Entertainment Music Sharon Jones is back
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Sharon Jones is back

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Sharon Jones is no stranger to the fickleness of show business – and life.

After years working as a singer with limited success in small New York clubs, Jones struggled for more than 20 years as a prison corrections officer until her music career was suddenly reignited when she was ‘rediscovered’ by the Daptone label after guesting on some sessions for friend and fellow singer, Lee Fields.

“I have soul to sing and that’s where I’m at. I’m 58 years old. So come on, I’m not a kid trying to imitate someone!”

Nearly 30 years after she had first tried to make it as a singer Jones released her debut album, Dap Dippin’ in 2002 with the label’s house band, the Dap-Kings. It wasn’t just retro-soul: it put a whole new impetus into the real soul music scene.  

Over the next nine years, Jones toured the world with the Dap-Kings and released another four albums. Her dynamic live shows became almost as legendary as her ineffably enthusiastic personality.

Shock Records
Sharon Jones has sass to suit her style. Photo: Shock Records

But in June last year life stepped in with a dose of reality. It was announced that Jones had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer and would need to undergo surgery and chemotherapy.

A new album, Give The People What They Want, was put on hold and all touring was cancelled. The recovery has taken more than six months but Jones has already given her first ‘return’ performance in her hometown.

True to her past history, Jones is not letting the latest setback get her down. She has seen tough times before and I suggest that it must have been difficult for her after achieving such great success in recent years.

“It was a struggle,” she agrees, “and at the beginning I was telling all the other interviewers that I thought I was going to die. I thought I wasn’t going to make it. And I thought it was my last hours. I thought people were going to be going out to buy Give the People What They Want and I wasn’t going to be here.”

Jones says that song now has a different meaning than when she first started singing it at shows a year ago.

“Now you look at the Retreat! video and it’s like hey, I’m telling the cancer to retreat now,” she says. “Get it behind you. So it’s all different – the whole album. I’m going to be back out. People are going to be looking at me with no hair, bald! I’m coming out bald!”

While the title of the new album is Give the People What They Want, Jones is fulfilling that goal by getting back out on the road as soon as the album is released.

One of the things that Jones and the whole Daptone crew have done is to inspire a rejuvenation of soul music – especially in Australia. The new album will help to consolidate Jones’ place at the top of the movement. It is steeped in Motown-style passion and soul with a batch of songs dealing with familiar concerns. And the playing from the Dap-Kings is, as usual, sensational.

“We’re trying to keep it real,” says Jones. “The only thing is I want them [critics] to recognise it – because they’re trying to say that soul music died in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. But they’re wrong. There’s plenty of independent albums out here and young artists. You want to call it Retro, you can call some of them Retro, if they’re 20-something years old trying to sound like the ones that [came before]. I’m not trying to sound like anyone.

“I have soul to sing and that’s where I’m at. I’m 58 years old. So come on, I’m not a kid trying to imitate someone!”

Give The People What They Want is out now through Shock.

Brian Wise is a music critic who is also the editor of addictedtonoise.com.au