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Sharon Jones is one tough woman. A former corrections officer and Wells Fargo security guard who once was told she was "too black, too fat, too short" to make it as the classic soul singer she's become, Jones recently overcame the toughest battle of her life: beating pancreatic cancer. The cancer threatened not only a music career on the rise, but also her life.
"When the doctor told me I had cancer, I knew I was going to die," she says from a Dallas hotel room where she's resting between gigs. "Then he told me it wasn't the bile duct, but pancreatic cancer, stage two. For at least eight hours, I thought I was going to die. I really didn't think I was going to be here to perform this album."
Give the People What They Want, an album of deep soul cuts, originally was slated for a June 2013 release but was held back when Jones underwent surgery and chemotherapy.
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"It was really sad and disappointing when I couldn't release the album, but it wasn't something I could control," she says.
Yet, before the release could entirely be curtailed, the animated single for the deep funk offering "Retreat" already was garnering heavy viewership on YouTube. For Jones, the song — and several others on the album — took on a new meaning directly related to her illness and therapy.
"Now I'm telling the cancer to retreat. Songs like 'We Don't Get Along' and 'People Get What They Deserve' and even the title track — they were all done way before I was diagnosed. So it's weird how these songs now take on another meaning," she says.
Moreover, she's happy to be singing them. As quickly as doctors gave her clearance, Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, were back onstage giving the people what they wanted: a dose of hard-hitting vintage soul conjuring images of the genre's late-1960s/early-1970s classic period.
"Once I got my strength and my voice ready to sing, I just wanted to get back out there. Now, that's where I'm at. It's joy on the stage. I just feel good!" she says. "Every night is a big challenge. I'm feeling stronger; doing better. Every night I'm getting better. But I'm still taking my time and gaining the energy to do what I do."
The Dap-Kings formed in 2002 and immediately raked in critical acclaim for its pure soul sound made all the warmer by the use of vintage equipment and recording only on analog tape. The old-school concept worked with Jones' rich vocal tenor, bringing comparisons to Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, and Aretha Franklin. Nice accolades if you can get them, but Jones merely takes it in stride, offering credit to her bandmates for writing good songs she can sing — her way.
"They write it and I hear it, then I put my stamp on it," she says. "They come up with a melody, but they can't tell me how to sing the song. No one can tell me how to sing; I'm the soul singer. I'll take it the way I want it to go. The Dap-Kings allow me to be me, and that's what makes it work."
For Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, it's the purity of sound, eschewing the need for Auto-Tune and other distractions, like fancy stage props, that maintains the band's singular focus: the music. Now, more than ever, Jones' music resonates even stronger, coming from a heart brimming with the joy of making music once again.
"That's my joy," Jones simply agrees. "That's why I'm here. That's why I'm here."