Her voice has come back. So has her hair, though just a little bit. And her stamina is improving.
“Each night, I feel myself getting stronger,” said soul dynamo Sharon Jones, who leads her Dap-Kings on a national tour. “I’m just amazed how fast I healed. Three months ago, I had no energy at all. Now I’m back. I’ve got my energy. I’m not going to be sitting on a stool.”
Last June, the hip-shaking, raspy-voiced singer was diagnosed with Stage II pancreatic cancer. She had surgery to remove her gall bladder, the head of her pancreas and a foot and a half of small intestine – and then underwent preventive chemotherapy. The August release of her group’s already-recorded fifth album was delayed, and a tour was called off.
Jones, 57, couldn’t sing a note from June until October. She couldn’t even stand up easily until September. Her first high-profile return to the public eye was Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. She was lip-syncing (as do all acts in the parade) but out in the elements.
“After that Macy’s parade, I was in bed for three days. I was still taking the chemo. It weakened me and my immune system was low,” she recalled recently from San Francisco. “They had to give me a shot and, with that needle, I’m in bed for like four days. It’s so painful. It aches in my thigh bone, in the rib cage.”
Having finished chemo on New Year’s Eve, she hit the TV circuit two weeks later to promote the release of the new album, “Give the People What They Want.” She performed on Leno, Fallon, Ellen, Conan and “CBS Saturday Morning News” with, as she put it, “chemo still in my body.”
Jones admits that “I have no shame.” She’ll tell you just about anything if you ask.
She’ll discuss her exercise regimen (stretches, treadmill, StairMaster) and give details about her diet, which is supplemented with enzyme concoctions she calls “green drinks.”
“I try to stay away from fried foods,” she said. “If I eat well 80 percent of the time, the 20 percent where I’ll be bad is OK.”
The strong-willed Jones said she was inspired by her mother, a single parent who raised six kids in North Augusta, S.C., and later New York City. Her mother battled cancer – first breast cancer in 1988, then lung cancer in 2008 – before succumbing in 2011.
“Seeing my mother go out like that, that had an impact. It made me strong,” Jones reflected. “My mother had strength in her. She did nothing no more than a mother should do – make sure your kids are fed and clean and healthy. I saw her do this.
“I saw my older sisters get babies before they finished high school. I wanted to set my goals to be different, to finish school, to be married when I had kids. I never got kids, I never married, but I did break the chain in the family.”
Jones worked as a New York prison corrections officer before hooking up with the Brooklyn-based Dap-Kings 19 years ago. “I became something. Everyone said we (Jones kids) wouldn’t amount to nothing.”
The current Dap-Kings show features most of the songs from the splendid new album, which sounds less retro than its four excellent predecessors. Jones attributes that to the fact that various members of the Dap-Kings helped with the writing instead of bandleader/bassist Gabe Roth doing it himself.
Some of the songs resonate differently for Jones after her illness.
“ ‘Retreat’ changed. I tell the cancer to retreat,” she explained. “ ‘Get Up and Get Out,’ the lyrics didn’t make sense to me at first. But now I tell cancer to get up and get out.”
Who needs this return to the stage more – Jones or her fans?
“Both of us,” she said. “They needed it first because that was my medication. That was my strength to get me back out there. God gave me a gift, and I live to be on that stage. When I get to where I can’t move around or when the fans stop coming to see me and the energy is gone, then it’s time for me to retire. Right now, the energy is here.”