Sharon Jones (front and center) with the Dap-Kings (Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff courtesy Daptone Records
When I spoke to Sharon Jones on April 7, 2016, she was heading into Richmond for her last show here. Yelling into the phone, she had three conversations happening at once. Ten minutes into our discussion — which wasn’t really a discussion at that point — she told whomever was in the car with her that she needed to focus on our interview.
Last Friday, Nov. 18, Jones passed away from complications of a cancer that she was determined to overcome. Anyone who saw her perform in Richmond or other cities would only know of her chemotherapy if they had read about it in the press. She never showed that she was moving through something tough on stage; her energy was infectious, bringing people into the spotlight and dancing with them, jamming even harder (in heels) than the people in her audience.
I was lucky to see her again in upstate New York a week after the Richmond show. Her performance was equally upbeat, frantic and full of life.
Richmond magazine: You are busy.
Sharon Jones: Well, yeah! [laughs]
RM: You grew up in a large family; are all of you musical?
SJ: My older sister used to sing, my brother used to sing, I found out my dad was a singer. I found that out later. When I played the piano, they said, “You play the piano like grandmother.” I never knew it.
RM: There were 10 of you, correct? You are one of six, and you lived with your aunt’s children. How was it living in that house? Did that have some bearing on you touring as a single vocalist?
SJ: It was a lot. I wasn’t really touring but more or less just doing background work, singing in different wedding bands. That’s how Starr [Duncan-Lowe] and Saun [Saundra Williams] came along. My wedding band was called Good N Plenty. [The band] originally had one singer, but I was headed into [the] corrections [field] and it was going to take me away from the singing. [They] got another girl in and corrections didn’t work out, so I came back to singing. And then [they] needed another girl, and Starr and Saundra went down to audition for the same part in my band and [the bandleader] was like, “How about two girls?” And that’s how we met. We were together for seven to eight years, and then I didn’t see them for ten years, and here we are back together.
RM: What are the differences working with them and without them?
SJ: We worked together so well in the wedding bands; that’s the reason they are in the band now. We are like sisters. They are like family.
RM: Do they help with the songwriting, or is that all you? Or do other members of the Dap-Kings write?
SJ: Yeah, We all do it. Sometimes the guys will come in with the lyrics basically how they want the music to go. Sometimes, we will just sit down and they will have some music and we’ll get some lyrics to it. A lot of the songs the guys write, but I’ll add my percentage in there to make them soulful. They write the stories, and I bring it alive.
RM: Do you record all your records in the Daptone studio?
SJ: Yeah, cause the rhythm section comes and they get it all done. We always do the rhythm section at Daptone – that’s where all the band is. Actually, we just got out of the studio two weeks ago. We are working on a new album. This time I was with them; I put the vocals tracks down. That way they had something for the rhythm to go along with. If I am not with them, we usually have to change a key and everything. This time I was in there, we got the right key. And I was able to help them with the writing of the songs, so it was much better. Sometimes I can do the vocals at the studio in California; mainly the rhythm was done at Daptone.
RM: You sang backup for Phish in 2009. You have totally different sounds. What was that like?
SJ: With Phish? Oh! I had to think about that. That was exciting. You know, Saundra came with me, that was pretty cool. I hadn’t met them before. I didn’t even know how to spell their name. They said, “Go Google them.” I’m Googlin’ them: “F-I-S-H.” They said, “No, it’s a P-H.” And then, I get in there and they are these young guys, and I am older than these guys and I am like, “When did you all start?” I am thinking, This band has been around? I enjoyed them, and all these people are into that band like that and I [had] never heard of them. That’s like me. Some people never heard of me. It’s kind of like Lou Reed – he had me do that stuff for him. I didn’t know Lou Reed – I’d never heard of Lou Reed. [She starts singing “Walk on the Wild Side.”] If I look back on all of the artists, I am even on Booker T’s album, I opened up for Prince at Madison Square Garden; these things are … like, amazing. Even recently to be with Tedeschi Trucks Band. To me, they are new but they have a big following for what they do. They do a lot of covers. We are getting ready to tour with Hall and Oates. These are different audiences, and we are gaining new fans.
RM: What are you listening to right now?
SJ: Right now, if I turn my radio up I am listening to Siri. [Laughs] I am listening to Soultown, where they play all the soul tunes from the late '50s and the '60s.
RM: No new bands? Any new stuff?
SJ: No, not unless I have to. Half the time when you listen to the radio you hear the same people, they basically all sound the same. I like to watch the TV shows, when they have the Beyonce. I am 60 years old; I am not into that rap stuff. Like early rap, you know, talking about New York [she raps Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five “The Message”], that was great. After that, once they got past that, start grabbing their crotch and taking their shirt off and started working their mouth off about a woman, “She’s a B or a H or a …” and they got money and they got gold and they got platinum; it don’t make sense to me. When they start talking about killing cops, killing and shooting, that don’t interest me. That’s not my thing.
RM: I love the influences you quote. Sam Cooke is one of my all-time favorites.
SJ: Yes, when you go back, it was Sam and Dave and James, if you are just naming men. If you watch them on TV, they have that energy that I have, shouting and carrying on, waving their hands. The women coming up – Aretha was one of the most influential coming up with her voice – her attitude now might be a little different. She may not accept female singers right, but she is entitled to that.
RM: How do you keep your energy up so high?
SJ: That’s a blessing. That’s a gift that God gave me. [I’ll] be turning 60 years old next month. The only thing that I get a little nervous about is dealing with the chemo and dealing with the cancer. When I have the chemo in me, I worry about that taking my energy away. I have been lucky enough that most of the shows that I do have been a week or so after the chemo – except one time I didn’t have that break. I am looking forward to going to the doctor here soon and them saying, “Nothing, we will see you in three months, we will see you in six months, we will see you in a year.” That’s what I am hoping for.
RM: How are you feeling?
SJ: I’m great. They had to stop the chemo because the chemo was doing something, “neuro”-something. It was messing with the nerves in my fingertips and my toes. And of course, the tumors started growing back. They came up with another plan. Thank God for scientists working these things out. It is radiation pellets. And they put these little pellets … the tumors, the cancer is coming back on the liver. These pellets are put in overnight. They go up through the groin muscle — I am awake, they tell me to catch my breath and breathe — they go up the blood stream and they block the blood from going to the tumors, and they release the radiation and the radiation kills the tumor. That’s what I am doing now. And I go back in a couple more weeks, and they are going to take an MRI and see how everything is going. So that’s that.
RM: My fingers are crossed. We all want you to be happy and healthy.