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Soul Singer Sharon Jones: 'The Cancer Is Here, But I Want To Perform'

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Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings kick off their delayed 2014 tour at the Beacon Theater in New York.

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings kick off their delayed 2014 tour at the Beacon Theater in New York.

Jacob Blickenstaff/Starz Digital

Growing up in South Carolina, soul singer Sharon Jones knew the from first time she sang in her church's Christmas play that she would be a musician.

"I was, like, maybe 8, 9 years old ... and I got to sing 'Silent Night,'" she tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross. Jones remembers audience members taking note of her performance. "Right then and there," she says, "I knew that I was going to be a singer. God had blessed me with a gift."

Now the lead singer for the soul group, The Dap-Kings, Jones is inspired by the classic soul and R&B she grew up with. The band, which recorded its first album in 2001, is known for its energetic showmanship and '60s-style soul revue shows.

In 2013, Jones was forced to take a hiatus from performing after she was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer. A new documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, follows Jones in the first seven months following her diagnosis.

Jones says that while extensive surgery and chemotherapy took a lot out of her, her desire to make music never faltered. After finishing chemo, recovering from the surgery and getting clean scans, she returned to the stage with The Dap-Kings in 2014.

The cancer has since returned, but Jones wants to continue making music. "This cancer is here, and I have to take the chemo," she says, "but I want to perform. I just want to be able to get onstage and move."

Interview Highlights

On not listening to music while she was sick

I didn't. I didn't. Because I couldn't sing. I couldn't get air because, people didn't realize, I was cut across the diaphragm, all the way up from right under the center under my breasts, all the way down to the top of my navel, almost. They had to cut through the diaphragm, through the stomach, remove stuff. They removed like 10 pounds of things ... 10 pounds that I never gained back.

On when she realized that she would eventually get back onstage

I had a February date, and my goal was to be back at that date. And everything in the filming, there's a scene with the church scene, that was my first time even attempting to sing after months. And that's when I knew, from the church scene, that I was ready. I was going to be ready for February. I knew I was going to have the strength. I knew that sickness wasn't unto to death.

I thought I was going to die maybe a couple of hours after the doctor hit me with everything. You know, you go through that. So for a couple of hours I was on my deathbed. But other than that, I overcame that. Doing the film was also my therapy, and I knew that it would help someone out there with cancer, or going through it, as long as I inspired someone. That's where my health came from, my energy came from, knowing my fans was out there and I'm getting back to them, and I wanted them to see what I'm going through.

On getting back onstage the first time after her treatment for pancreatic cancer

The night I went out there, it was a different Sharon, because the hair is gone. That energy, I mean, everyone said my energy was great, but I didn't feel it at all. Even now, the days on the stage I'm just not myself, I don't have that energy. The legs doesn't lift up like I want to with the pain, the neuropathy from certain chemo. It's a hinder, but I do the shows, but it's not the same.

On how she and Dap-Kings songwriter Gabriel Roth create songs together

I just take the music and hear his idea and then I go with it from there. You know, basically he gives me what he thinks, but I have to do it my way, because I'm the soul singer. They're not soul singers, so you can't teach me how to sing soul. You can tell me where to go, just allow me to be myself. That's what we have there with these guys.

A couple of times they got in they thought they had to try to give me some tracks and stuff, and I nipped that in the bud right away. Listening to somebody else singing, I'm trying to go where they goin' and that's not where I would go. I would go nowhere, sing that song. You could get five singers in here and each one of us is going to sing that song differently. Just let me be me. That's how we've gotten where we are today, at Daptone [Records], by them letting me sing the way I feel it.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


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