Guest of Honor

Sharon Jones Tells Cancer ‘Get up and Get Out’

The Dap-Kings' unstoppable lead singer looks back at her cancer battle, which was chronicled in the documentary "Miss Sharon Jones," and draws strength from soul songs.

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(Photo Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff)
(Photo Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff)

Sharon Jones is the unstoppable lead singer of the funk and soul band Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings The ten piece act has been releasing albums and touring the world for a decade. In 2014, they earned a Grammy nomination for Best R&B album.

The year before that album came out, Sharon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A new documentary called, “Miss Sharon Jones” follows her during that period. The film plays in select cities from now through September, before being released through Starz on-demand. Check out the trailer below:

Sharon and the Dap-Kings are currently on a world tour with Hall and Oates, but the cancer has returned. When Brendan met with Sharon, he asked how she was feeling about her career when she got her first diagnosis.

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Sharon Jones: The next album is coming out, and you know, you’re looking forward to that. Because with us, we have to do shows to make music. There’s not like a bunch of royalties coming. It’s not like we selling millions and we got millions of dollars coming in.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re a touring band, yeah.

Sharon Jones: Yeah. We working hard to get what you have.

And I had just came back sort of off of a little vacation from Hawaii. While I was in Hawaii, I just kept saying “My eyes look yellow.” And I was itching, you know? And I come back home and go to my doctor. He looks at me, sends me to this oncologist doctor, set me up for MRI.

He seems a little uptight when we told him we was going to New York. So he says, “Well, you can go to” — this is how I found out I had cancer — he said, “Go to New York and get your fancy doctors,” or “your Yankee doctors” or something like that, “and they gonna tell you the same thing: You have cancer.”

I was like, “Cancer?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: He hadn’t even had told you his diagnosis yet.

Sharon Jones: Yeah. I don’t think he realized, to this day, that he probably did that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And that’s kind of where this documentary begins. Before we get to that, your journey to becoming a touring musician, who is successful, who had a new album coming out. It had been a long one. You had been a corrections officer, you sang in wedding bands. A music executive once said, “You’re not worth investing in because you’re too big, too old, too black, too short…”

What made you keep trying to do music when you were well into your 30s and not…

Sharon Jones: My first album out when I was 40. I knew I was talented, I knew I had a gift just being in the church, and just realized what my mom said, “That guy was a knucklehead. You know you’re a beautiful black woman. And pretty soon people will accept you for your voice, not the way you look.”

New York, NY - February 2, 2014 - Sharon Jones performs at the Beacon Theater following cancer treatment. CREDIT: Jacob Blickenstaff
Sharon Jones performs at the Beacon Theater following cancer treatment. (Photo Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff)

Brendan Francis Newnam: There must have been such a big temptation though, because you were living with your mother in Queens, you were making ends meet. To not come home after work and go out singing… what motivated you to push harder?

Sharon Jones: I just knew that we had something, The Dap-Kings. Once Mark Ronson got involved and Amy like, “Oh, you know, the band comes, and we gonna do this thing for this British girl.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: When you guys sang, you guys worked with Amy Winehouse for “Back in Black.”

Sharon Jones: Soul singing British. You’re like, “What?!? All right.”

And the next thing you know, a couple of weeks later, it’s all in the newspaper, “The British Are Coming!” The next thing you know, Amy all on the show. The band played with her while she was in the states.

And I was like, we’ve been doing this for the last… Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson been listening to us over the last 10 years. They coming to us because that’s what we’ve been doing for the last few years. And so if they can hit on something, we got something here. And I was like, “This is the last job I’m gonna get… y’all. We gotta make this work.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: So you did make it work. The band has what, like 10, 11 members? It waxes and wanes a little bit.

Sharon Jones: Yeah, yeah.

NEW YORK, NY - February 6th, 2014 -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. (Photo Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Album after album, touring the world. This cancer diagnosis comes down, and now… You know, the movie shows you have this amazing family, you have this amazing support group, including The Dap-Kings and Dap-ettes.

And at the same time, many of these people depended on you for their livelihood. So how do you, or did you, process that idea that “I’m depended on, and yet I physically, I can’t do this”?

Sharon Jones: No, that was the hard part. Knowing that I couldn’t do it. But they allowed me, that they kept all of those negative things [away]. I saw that in the film. I refused to see the film before it was made, and then once it was out, when they was doing the screening of it, I was like “No, I’m gonna wait to see it in the movie.” So, I was just amazed to find out what they went through. Finding out Pinky and his wife…

Brendan Francis Newnam: …Getting divorced. One of your guitarists. Yeah.

Sharon Jones: And so many other things that the other singers, some of them don’t talk about. How everyone struggled and not only were they struggling, how I struggled, because you got to realize that they [the health insurance] wasn’t paying for certain doctors. So I had a big medical bill. I mean, that whole year I think I grossed maybe $4,000 or something like that. And it took us a couple of years to catch up.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There’s a scene in this doc when you return to the Beacon Theater after your first bout of cancer, having gotten through it, and you’re going onstage, and you’re holding a cup and you’re shaking. Do you remember that moment?

Sharon Jones: Oh yeah, I remember that moment. You know…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Sold out crowd.

Sharon Jones: …perfectly well. And I’m just praying, you know? I’m just like, “Lord, I know you didn’t bring me this far to leave me. I’m back out here now.” You know, “Take me through. Let me remember all of my lyrics… Get done with that chemo brain.”

New York, NY - February 2, 2014 - Sharon Jones performs at the Beacon Theater following cancer treatment. CREDIT: Jacob Blickenstaff
Sharon Jones performs at the Beacon Theater following cancer treatment. (Photo Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff)

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re smiling now. It seems like the music gives you an energy, and yet, I wonder, is there a song in particular, or like a certain lyric, when you sing it right now when you’re doing these shows, battling, that has more meaning to you?

Sharon Jones: Well, no. It’s just that one of the songs that we do, “Get Up and Get Out,” on the album. It sort of sound like [imitates the beat of the track]. Like a little gospel western groove. But when I do it live, I got like stomping, and I get that Tina Turner roar. And [I’m] gonna mean it when I say “Get up and get out.” To cancer to get up and get out.


Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s like speaking directly to this…

Sharon Jones: To it. And I take the words, and play with them.

Brendan Francis Newnam: We have two standard questions we ask our guests, and I want to run them by you. So the first one is: what question do you not like being asked in interviews?

Sharon Jones: “How did you get started?” I’m like, “Don’t you know that by now?” But, you know, it doesn’t matter because a lot of people don’t know. So, that’s why I don’t mind telling it over and over again.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Getting the word out.

Sharon Jones: It doesn’t bother me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, you’re a patient subject. The second question is the opposite a little bit: tell us something we don’t know. And this is a fact, could be a fact about you that most, that you haven’t shared in interviews before, or it could just be a neat fact about the world that not a lot of people know.

Sharon Jones: Well, you know what? I’ll say something people don’t know about me, myself.

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK, do it.

Sharon Jones: I was born with extra fingers.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What?!?

Sharon Jones: Yeah, I had twelve fingers, see right there? [She points to her hand.] See that part?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh my goodness, there are these little bumps.

Sharon Jones: There you go! Now y’all know!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Are those extra fingers?!?

Sharon Jones: I’m a little alien! Oooooooh!

New York, NY - February 2, 2014 - Sharon Jones performs at the Beacon Theater following cancer treatment. CREDIT: Jacob Blickenstaff
Sharon Jones performs at the Beacon Theater following cancer treatment. (Photo Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff)

Brendan Francis Newnam: On your pinkie, you have a little protrusion.

Sharon Jones: Protruding that the little finger…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Looks like the beginning of another finger. Is that to hold the microphone fast? Does that give you an extra…

Sharon Jones: I’m glad, I’m so glad…

Brendan Francis Newnam: When you’re doing the Mashed Potato with a microphone, maybe that comes in handy.

Sharon Jones: Oh yeah.