instead of me telling some guy to retreat, I'm telling my cancer to retreat. The little wolves in the video are like the cancer runnin' up on me.
Sorry I've got you singing. You're supposed to rest the voice today. You were on VH1 Divas. I don't think of you as a diva, though. I think of you as a badass. The thing with divas, years ago, they were strong singers—they got out there and did what they had to do. Women like Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin. Now the term "diva" has taken on another meaning. To me, now diva means a little bitch. Excuse my language [laughs]. These kids aren't divas, they're little pop singers. What they're calling R&B and soul these days is just pop music to me. When I was on there, I just did what I had to do for Sharon. I wasn't trying to compete. Some people were stuck-up. Anita Baker was nasty to some people there. She didn't even perform, as you notice. And I had a little problem with Miss Martha Reeves. It was a good group—Mavis Staples, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, and even Dolly Parton. At the end, Martha Reeves ended up giving me a hug. She said, "That was great." I said, "I told you, Miss Reeves, I got your back."
Can you please do an album with Mary J. Blige? I'm married to her, as well. You know, we'll see what happens in the future. If they came to me and wanted to do something, I would love it. Jennifer Hudson, too. I don't want to approach any of them 'cause I don't want my feelings hurt.
How do you and the Dap-Kings usually write your material? The guys are usually in the room together. They might already have songs. Dave Guy usually has it down, he knows what he wants. They'll have lyrics. I'll listen to the music and the lyrics. Sometimes I'll add something, or change it up a little. I always tell them, "I understand y'all write the music, but you're not a soul singer, you can't tell me how to sing a soul song. Let me do it the way I feel it. If I can't sing the song the way I feel it, then I'm not gonna do it. If the words don't make sense to me, I'm not gonna do it."
What happens when a song doesn't make sense? "Get Up and Get Out." That song, Homer wrote it, the drummer. And I couldn't get it. The lyrics were "You leave before I see the morning light. I always say I don't want you no more." I asked, what is the song about? And it turned out to be about bedbugs. He said, "I thought you might not want to sing it if you knew it was about bedbugs." [Laughs] Then it made sense to me. Then I could sing the song. When we do it live, we do it differently, the band slows it down. Like Tina Turner doing "Proud Mary." [In Tina Turner voice] "We're gonna do this one nice 'n' slooow-ah."
How are you feeling? I'm getting on the stage, and I'm doing what I do. And I think I'm doing all right. I can tell on my days off, my body is tired. Right now, I don't get as sore as I was getting four weeks ago. I'm getting stronger. My hair and my nails and my feet are feeling better. My nails had turned black, like tar was poured on 'em. The chemo was doing stuff. But my color is coming back.
What kind of cancer did you have? At first, they told me it was just bile-duct cancer. Then upgraded it to stage 2 pancreatic cancer. They removed the gallbladder, the head of my pancreas, and a foot and a half of my small intestine, and built me another bile duct and connected it to my stomach.
Did you ever think about not doing shows? And just resting? I should have been resting, but I'm glad I didn't, 'cause here I am. I think it helped me heal faster, and I got the love back for my music. When I was home sick, I couldn't listen to music, except some gospel. My joy was gone. I couldn't eat for days.
And when you perform, you're moving. You're an athlete up there. I've always been athletic. My mother had some good genes, I just wish she could have stayed around a little longer to see what's going on. I was able to get her out of the projects and get her a home, which I feel good about.
Well, I'm very glad you're here. Enjoy your green drink. Me, too! You know what I'm looking at? Right across the street, they got a Benihana. I'll get some more vegetables from there. I hope they throw 'em up in the air and chop 'em and play with 'em [laughs]. Then I'm gonna get in bed with the remote for the rest of the night.