Photo: Paul Mcgeiver
When she was in her twenties,
Sharon Jones was told by one Sony executive that she was “too old, too fat, too short, and too black” to make it. Now, at 58, the soul singer’s career is soaring. She teamed up with the funk and soul band The Dap-Kings nearly 20 years ago and they’ve been touring and recording ever since. Rolling Stone’s dubbed them a national treasure and Jones’ latest album, Give The People What They Want, has been earning rave reviews. After battling cancer last year, this year she’s stronger and feistier than ever. She called us from Italy, where she was mid-European tour with the Kings, to talk about why she refused to bleach her skin and share some words of wisdom for mid-life dreamers.
On starting at 40: In my twenties, I was trying to do the pop stuff, but I wasn’t making it. So I just went on and did what I had to do. But when I got to 40, The Dap-Kings were doing the type of music that I could really sing. It wasn’t pop, it wasn’t some club hip-hop—it was better. It was just my time.
On music industry pressure: When I was younger they didn’t accept me. I remember one producer from Sony Records told me I was too old, too short, too fat, too black. He told me to go and buy some bleach and bleach my skin. I looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, right.’ But I didn’t. That’s something I never did.
On embracing yourself: When that happened I went to my mom and she said, ‘You know you’re a beautiful black woman, don’t you let anyone ever change that.’ It’s like that James Brown song, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud.” That record was an important part of me being a very dark skinned woman. I accepted and embraced my blackness. I looked in the mirror and said, “There’s nothing ugly about me, I’m a beautiful black woman.” You have to look and see that in yourself, and that’s all I see in my life right now. I think I’m a beautiful young woman. I just embrace who I am.
On her onstage persona: If you were to walk past me in the street, you wouldn’t even know me. I don’t wear makeup! You won’t see me in a dress or heels [when not performing]. One time this person told a fan that I was in town. The fan came up with their camera and was like, “Where is she?” And I was like ‘Who?’ He said, “Sharon Jones!” looking around. And I said ‘Right here!’ He couldn’t believe I wasn’t dressed up. I said, ‘Please! You don’t want a picture of me? This is how I look! I’m not on stage. This is me every day. You wanna see me all glammy glamour, makeup and everything, you catch me on stage. Other than that, when you see me, this is who I am.’
On wardrobe malfunctions: I like a little sparkly. I don’t like too much of my boobs hanging out; I don’t like dresses too short, too tight, or showing my tail. When I wear a dress, I have to be comfortable, because I have to move around. I can’t have a wardrobe malfunction!
On 50-something beauty: There are no beauty tricks. You just get up and you look into that mirror at yourself and say, “This is me and this is who I am.” On stage I do my own makeup, foundation, lips, a little something around the eye, and I am done. Smooth out all of those marks, bumps and then boom, there you go!
On chemo: When I had cancer, I was bald—no hair on my face and no eyelashes—but I said, I’m back now. Some people would be at home waiting for their hair to grow. My toenails were still infected from the effects of the chemo and stuff. I looked at myself in the mirror and of course, I didn’t like what I saw. But I said, this is who I am, I can’t change this, I’m going to look like this for a few months. I couldn’t sing at all. I was cut across my diaphragm all the way down to my naval. They removed my gall bladder, some of my pancreas and they took a foot and a half of my small intestine. So from June to September of 2013, I couldn’t even straighten up and walk straight, I was bent over. I couldn’t think about singing. I didn’t even want to sing. The only thing I listened to was some gospel music once in a while on Sunday, but I didn’t try to sing. The first time I attempted to sing was in October. I did it at my church and the next thing you know December, New Years Eve was my last chemo treatment. January 4th I’m on Jimmy Fallon. I thought that I was going to use that month to recover, and go the gym and get a private trainer and try to get my strength and energy back, but I got it back by performing.
On learning through cancer: Every day you grow. I learned that you have to have willpower, you have to be positive and strong. There’s got to be nothing but love, you can’t be around anyone with a negative vibe—just positivity and willpower. I had my faith in God, that Jesus Christ was with me, and those are things I dealt with. My faith and myself and being positive and the love of everyone that was around me.
On being better than ever: I didn’t think I was going to be alive last year; I thought that I was going to die. I can’t even describe what I went through. So to me, I’m just grateful and so happy to be back. I have more energy now than I did before I got sick! I’m eating well, my greens and spinach and kale. I hook myself up. If I read a package and I can’t pronounce it, then I’m not putting it into my body. Now, every night I get on that stage, when you see me jumping around. Every show I could my last show and that’s why I give my all, why I give 100%, 110%.
On late bloomers: Never give up, that’s all it is. Follow your heart. If you know you got that talent and you know it’s there, you follow that, no matter what people tell you. Now, if you’re out there singing and 20,000 people tell you, “You ain’t got it!” then you say, ‘I don’t care what people say, I got it!’ If you got it, it’s a gift and it will prosper. You just got to stay true to it. Believe in yourself, have faith in yourself, always stay positive, and keep people around you that are on your level.