Sharon Jones, photographed by Jesse Dittmar
Photo: Jesse Dittmar/New York Magazine
Sharon Jones died today from pancreatic cancer at age 60. This story originally ran on February 2, 2014, and has been republished.
“I knew I was going to be famous later in life,” Sharon Jones says as she leans in close across her kitchen counter. The lead singer of the soul outfit Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is talking about the time her mom persuaded the then-skeptical 18-year-old to visit a tea reader, Madame Cohen. The soothsayer predicted a close friend’s house would catch fire but that everyone would survive. Weeks later, Jones’s pastor called saying a fellow church member’s house was burning, but nobody was hurt. So she thought back to the other prophecies. You’ll travel, play music, be happy and well-off had been among them. Jones, who lives with a friend upstate, leans back on her stool and looks at the small kitchen TV playing The View on mute. “I’m 57 years old, and things are finally happening for me.”
It’s a remarkably sunny thing to hear from someone who, less than a year ago, when she was finally reaching her full artistic and earning powers, was diagnosed with stage-two pancreatic cancer (survival rate: less than 10 percent). Jones’s past sounds like a novel. There was a stint working as a correction officer, a brother who went mad after a teenage brush with LSD, a mother who shot at her husband when he was stepping out during her pregnancy. Cancer is the latest hardship.
Jones, who is barely five feet tall, joined forces with the nearly all-white Dap-Kings in the late nineties, when an ex-fiancé linked the band with the front woman. The music has reached No. 15 on the Billboard 200 chart, but as recently as a few years ago, she was living in the Queens projects with her mother.
“We would go to Europe and come back and I would still have to go to my church, ‘I need $200,’ ” she says. The band finally managed to break through back home, after college students took up her cause. Jones is blunt on the topic of her fan base’s race. “When I first played at the Apollo, the owner didn’t even know who Sharon Jones was,” she says. “The Apollo had never seen so many white people coming uptown.”
She’s performed with Phish (“I didn’t even know how to spell it”) and headlined Bonnaroo with the Dap-Kings. Her CDs are now featured at Starbucks and she has sung with Michael Bublé. Still, Jones tends to get categorized with the college-radio crowd. “I can’t say white people, but people that are into the Internet, they call our music underground. What the fuck?! I’m not cursing; I’m not talking no political stuff about killing. Why is it underground?”
Jones was on vacation in Hawaii when she noticed her first cancer symptoms last spring—yellowing eyes, itchy skin. “From June to September I couldn’t even walk without bending over. I couldn’t sing, and I didn’t listen to any music,” she says, reaching behind her to open the oven door for some extra heat. “I wasn’t thinking about no damn stage.”
The Dap-Kings were forced to delay their fifth studio album, Give the People What They Want, while Jones went through treatment, though she still managed to perform in the Thanksgiving Day parade between chemo sessions. “I was so sore I was in bed recovering for the next three days.” The album was finally released last month, just two weeks after her final round of chemo. “The band knows if Sharon ain’t make it, nobody works.”
Since Jones was still fighting the disease when promotion for the album began, the video for its first single, “Retreat!,” is animated. (In the second video, “Stranger to My Happiness,” she offsets her sparkly shimmy dress with a sleek bald head.) Not that she wasn’t involved in every last detail: She had strict Photoshopping instructions on the album art and video. “I was like, You better make sure to lighten my eyes up and remove my scar,” she says, pulling down the neckline of her shirt to show me a mark on her upper chest.
Jones spends most of her time now either with doctors or with Megan, the close friend who offered up an extra room in her yellow, porch-wrapped home in Sharon Springs, New York, after Jones discovered the cancer and wanted to move out of the city. “A lot of people call me gay because they don’t see me with anyone,” Jones says. “I don’t give a shit. I know I’m not, and I know what I’m doing, so I just chose these past few years to be by myself.”
She points to the TV as someone rolls a joint on the news. “When Colorado legalized weed I saw some guy on TV say that 37 people died from overdosing on marijuana. Bull! I’ve smoked so much weed that I should be dead. You might black out, but you get back up. Matter of fact, I’ll go upstairs and take a little puff.”
Jones heads to the “healing room” where she keeps her collection of vaporizers, citing “mostly” medical reasons for her intake these days. “I used to smoke with the band for pleasure every three hours,” she admits. “On tour I’d make sure we’d have the weed when we got there, but I don’t worry anymore because I’ve got my tablets. Dronabinol.” She tries out a few pronunciations for her prescribed THC pills before landing on the right one. Still, “I feel for the guys,” she says, picking up a sandwich bag filled with greens, separating one inch-long nugget from the rest. “That’s all I want. The rest is for the band.”
*This article originally appeared in the February 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.