Sharon Jones is up for her first Grammy award at the age of 58. She and her band, the Dap-Kings, have released six albums. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC
Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC
Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

The indomitable spirit of Sharon Jones

Singer Sharon Jones and and her longtime band, the Dap-Kings, were nominated for their first Grammy Award in 2015 after Jones was diagnosed with cancer

Editor's note: This article was originally published in February 2015. Singer Sharon Jones died Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. See also the accompanying video by the AJC's Ryon Horne.

She was only scared for an instant.

After all, this is the woman who, when she started her career as a soul singer 30 years ago, was admonished by one industry type as being “too black, too fat and too short.”

She’s carved a comfortable profession in a genre that doesn’t support its stars with major radio play or mainstream recognition.

So after decades of fighting to be heard, Sharon Jones, a quick-witted, firecracker spirit packed into a diminutive frame, wasn’t going to let pancreatic cancer kill her.

“When the doctor told me they got it all, in the back of my mind I thought, he’s just telling me that so I don’t worry. But the next day, the doctor assured me I would be all right … so I went with it.”

Jones smiles serenely as she says this. Just moments earlier she had run her finger from her pelvis to her belly button to demonstrate the zipper-like incision doctors at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center made during a 12-hour surgery to remove her gall bladder, the head of her pancreas and a foot and a half of her small intestines in June 2013.

Now, sitting at a piano in the lobby of the Heart and Vascular Institute in Augusta, the city of her birth and a few minutes from where she lives in North Augusta, S.C., Jones can at least temporarily shelve memories of the stage 2 cancer that almost terminated a career before its unlikely prime.

Grammy recognition

Jones, 58, and her longtime band, the Dap-Kings, are nominated for their first Grammy Award. The awards ceremony is Feb. 8 in Los Angeles.

The critically showered “Give the People What They Want,” released last year after a delay due to Jones’ diagnosis and recovery, will vie for the best R&B album trophy against the Robert Glasper Experiment, Aloe Blacc, Jarle Bernhoft and Toni Braxton with Babyface.

Jones is appreciative of this rare occasion of industry acknowledgement.

“I thank God that we’re finally being recognized for what we’ve been working so hard for. We’re not going anywhere. I’m not gonna be a pop singer. I’m gonna be who I am,” she says.

“People” is her sixth studio album with the Dap-Kings and ironically the one they didn’t push for a Grammy nomination, having been spurned in past attempts.

But as thankful as she is for the recognition, she can’t disguise her disappointment that her nomination is in a genre that doesn’t accurately describe the music she and the Dap-Kings create.

“There is no soul category and now you’ve put me in a category where Taylor Swift or Justin Timberlake might be? Not to take anything away from them – I love them. But just the fact that you’re gonna say there’s no soul music out there, it’s a lie,” Jones says, her molasses eyes flashing. “It’s not just me. It’s Lee Fields and Charles Bradley, anyone from the Daptone label I could throw out there. And there are a lot of young soul groups in Britain and Australia.”

She’s not sure if she’ll attend the Grammy ceremony. She’s slated to perform a benefit concert the night before at the Heart and Vascular Institute, which is why she’s visiting on this day, and she’ll have to zip to Atlanta to grab a pre-dawn flight. But if she does go and if she wins, she plans to use her acceptance speech to thank God.

“No one but God got me through (my illness). In any interview I say this – it’s a gift. I’ve been blessed,” she says, her voice unwavering.

Long road to success

Jones grew up in New York, where she sang gospel in church and competed in talent shows. She went on to do some session work, singing backup for other artists, but she paid the bills working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island and an armored car guard for Wells Fargo. Her music career sparked in the mid-’90s when she met Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Mann), bassist for the Dap-Kings and co-founder of Desco Records and her current home, the Brooklyn-based soul-funk indie label Daptone. She’s performed with the eight-piece ensemble for almost 20 years now.

The band attained a flash of mainstream popularity in the mid-2000s when they were revealed as the backbone to Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album “Back to Black,” which spawned the ubiquitous hit “Rehab.”

“When people try to say, are you jealous that Amy stole your band? I say, Amy ain’t stole nothing. My band, she borrowed them for a little while, and while she was playing with them, I was playing with Denzel Washington!” Jones said with a cackle, referring to her small role as a singer in the 2007 Washington film, “The Great Debaters.”

In 2010, Jones moved back to North Augusta to care for her ailing mother, who has since died. Then came her own health problems.

When asked how the band coped with Jones’ illness, Roth said he worried as if she were a member of his own family.

“Sharon doesn’t compare to anyone. It’s unbelievable what she’s able to do. I’ve never been onstage with someone with that much energy and who has that kind of power as a person,” Roth said from Phoenix, where the Dap-Kings were preparing for their gig as the house band on last weekend’s “NFL Honors” show. “We’re kind of along for the ride with her. We definitely feed off her energy, but she’s not going to cut us any slack.”

Roth is the primary songwriter in the group, rolling out soul-funk gems such as “100 Days, 100 Nights,” the title track to their 2007 album, and the swaggering “Retreat!” from “Give the People What They Want.”

Jones occasionally delves into crafting songs (she co-wrote “Tell Me” on “100 Days, 100 Nights”). But the stage is where her soul truly unfurls.

She credits her return to touring last year – mere weeks after finishing her final chemotherapy treatment – as her salvation. She estimates the band played at least a couple of hundred concerts in 2014, from a sweaty, passionate performance at the Variety Playhouse to venues in Europe and Australia.

“I would say close to June I started feeling better and it was all because I was on stage,” she says. “I got my strength through performing. Laying at home wouldn’t have gotten me where I needed to be. I wouldn’t have recovered as fast.”

Even in the echo-y atrium of the heart institute, Jones requires no coercing to perform. With her eyes shut tight and her fingers delicately fluttering over the piano keyboard, Jones belts a diaphragm-twisting rendition of the gospel standard, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

A small crowd of hospital workers quickly assembles along the overhead railing, curious about the throaty sounds rising from behind the piano. No one leaves as they all stand listening, transfixed.

It’s an example, as Roth noted, of Jones’ “ability to put all of her heart and all of her feeling into something, and electrify thousands of people at once.”

Later this month Jones will return to the doctor for a checkup. A visit last summer indicated a shade of something on her liver, a tumor that was removed microscopically.

But at this moment, Jones says she is cancer free.

She and the Dap-Kings just released the new single “Little Boys with Shiny Toys,” a song born from an instrumental played during live shows. Jones will perform at a Carnegie Hall tribute to David Byrne in March, and she and the Dap-Kings will hit the road this summer with the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

A Christmas record is also planned for a fall release, and a new non-holiday release – with an orchestra joining the Dap-Kings – is on the docket for early 2016.

“I feel strong,” Jones says, smiling and nodding, and it’s impossible not to believe her.

So no, Jones isn’t scared of anything.

In fact, she’s fearless.

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