Cancer Couldn’t Stop Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings Giving The People What They Wanted

Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings perform onstage at the Daptone Music Showcase during the 2013 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at ACL Live on March 14, 2013 in Austin, Texas( Earl Mcgehee/Getty Images for SXSW)
“They [record labels and execs] were looking for a look, but I knew that God gave me a gift and I said ‘one day people will except me for my voice, not my look’.” It seems unthinkable that the world might never have known her incredible talent.

Over the course of her time fronting the Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones developed a fearsome reputation as a vocalist and live wire entertainer.

It seems unthinkable that the world might never have known her incredible talent.

She understood from a young age that she had something special, but when it came to pursuing a career in singing, she learned that raw talent wasn’t enough to make it to the big stages.

“Too dark skinned, too short, too fat, and then once you get past 25, you’re too old,” the singer told Fenella Kernebone on ABC in 2008 of the prejudice and discrimination she encountered.

“They [record labels and execs] were looking for a look, but I knew that God gave me a gift and I said ‘one day people will except me for my voice, not my look’.”

Undeterred, she kept up her singing in church, in wedding bands, and small studio session jobs. She even utilised her pipes in a stint as a corrections officer at the notorious Rikers Island Prison, singing a Whitney Houston song to pacify a group of inmates reluctant to return to their cells ahead of their nightly lock up. Her voice proved to be both a gift and a helpful tool.

She was 40 when her backing vocals impressed Gabriel Roth and Phillippe Lehman in a recording session with funk soul legend Lee Fields for their label Desco Records.

When Roth (also known as Bosco Mann) subsequently formed Daptone Records with Neal Sugarman, they launched with the woman who would be their star attraction.

Their first release for their new label and new group was Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.

Although the songs across the band’s catalogue were largely written by Roth, there’s no mistaking the authenticity of Jones’ convictions in her delivery, nor her star power and truly magnetic stage presence.

With her fringe dress furiously swinging, hair whipping, sweat dripping from her face, watching Sharon Jones live on stage is to witness a singer completely possessed by the moment and transmitting every ounce of her energy to the audience.

She was a soul singer in the tradition of her heroes such as James Brown and Tina Turner, and the group’s constant touring, backing of Amy Winehouse on Back to Black and their own recorded output (2005’s Naturally, 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights and 2010’s I Learned The Hard Way), placed the Brooklyn based act at the vanguard of the 2000s soul funk revival.

As the band were preparing to release their fifth album Give The People What They Want, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but she wasn’t about to take that lying down.

“When I was sick, the first thought [was] not knowing that I was going to be alive another year. And then once you see that you’re gonna live then, now ‘well, I gonna get my energy back’,” she told Sarah Howells on Double J.

“And the only way I could get that back was just doing it! You can’t get energy laying in the bed. You can get up and walk on a treadmill, but to me, getting back out there, getting back into the music, getting back on TV, getting back on stage was my therapy.”

“I’m more energetic now than I was three years ago.”

Other than changing her diet to include healthier foods, managing her energy was key. She didn’t want to let her illness hold things up for the band, even though it was tough going for her.

YOUTUBESharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Stranger to My Happiness

“Towards the ending of my cancer [treatment] we recorded that video [for] ‘Stranger to My Happiness’. Doing that, the next four days, I was bed ridden because it drew all my energy,” she explained to Double J.

“It was so hard, that was my first time really getting back out and I was worried about the makeup and then I didn’t have any eyelashes and I was just so weak.”

“I would just stand there and sing and when they said ‘cut’ every 15-20 minute break in between I had to sit down and wrap up in this towel. That eight hours was fun, but I was in bed behind it for a couple of days.”

Rocking a bald look in her sequin dress, Jones was the picture of a soul survivor, though she was very candid about sharing the challenges of her journey, and what ultimately got her back on her feet.

“I did some painting, more reading and just watched movies, comedy something make you laugh.

“Getting back on the road, as fast as I did, was because of the fact that I knew my fans was there for me. And I just had to get back out. [As] long as I was laying home, I was unhappy.”

As she was coming to terms with her illness, going through treatment and gaining her strength back, many of the album’s songs took on new meaning for her too.

YOUTUBESharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Retreat!

She explained to Myf Warhurst of George V Magazine, the new meaning of the animated video for ‘Retreat!’

“The little wolves are the cancer, I’m beating the cancer, I’m coming back, telling the world, ‘I’m back to give the people what they want, some good soul music!'”

She’d hoped to inspired others going through cancer in sharing her story in Barbara Kopple’s documentary Miss Sharon Jones! At the Toronto screening of the doco in 2015, she revealed the cancer had returned, and that she was determined to fight on again.

Very sadly, Sharon Jones passed away in 2016 after suffering a stroke.

Dap-Kings bandleader Gabe Roth reflected very movingly on his friend’s greater legacy and the mission he’s been on since her passing.

“She wasn’t just a great singer, but an unbelievable performer,” he told Grammy.com in 2020.

“She was really like a superhero. Her live show, how she was on stage, her energy, and soulfulness, and the way she connected with the audience, I don’t think there’ll ever be another like her.

“Personally for me, she’s probably the closest person in my life I ever lost. She was a sister to me, and she basically helped build my whole adult life and my career. Even the way I feed my kids today, I know it’s all basically on the back of her, and the way that she hit the stage.

“Everything came out of that, all the success the band had, and all the success Daptone Records had. My ability to make money as a producer and a songwriter and everything else, it all came out of her sweating on stage.

“That’s one of the most important things, as far as my responsibility to try to not let that be forgotten, to let her stay in the mind of everybody long after I’m gone.

“It’s important to keep her music fresh in everybody’s ears not just because she deserves it, but because I think people deserve it. They deserve to hear her voice.”

YOUTUBESharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – People Don’t Get What They Deserve
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