My Year: Sharon Jones
2014: In which the soul legend beat cancer, headlined The Apollo, sipped tequila with Andy Cohen, and (finally) got a Grammy nom
2013 was supposed to be Sharon Jones’s year. She and The Dap-Kings had just finished recording their fifth album, a stirring amalgam of soul, funk, blues and torch balladry entitled Give the People What They Want. It was a decidedly uplifting album, a reaction to a brutal period of emotional bruising in her life. She had lost her mother to cancer two years earlier, while Dap-Kings tenor saxophonist Neal Sugarman’s brother had passed around the same time, so both musicians were hoping to put their pain behind them. Though Jones didn’t know it, there was still more suffering to come.
In early May of 2013, the then-57-year-old singer was diagnosed with a pre-cancerous tumor. After doctors removed it in June using an arduous seven-hour Whipple procedure surgery, they had more bad news for her: she had stage II pancreatic cancer. Jones immediately began a vigorous chemotherapy regimen. “When I went to sleep that night, I thought I was going to die,” she says. “I thought people would never get to hear me play live again.”
Then, with a guttural laugh, she adds morbidly, “On the upside, I’d probably then sell a million albums.”
Plans for the album’s release were put on indefinite hiatus while Jones underwent treatment for six months. During that time, she was almost completely bereft of music. She couldn’t sing, and didn’t even have the energy to listen to anything more than the occasional gospel album.
When she tried singing again for the first time in the fall, she discovered that she was going to have to retrain herself to hit some notes. She simply didn’t have the air to pull them off. Nonetheless, she was determined to finally release Give the People What They Want and to tour. She was still getting chemo when she and The Dap-Kings returned for the first time publicly for a performance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That show teed up her 2014, which turned out to be full of career highs.
It was a grueling, unthinkably painful road to get there, but Sharon Jones finally had her year. Here, she takes FLOOD through her personal timeline for 2014.
January 1 (and some of New Year’s Eve)
Final chemotherapy treatment
“I ended up partying with the doctors at the hospital after I was done. When Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” came on, I grabbed the mic from the DJ. I had to sing it. I had no hair and was still weak, but it felt good.”
Appears on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
“There was a lot of pressure, because they were my first television shows. I was really dragging, but the greeting I got from Jimmy and The Roots inspired me. There was an energy being there in front of the audience that filled me up. I can’t explain it. I felt like a superhero. The mic was my cape.”
Give the People What They Want’s release is marked with a performance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show
“That night I had a nice dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant. I still wasn’t feeling great, but I was going. We followed it up by performing on Conan, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and CBS This Morning – Saturday. It didn’t stop.”
Treatment port removed and final scans are performed. Prognosis: cancer-free!
“Even though I wasn’t feeling good, getting that news was a good feeling. I feel that God kept me here this long for a reason. My cancer was just another stumbling block.”
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings return to the stage at The Beacon Theatre for a sold-out show
“This was my first full, public concert since March 2013. My hair was starting to come back. The guys told me they had a stool ready for me on stage. They said, ‘You just need to walk on and walk off. We got your back.’ Their eyes were watching me the whole show, but they knew I was recovering. I struggled until April or May, but I was really back in June.”
Month-long worldwide tour
“We did twenty-six shows in thirty-four days, including thirteen back-to-back nights with no break. I told them I’m never, ever, ever, ever doing that again. It’s just not worth the pain.”
Sharon bartends for Andy Cohen on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live
“I’m not into reality shows; they’re a bit too much. But it was an honor that Andy wanted me to do that. All I really did was sit there and drink tequila, so it was great. It definitely helped take the edge off.”
Headlines three sold-out nights at The Apollo
“A film crew followed us and we recorded the shows, and we’re going to release a live album later his year. The first time I played [at The Apollo], no one had heard of me. To go back there and headline was an honor. So many legends have come through there and been on that stage. The Apollo had me sing when they were inducting Aretha Franklin into their hall of fame back in 2010. I did two of her songs—“Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—which she didn’t seem to like too well. She didn’t say anything to me when I ran up to talk to her. I wish she would have criticized me or said something to me, which would have made me feel better. She took a picture with me, and then I thanked her and walked away. If a young singer ever came up to me and told me I was a big inspiration, I wouldn’t treat them like that. Aretha is such a big part of who I am. I used to watch her as a little girl. Her gospel album Amazing Grace inspired me to play the piano and want to sing like her. So she doesn’t need to be that nasty to people. She needs to humble herself more.”
— Sharon Jones (@sharonjones) December 5, 2014
Nominated for first Grammy for R&B Album of the Year
“When we went in to soundcheck at The Apollo on Friday afternoon, we found out the news by reading it on the Internet like everybody else. We couldn’t believe it. Still can’t.”
Headlines The Fillmore in San Francisco
“I wasn’t feeling too well, but the shows went well. I was already looking ahead. I’m hoping to put out a Christmas album this year and have a new studio album ready for 2016. No matter what, I’m going to keep on fighting and keep on going.” FL