Retreats and Returns

Seriously, if you're not interested in seeing Sharon Jones, you might hate joy and we can't be your friend anymore

The "Retreat" that Sharon Jones sings about on her new record was originally a command from a woman scorned.

But after cancer treatment sidelined Jones—and pushed the album release back for five months—the powerful soul tune, with lines like "What a fool you'd be to take me on," started meaning an entirely different thing for the singer. As Jones, 57, fought off cancer, her Daptone Records label released an animated video for "Retreat."

"They made the video while I was laying in bed sick and once I saw the video, I thought of it like I was telling my cancer to retreat," Jones says. "That video had a powerful meaning for me. I beat the cancer and chased it off."

Jones and the Dap-Kings recorded Give The People What They Want and were prepared for a release last August. But in May, Jones learned a lingering sickness was cancer.

"I didn't think I was going to be here. I thought I was going to die. When they told me it was stage 2 pancreatic cancer, it freaked me out," Jones says. "For a few hours, maybe a day or so, I didn't even think I'd be around to sing for people."

After her final chemotherapy treatment on New Year's Eve, Jones went back to work. She celebrated the January release of Give The People What They Want with a week of television performances: CBS Saturday Morning News, Conan O'Brien, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and The Tonight Show.

The album hit No. 1 on the Billboard Independent Albums charts and Jones and the Dap-Kings made a triumphant return to the stage at New York's Beacon Theatre in February. That kicked off a full North American tour that has the band on the road until May, including a March 20 stop at Tucson's Rialto Theatre.

"It's going good. I'm getting my strength back each night. It's really good," Jones says in a phone interview from a tour stop in Lawrence, Kan.

Returning to singing has been a joy for the reinvigorated Jones.

"When I was sick I couldn't sing. The last time I sang before my diagnosis was May 2 and next was some time in October," Jones says. "Music is my joy and I couldn't go to it when I was sick. I didn't even listen to music. I just concentrated on myself."

Jones says the reception she's received from fans has been so overwhelming that it's become part of her recovery.

"It's all helping me. People keep telling me I'm an inspiration to them, but I'm also telling my fans that they're an inspiration to me," she says. "They're telling me to get back onstage."

Give The People What They Want, Jones' sixth record in a dozen years with the Dap-Kings, is a blend of funk and soul that's timeless and authentic, an album that would have made a splash if Jones' cancer diagnosis and recovery had never been part of the album's narrative.

From "Retreat" to the Motown-inspired "Get Up and Get Out" to the funky bass line that drives "Stranger to My Happiness," Give The People What They Want is a dynamic record. For Jones, however, it's not a throwback to old-school soul music, but proof that soul music never went away.

"I was born in the '50s and when I was coming up, everything was going on. In the '60s and '70s, I caught it all. I listened to whatever the radio was playing in those days, a lot of Motown and Stax. I was at spots every month, from Aretha to Otis," she says.

The Brooklyn-based Daptone Records, founded by Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman, is leading an audience-based resurgence in soul music and Jones sees it as her mission to make sure the music has broader exposure.

"My goal is to get the music industry to recognize soul music today," she says. "There's no award for soul music. You have R&B, reggae, country, pop, but they don't even recognize soul music. People say soul music died in the late '60s and '70s, and then you have other people saying these young white singers are R&B and they're not. They're pop."

Jones' definition of soul music is straightforward: "It's music that comes from the heart and you're telling a story," she says.

Important to Jones' own story—and her honest, heartfelt music—has been not hiding the effects of the cancer, even after she lost her mother to cancer three years ago.

Jones and the Dap-Kings filmed a video for "Stranger to My Happiness" and Jones was glamorous in a shimmering dress, but also bald from the chemotherapy.

"I'm not going to put a wig on. I'm not going to hide anything," she says. "I'm happy to be back."

The reviews for Jones' performances are rolling in—from Kansas City, Houston, Milwaukee—and they describe a powerhouse band and a buoyant singer giving the people what they want and a good deal more, an invigorating, life-affirming time.

For Jones and her fans alike, this tour is about the power of music and a testament to her own determination.

"You learn if you come to my show, we do the song 'Get Up and Get Out' and we don't do it anything like the record. It's a treat," she says. "I start singing and start telling the audience about the cancer, and I tell the cancer to get up and get out and I have something to shout about."

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