Not even cancer can stop this funk-soul powerhouse  

“I thought I was going to die,” Sharon Jones declares bluntly. The  57-year-old soul dynamo was diagnosed with bile duct cancer just weeks before the release of Give the People What They Want, her new album with longtime backing band the Dap-Kings. Everything was put on hold as Jones, who was still mourning the loss of her mother from cancer, underwent a seven-hour surgery and months of chemotherapy for what was subsequently discovered to be stage-two pancreatic cancer.

Jones is exhausted but perks up when discussing her music, which recalls the golden age of Stax and Motown. Though the album was recorded before her diagnosis, many of the songs now hold new meaning. “When I recorded ‘Retreat!’, I was singing to a man,” she says. “Now it’s like I’m telling my sickness to retreat. I’m telling the world that I’m back.” She struggled when filming a music video for “Stranger to My Happiness.”

“At first I thought we should have waited until I had my hair back and my chemotherapy port wasn’t sticking out of my dress,” she says. “I felt like a stranger to happiness during the shoot because I didn’t like the way I looked and my body was so weak, but you’ve got to get out there, smile and do your job. I’m glad I did it.”

Jones’ attitude exemplifies her continued dedication to authenticity. “Soul music is about telling stories,” she says. “I’ve got to be able to tell that story, make it sound real, or I won’t sing it. Each time I sing, the song comes more to life for me. I want to get out there and sing these songs, because I didn’t think I’d ever get to perform them onstage.”

While she readies her tour with the Dap-Kings, she refuses to “sit at home and hide,” instead watching clips of old performances as inspiration to get back on the road. The hectic schedule of travel and live shows while maintaining a careful diet, medication and exercise regimen is daunting, but as a former corrections officer at New York’s Rikers Island, she’s no stranger to hard work. “I’ve got a lot to do, but everything will be all right,” she says. “In church, I sing ‘I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me,’ and I really believe that.”

–Juli Thanki

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