This interview originally ran in August of this year. Today, Yahoo Music is re-running it to honor the brilliant singer, who has lost her long battle with pancreatic cancer at age 60.
There is a scene towards the end of the Sharon Jones documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, that tells you all you need to know about the singer and the power of soul music. Returning to stage for the first time after ending a punishing year of surgery and chemotherapy to stave off pancreatic cancer, Jones’s legs are weaker than usual and she battles her “chemo brain” — the side effects of memory loss. Her rock-solid band, the Dap-Kings, kick into gear and Jones promptly forgets her lyrics.
Without missing a beat, “the female James Brown” turns the Beacon Theatre into a church confessional, begging her congregation’s patience as she relearns her craft. In this publicly tender moment, you understand not only the purity and strength of spirit that has brought Sharon Jones legions of fans across the world, but you also understand what makes soul music so distinctly different from other musical forms. Soul music’s unique power rests in its ability to bear witness.
This confessional is not just part of a stage act. It is elemental to the music itself. Anyone tempted to write off Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings as a retro phenomenon misses the point. This singer and this band are one of the last precious living links to a music, an age, and an art form nearing extinction. Sharon Jones, however, is far from extinction.
Says the South Carolina-born singer, “I let my fans know, ‘This is what’s going to be happening, you understand?’ So, you know, I’m doing my best. That’s what you gotta do. I love that. You know my managers, they had to get used to me being so free and open to my fans. You know. They disagree with some things, but went along with me and then I’m like, ‘See?’”
Since the film’s release, Jones has made a few more stage concessions to her cancer battle. “With this chemo. I really do get short-winded. I have that memory, ‘chemo brain.’ Forgetting stuff. So the guys try to get monitors. I put a rug down because my feet are tender with the neuropathy. I can’t… you know, the bare foot on the different floors and stuff. It’s very sensitive to my feet. You know. My legs… really, I can’t lift them as high. I come right on and I start moving and I start getting short breath, so I put it to a little minimum. I slow down because of what’s going on with my body. I keep telling everybody, ‘I lost my ass! My ass is gone!’ It’s just like flat. I can grab it, like, ‘Oh my gosh what is this”?
Ass aside, what remains intact is Sharon Jones’s indomitable spirit — her boundless joy. And a voice generations deep. This former wedding singer and corrections officer who rose to fame at an age when most people near retirement, Jones is fully grateful of her soulful perch.
“They told me I need to get out there and get me a 9-to-5. I had some people say, ‘Who’s gonna come and see her old ass?’ Yeah, her old ass. Yeah, that’s right.”
Jones continues: “I found strength [in fighting this cancer]. I found even having more faith. And being able to open myself up and accept the love from people coming in. You know, all of my fans. I try and read everything I can, and that strengthens me. So you know, just, accept that love. And people who are around you, being supportive. And I tell them all the time, ‘Don’t nobody show me pity. But show me love. Be there.’ And that’s what keeps me going. That’s all I can put out. I just keep on fighting, take it one day at a time.”
The truth is this: Sharon Jones is one of our last direct links to the golden age of soul. This woman who stood on the shoulders of Otis Redding, Mavis Staples, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown is now a giant herself. Her importance not only rests in her bravely staring cancer in the ugly face. Sharon Jones has been adopted by an adorning music world because they recognize that she represents a scarce commodity: musical authenticity. Sharon Jones is a reminder that regardless of genre, we need the soul to come first in music.
“I’m not trying to go and do pop, you know. I’m not trying to compete against Beyoncé and Rihanna and whoever else is out there. I love them. I love what they’re doing. I just hope we cross paths and they listen to my music. Maybe we’ll get to do something o stage together. Bring it together. But I’m still going to be soulful. And they can be who they are, you know what I mean?”
Another big item on Jones’s bucket list? A collaboration with Stevie Wonder. “Man, just to feel his aura. It’s a good aura, you know.”
It takes a good aura to know one. Get better, Miss Jones. The world needs you now more than ever. And to Stevie Wonder, Miss Jones is expecting your call.
Watch the Reverend Shawn Amos on YouTube