© 2024 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering Sharon Jones, Soul Singer And Consummate Performer


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to remember soul singer Sharon Jones, who died last Friday of pancreatic cancer. We have two interviews to play for you. Sharon Jones has been called the female James Brown. She grew up in his hometown Augusta, Ga., and imitated him as a child. She became known for fronting the band the Dap-Kings. The band's retro soul sound was also heard on several tracks of Amy Winehouse's hit album "Back To Black," including the songs "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good."

My first interview with Sharon Jones was recorded in 2007. Also joining us for that interview is the founder of the Dap-Kings, Gabriel Roth aka Bosco Mann. He met Jones when he co-owned the now defunct label Desco Records and asked her to record for it. Roth subsequently co-founded Daptone Records. When we spoke, Daptone Records had just released the third album by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Roth produced the album, plays bass on it and wrote many of the album's songs, including the great title track "100 Days, 100 Nights."


SHARON JONES: (Singing) One hundred days, 100 nights to know a man's heart. One hundred days, 100 nights to know a man's heart. And a little more before he knows his own. You know a man can play the part of a saint just so long before a day comes when his true, his true self unfolds. Yes, it does. He may be mellow, he may be kind, treat you good all the time. But there's something just beyond what he's told. Hey. One hundred days, 100 nights to know a man's heart.


GROSS: That's Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Welcome to both of you. How would you describe...

GABRIEL ROTH: Thanks, good to be here.

GROSS: ...The sound you're going after?

JONES: More of a soul, Stax, '68, '69 sound. Gabe?

ROTH: Yeah, it would - I mean, for me, I've always just tried to make records that sound like the, you know, sound like the records I like. I never had too much of a very specific agenda that we were going to try to, you know, try to ape something or try to pass something off. We just wanted to make records that felt good to us and sounded good to us.

GROSS: James Brown has obviously been a big influence on each of you. I'd like you to each to talk about the influence of James Brown on you. Sharon, let's start with you.

JONES: Well, with me just, I guess, being born in his hometown and my parents - I found out later my mother knew him when he was out there doing his thing, like, in front of the record store - before he owned anything, when he was still dancing and shining shoes and making money, that type of thing, you know, they knew each other from coming up.

And my Uncle Willie (ph) told me that he was like a - my father used to, like, tap with James Brown, used to dance out on the streets. And I was like, wow, you know, so. I don't, you know, you never know these things. You know when the older people get up and they start talking sometime and I just found all this out, like, last year. So I'm like, why I haven't heard this before? So, you know, I'll let that go.


JONES: You know, I think Uncle Willie is one to be talking but, you know. But still, I know that they did grow up. And once he was performing somewhere in Augusta, and I think I was maybe 9, 10, or maybe, you know, younger. And I went to see him. And something happened, he was on the stage with - and I looked at his foot. And all I remember is saying to my father, I turned around, told someone, like, he's floating. His - he's not even touching the floor. And I was like right at the stage, eye level to James Brown's foot and I - feet - and I couldn't tell if that man - it was like he was floating. And that's an experience that I just remember that experience with James.

And then the next was when I saw him last year April in Italy, right before, you know, and he was a little weakened. I got to take the picture and I was trying to get words in to him. Oh, Mr. Brown, you know, my name is Sharon Jones with the Dap-Kings and, you know, and - he was like, looked me right in the eyes, said, God bless you, daughter.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: And I was like - and that was it, you know.

GROSS: Well, while we're talking about James Brown, you know, James Brown was often introduced on stage (laughter) in this, like, great hyperbolic way. And you - I know have done that on record, I don't know if you do that for all the shows. But why don't we play the introduction from the first Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album?


GROSS: And this will give a taste of what I mean. Here it comes.


BINKY GRIPTITE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Daptones Super Soul Revue. My name is Binky Griptite, and we are the Dap-Kings. Thank you very much. Right now for your enjoyment and pleasure, we would like to introduce to you the funky and dynamic sister who is exciting dance floors across the nation with her dynamic new sound. Soul brothers and sisters from coast-to-coast get up and get down whenever her records are played. They're doing all the funky new dances. They're doing the bump-and-touch, they're doing the dap-dip (ph), everything. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm talking about 110 pounds of soul excitement coming for you. This sister is so bad, she's badder than bad. I'm talking about the same sister that brought you such hits as "The Landlord," "Damn It's Hot," "Ain't It Hard." And now, ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show, the super-soul sister with the magnetic je ne sais quoi, Ms. Sharon Jones.

GROSS: That's the introduction from the first Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album. God, can you guys do that for me, like, when I host FRESH AIR? (Laughter) You know, that would just be so great to have that kind of introduction.

ROTH: We can do that, but I'll tell you, you got to hire Binky Griptite, man.

JONES: Binky, got to have Binky.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROTH: Binky Griptite is a - has been a very integral part of our whole operation for the last, you know, dozen years, you know. And he is not just - I mean, he's a great, great guitar player. But just as far as showmanship, he's kind of the guy that as an emcee kind of brings the show to another level as far as our live show, you know.

But as far as the live show, it is really influenced not just by James Brown but by Stax and all the other kind of soul revues that were going on in the late '60s. There's a sense of showmanship in that and excitement that you don't see in a lot of shows nowadays.

GROSS: Well, let's hear another song from the new Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album "100 days, 100 nights." And this is called "When The Other Foot Drops, Uncle." And, Gabe, you wrote this. Do you want to say a few words about the song?

ROTH: Yeah. It's actually funny 'cause I didn't think it was that obscure, but people have thought this song was about some guy that's not treating Sharon right. But it's actually a little political. Uncle - "When The Other Foot Drops, Uncle" is about Uncle Sam. It's just kind of - it's just a song about all the lies and corruption kind of eventually catching up and - you know, the other shoe dropping.

And, you know, obviously when you say Uncle Sam you're talking about, you know, Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and all these things and these guys finally going to get caught up in all these lies about everything, about weapons of mass destruction, oil money and the rest, I mean. But that's what the song's about. And I think if you listen to it in that light, you hear the lyrics a little differently.

GROSS: Sharon, did you know that that was what it was about when you were singing it?

JONES: Not really.


JONES: So that's why (unintelligible) say get out of here, my mouth is open. I'm looking at him like this, huh?

ROTH: Yeah.

JONES: I mean, they've asked me about that song. I say, well, you know, it's just about somebody's being slick and they're going to get caught up in what they're doing, you know? You know, their lies and whatever they're doing is being caught up, so now it's good. So when I get interviewed, people ask me, I'll know what to say now.

ROTH: Yeah, there's a line in that song about your crafty little pencil's running out of lead. And everybody thinks that's some kind of impotency thing.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So, Sharon, what do you mean about the little crafty little pencil? I'm like, you know, that's really - Gabe wrote the song...

ROTH: Yeah.

JONES: ...You know.

ROTH: Anyway.

GROSS: Well, I have to say that's what I thought it meant that they have to (unintelligible). And I thought - I was going to ask you, Gabe, like, uncle? I mean, like, this isn't a relationship with her uncle, is it? So I was a little confused. So actually...


ROTH: You know, that's actually...

GROSS: Thanks for the clarification.

ROTH: ...Why we stuck that uncle on the end of the title.

JONES: Yeah.

ROTH: We kind of hung it on there at the end. It was like, well, here you go.

GROSS: I thought this was kind of like expression that only I didn't get.


ROTH: I tell you, it makes a lot more sense than goo, goo g'joob, I guess, so...

GROSS: (Laughter) I'll give you that.

JONES: That's good.

GROSS: I'll give you that. Well, it's a great song no matter how you want to interpret it. So here it is, "When The Other Foot Drops, Uncle." It's Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.


SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) Oh, the way you like to get your taste, uncle. Oh, the things you lay to waste. But every dog has his day, uncle, and it just can't go on. It just can't go on this way, for the day will surely come.

THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) When the other foot drops, uncle.

SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) You're going to pay for all you've done.

THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) When the other foot drops, uncle.

SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) There won't be nowhere to run.

THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) When the other foot drops, uncle.

SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) You're going to be found out.

THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) When the other foot drops, uncle.

SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) You can bet you're going to lose your clout. You've been tramping around this world like you're the only one living. But soon enough, you're going to get back some of what you've been given. The lies that you've been spinning up are running out of thread, and your crafty little pencil is running out of lead. The happy day is surely going to come, yeah.

THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) When the other (inaudible).

SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) Yeah, your alibi will fail you.

THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) When the other foot drops, uncle.

SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) Ain't nobody, nobody going to make your bed.

THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) When the other foot drops, uncle.

SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) Ain't got no place to hide.

THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) When the other foot drops, uncle.

SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) You're going to pay for every time you lied.

GROSS: That's Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. We're listening back to a 2007 interview with soul singer Sharon Jones and Gabriel Roth, a founder of the band the Dap-Kings, which she sang with. Jones died last Friday of cancer. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to a 2007 interview with soul singer Sharon Jones, who died last Friday of cancer. Also in this interview is Gabriel Roth, a founder of the band the Dap-Kings, which she performed with.


GROSS: So Sharon, I know you spent some time as a prison guard at Rikers Island. How did you get the job?

JONES: I took the test. There was - I took a lot of tests at that time. I went - I took the police test...

GROSS: What's the test like? I mean, what you really need to do is to be able to, you know...

JONES: No, they...

GROSS: ...Get people to respect you. How do you pass a test on that?

JONES: Oh, they give you a psychological test. You know, the physical test you have to go through, little background check on you, you know? It was great. I think I would've still been there. But it was - just took me away from my singing, you know, the music. I - it was - you know, it was like a career. And after being in there it was like an omen. My first week, I - they stuck me outside and I pulled a groin muscle on the side I fell. Then I came back and I was in a - believe it or not, it's so weird - a car accident. A truck hit me and I was out for another, like, nine months. And they forced me back to work. And at - that same day I came to work, I had a back brace and neck brace, you know, and I'm walking on - and fell on the curve, so now I'm injured again.

GROSS: Oh, no.

JONES: But now it's - I'm telling you, it was an - it wasn't meant for me. I fell on the job. Now it's comped and I'm out again for another couple of months. And so I - when I finally came in, they said, oh - you know, the lawyer said, why don't you just resign? This way they won't fire you.


JONES: And so I resigned for medical reasons. House arrest, that's what they called it.

GROSS: So how many days did you actually work?

JONES: OK, I'm going to say out of the two years, (laughter) from '88 to '90, maybe six, eight months (laughter).

GROSS: So when you were there, given how you kept injuring yourself and you weren't in the best physical shape, how were you able to convince the prisoners that you were strong enough and focused enough to do the job and keep them in line?

JONES: Let me tell you - it's the look in my eyes. You may have, like, 80 inmates to maybe three officers or two officers. So it was really weird. But you could not show fear. And that's one thing I didn't show, you know? And I got the respect from them right there. And they knew that I didn't take stuff - I wasn't scared.

GROSS: Let's hear another track from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (laughter). And this song is called "Humble Me." And this is another song, Gabe, that you wrote. Do you want to say anything about writing or recording this track?

ROTH: Well, it's a very simple song. And it wasn't much to write. It's just a couple of chords and some simple, heartfelt words that Sharon could really get into. I mean, the thing that I learned about writing is that, you know, I've never been a genius or anything, but I learned how to kind of get out of the way of great musicians and great singers. So, you know, if you listen to the song, there's not much to the writing in it, but I think Sharon puts a lot of heart into it, you know?

JONES: It - 'cause actually, I think that song, you - like, you was writing something about me, the inside of me. But I think, you know, by knowing me all these years, Gabe knew that how I am at the church - I'm always saying that, you know, I'm so thankful for what God gave me. So that's why I'm always saying, if you see me, like - I'm, like, higher than everybody else, you know, bring me down. Let me know I'm not. If you see me up here wanting all these here fancy things, which he knows they don't - never see me out here flashing and wanting stuff, but if you see me doing that - I want all these shoes that cost 2,000, 3,000 - think about that man over there who don't even have a - the foot is cut off, you know, don't even have legs, you know? And then I'm all right.

I'm also thankful, humble for when I'm on the road. People come out and pay to come and see me. And I get on that stage and I'm humble for them coming out to see me every night. And I'm so thankful for them, for God, for having me to be able to dance and jump and sing and keep my voice open. So that song is just about me thanking God and being humble for my blessings.

GROSS: All right, here it is, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings "Humble Me" from their new CD "100 Days, 100 Nights."


SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) Humble me, humble me. Don't let me forget who I am. Humble me, humble me. Don't let me forget who I am. When I start talking down, like I'm hovering above, oh, yeah, like I'm made of something better, oh, then what you're made of. And when you hear me asking for all kinds of fancy things, things you never had, no, and things you know you can't bring, don't be afraid to humble me...

GROSS: That's Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and with me in the studio is Sharon Jones and Gabe Roth, who's co-founder of the Dap-Kings, leader of the band, writer of most of the songs, including the one we just heard, and bass player. So one more question before we have to end, I haven't had the pleasure of seeing you on stage, only of listening to the recordings. So what do you look like, all of you on stage? How do you dress? I mean, some of the soul reviews you're talking about, like, really loud clothes (laughter).

JONES: Well, I don't think it's loud, but you're good, Gabe, you tell them, come on.

ROTH: Well, no, we keep it sharp. Everybody's got suits and ties and shined shoes and locked in step, man. The whole - the horn section has got some unbelievable steps. The band is always stepping together and playing together. And Sharon always looks unbelievable. She comes out and is usually a blur from the beginning of the show to the end. You've never seen something so much. So, yeah, visually it's definitely - definitely an event, too.

GROSS: I guess those injuries from your prison guard days aren't holding you back.

JONES: No, they're not.



ROTH: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, thanks to both of you for talking with us. It's really been fun. Thanks a lot.

JONES: Thank you.

ROTH: Thank you.

JONES: My interview with singer Sharon Jones and Gabriel Roth, a founder of the Dap-Kings, was recorded in 2007. Jones died of cancer last Friday. We'll hear the interview I recorded with Jones last July in which we talked about the cancer and other things after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) I've been laying alone for hours, but I haven't slept at all. These eyes are closed, but I'm listening for your call, for your call. These feet, too tired for walking. And these knees, too weak to crawl. But these arms are strong enough to hold you if you call, if you call. Am I dead, or am I living? I feel no blood in these veins. But I can live, live and die like this forever if I know I'll taste your lips again. Doctor, doctor, come cut my heart out 'cause it hardly, oh, beats at all. But please, please leave a little potion just in case my baby calls, just in case, oh, my baby calls. If you call, if you call, if you call.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering soul singer Sharon Jones. She died last Friday of pancreatic cancer. She was 60 years old. The second interview we're going to hear with her was recorded last July when a documentary about her was released called "Miss Sharon Jones!" The film was shot in 2013 during the first seven months after her initial diagnosis of stage II pancreatic cancer, a period in which she had extensive surgery and chemo treatments. The film ends with her return to the stage. That was followed by a world tour with the band the Dap-Kings, the band that always recorded and performed with her. That tour was pretty remarkable considering what she'd been through. But by the time I interviewed her in July, the cancer had returned. She'd gotten a chemo treatment the day before our interview.


GROSS: Sharon Jones, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Can I start by asking you how your health is now?

JONES: You know, I'm on and off. I take it one day at a time. And being on the stage with them, performing and opening up for Hall & Oates for the last two and a half weeks and then doing three nights in a row, one day off, three - so I did, like, nine straight nights and a day off in between there. So - but I feel pretty good. I think my body...

GROSS: That is an insane schedule when you're in chemo. That's just insane.

JONES: Yeah. You know, but that's my therapy, being on stage. You know, I mean, it's like this cancer is here and I have to take the chemo, but I want to perform. I don't want to be home just taking medicine and waiting to die. You know, I - that's not something I'm about. So as long as I've got my health and the energy to - my voice is great. So there's nothing wrong vocally. I just want to be able to get on stage and move and move around.

GROSS: So making a documentary about you after you were diagnosed with cancer in 2013, that was the idea of your manager, Alex. What did you initially think of the idea? And forgive me for asking something so straightforwardly...

JONES: Excuse me.

GROSS: ...But if I were you, I probably wouldn't know whether this was going to end up as an obituary or a triumphant return to the stage.

JONES: Yeah. Well, you know, I think once Barbara Kopple took it on and the band - my goal was to - I had a February date, and my goal was to be back at that date. And everything in the filming and in the - there's a scene with the church scene. That was my first time - even attempt to sing after months. And that's when I knew, from the church scene, that I was ready. I was going to be ready for February. I knew I was going to have the strength.

And doing the film was also my therapy. And I knew that it would help someone out there with cancer or going through it. Long as I inspired someone because I was - that's where my health came from, my energy came from, knowing my fans was out there and I'm getting back to them and I wanted them to see me go - what I'm going through with.

GROSS: And the impression I take away from the film is that you had a great feeling of responsibility for the band because the band is centered around you. You know, there's horns and drummer and, you know, guitarists and everything, but, like, you're the singer. You're the focal point. So if you're not there, the band's kind of out of work and...

JONES: It's not only...

GROSS: Yeah.

JONES: Oh, it's not only the band, it's the whole - my whole, I mean, management, my whole - you know, we've got...

GROSS: Right.

JONES: ...Posters out. We've got - it's so much. You know, it's a whole big - we've got an LLC. We've got a - it's a company here. And so it was a lot of people not getting paid, including myself. And one of the doctors wasn't included in insurance, so we had to pay out of the pocket money for, you know - so it was - and believe it or not, I didn't know what was going on with all of my members. Thank God they kept that away from me. But I found all that out the night I watched the film for the first time in Canada.

GROSS: Wait, what didn't you know about?

JONES: Like, Binky going through the divorce and then...


JONES: ...You know, losing stuff and, like...

GROSS: Your guitarist, yeah.

JONES: ...Gabe not being - not being able to get that loan and just different people in the band, you know, lost apartments and, you know, had to move in with - so it was a lot that - they didn't put that on me, you know? But I found out about it later, you know, in the filming. So - but I had already knew I had to get back out there. And I knew we had to - you know, our money is when we work.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear another recording? And...

JONES: All right.

GROSS: ...This is from an album - you had to hold back an album when you got sick. And the album was...

JONES: "Give The People What They Want."

GROSS: Yeah, the album's called "Give The People What They Want." And there's a track from it that's on the soundtrack from the new documentary about you. The documentary is called "Miss Sharon Jones!" And so here's a song from the soundtrack. And it's called "People Don't Get What They Deserve."


SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) When I was a child, I believed what they told me, to each one shall come what each one shall earn. And if I worked hard, nobody could hold me. And cheaters will fail, that's what we all learned. But there is a man who was born with a fortune, a hard day's work he's never done. He lives from the sweat of other men's labor as he sips his champagne and lays in the sun.

GROSS: That's my guest, Sharon Jones, singing "People Don't Get What They Deserve" from the soundtrack of the new documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!," which was directed by Barbara Kopple. And that featured the Dap-Kings, the band that backs her.

You watched a lot of TV when you were sick, but you don't say anything in the film about listening to a lot of music. Did you listen to a lot of...

JONES: I didn't. I didn't.

GROSS: How come?

JONES: Because I couldn't sing. I couldn't get air because - people didn't realize I was cut across the diaphragm, all the way up from right under the mid - center under my breast, all the way down to top of my navel.

GROSS: So you can only listen to music when you can sing?

JONES: Well, I didn't want to. I was just down. I mean, here I am not performing. I've been working almost 20 years on the stage. And here it is these months, I went from May till - actually September when you saw me in that church scene was the first time I sang in months. You know, and then I had to get prepared to do the Thanksgiving Day Parade in November. You know, I had to get out there, lip sync. Even though I lip synced, I still had to be up and be around, you know?

GROSS: So you mentioned the church. There's a scene in the documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!" when you go to a church in Queens, N.Y., and you sing "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." And it's a really nice scene. I thought we could listen to you singing that. And this is - as you said, this is the first time that you sang after getting the surgery and starting chemo. So why don't we hear that?


GROSS: And then we'll talk.


JONES: Again, I just want to give my love to God. And right now, I'm going to try to sing a little bit of "His Eye Is On The Sparrow."

(Singing) And I sing because I'm happy. And I sing because I'm free. And God's eye is on a sparrow. And I know, oh, yes I know, he watches over me. Church, I'm...

GROSS: You were not holding back (laughter).

JONES: No, I was - that was letting it all out. And I was - you know, and that's a difference in anointing came over me. I just opened my mouth and they just come out, you know, and the air just flowed. And that was, like I said, from that thing I knew that God had watched over me and he had me ready. I was going to be ready for February.

GROSS: Why did you choose that song to be the first song, to be the song that you sang in this small neighborhood church?

JONES: Because if he watches over little sparrow - you know, if he take care of the birds, a little sparrow, here I am, one of his children, you know? He got so many of us down here, human beings that sent our faith up and believe. And if he watches over a sparrow, I know he watches over me. And that was the song, and it was about I'm singing, you know, because I'm happy and I'm free. When I get in church and I sing and - I mean, singing is my life. And when I can do that, that's when I'm free. That's when I'm at my happiest, I'm at my most.

GROSS: What was the importance of the church in your early singing life?

JONES: I think it just prepared me for what to come out here. I mean, it prepared me for when I was (laughter) told I didn't have what it took, which I knew I was a singer. But y'all was looking - they was looking for looks and style and...

GROSS: Right, you were told you were too short and too black.

JONES: Too fat...

GROSS: Too fat, yeah.

JONES: And I just - I didn't make it there with that young - you know, when I was in that youth, in my late 20s, 30s. And 40 was my first album. I got a chance to record and - and that - and the reason why I got a chance to record that because we built our record label and started Daptone. And then they finally got a label so I can have an album, "Dap Dippin," and we don't have to worry about if I sold five or 5,000 or 500. I wasn't - the record label wasn't going to fold under - fire me because I didn't sell, you know, a million records or whatever. So we started that so we can do our music the way we wanted to and get me out there.

GROSS: Since we just heard you sing in church, tell us about the early churches that you sang in when you were a girl.

JONES: One of my churches was in the South, South Carolina right across the bridge from Augusta, Ga. But that was the church my first time ever attempting to sing for the Nativity Christmas play. I played an angel, and I got to sing "Silent Night." And I was like maybe 8, 9 years old. And I remember, you know, doing that - and I was like, hmm. And those people that - that little girl can sing. And I think right then and there I knew that I was going to be a singer. You know, God had blessed me with a gift to sing.

GROSS: Did you sing in choirs or do you usually sing solo?

JONES: Well, at that time, I was young. I just sang with my sister, my sister Willa. We used to sing a little duet, like (singing) take the love with you, oh. And she'll take a verse and I'll take a verse and, you know, that's how it just go on from there. You know, and then later on in the church in New York, I started going to that church at 14. And I just direct the choir.

I never took any kind of vocal lessons or teachings of how to. I never even took piano lessons. You know, a voice just came to me and said go play the piano in church, and I...

GROSS: (Laughter)...

JONES: And I followed my bass player, my guitar player. And I just started playing piano with two fingers, and I just started playing my chords. And that's where I'm at - and listening to Aretha, who was my biggest inspiration. And when I saw her on the "Amazing Grace" album and she had that dashiki on and she did this song "Mary, Don't You Weep," and that was one of the songs - I said, I'm going to play this piano. And I can actually play a couple of Aretha songs but only can play gospel on the piano and stuff. But that was a big - and "Mary, Don't You Weep" was one of my songs that I learned how to play and sing of Aretha Franklin.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last July with soul singer Sharon Jones. She died last Friday of pancreatic cancer. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded in July with soul singer Sharon Jones after the release of a documentary about the first seven months after her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. By the time we spoke, the cancer had returned and she was back on chemo. She died last Friday at age 60.


GROSS: In the documentary, you say that you feel like a different person than you were before you got sick and that when you started performing again, you wanted - you basically wanted to figure out who you were. Who was this new Sharon Jones, and who was this new Sharon Jones going to be on stage? So do you feel like you've been able to answer that for yourself as a performer?

JONES: The other night I went out there, it was like - it was a different Sharon because the hair was gone. That energy - I mean, everyone said my energy was great. But I didn't feel it at all. Like, Binky always say 110 pounds of soul. I felt like that night maybe I gave, like, 90 of it or, you know, a little less. And even now the days on the stage I'm just not myself. I don't have that energy and that leg stuff to lift up like I want to with the pain. The neuropathy from certain chemo is like - it's a hinder. But I do the shows, but it's not the same.

GROSS: Right, 'cause you - for anybody who hasn't seen you perform, you do a lot of dancing and jumping around on stage. You are not still.


GROSS: So I could see how it would be very difficult to do that with neuropathy.

JONES: Yeah, yeah, some nights it's tough, like I said. And to get past that pain and - you know, and each night it seems like once Binky say Ms. Sharon Jones and I walk out there, all the nerves gone, all the nervousness and the pain, you know, I fight through it. You know, those first first couple of seconds or the first five minutes, you know, is the most that I can get through it.

GROSS: I have to say, though, there's a point in the movie where you say if it comes to a point where you have to sing while sitting in a chair or on a stool, that's when you're going to retire. And I thought that's ridiculous. I mean, there's so many singers I love, like jazz singers who spend so much of their career just sitting in a chair or sitting on a stool singing. And, like, that was great for me. I mean, I - I love your voice. Like, why wouldn't you just sing sitting down if you needed to?

JONES: Well, I guess - I guess I'm going have to if something like that happens the way you just put it, like, OK.


GROSS: I mean, really, like, don't retire if you end up having to sit down and sing.


JONES: Maybe then I'll hire some dancers to come out and start dancing around...

GROSS: Fine.

JONES: ...On stage.

GROSS: Fine.


GROSS: I want to go back a little bit to your very early singing career. Before you made it as a singer with the Dap-Kings doing your songs, doing the songs that were really for you, you sang in a wedding band.

JONES: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Did you do covers?

JONES: Oh, that's all we did was covers in the wedding band. Oh, I did a lot of Whitney. I did Aretha, you know, that was my thing. You know, I had that high - you know, and we did that. And then we would go into, like, the oldies. And I would do stuff like (singing) each night before you go to bed, my baby, you know, and stuff like that and go into "Dancing In The Street" and, you know, just - we just jammed stuff, man. We was a different wedding band. And now it's weird because I would like to see people - because they had 8-tracks back in those days, a little cassette track - I would like to see some of that stuff. I wonder if people think, oh, my God, look, she did my wedding.


GROSS: Is it especially great to have backup singers with you? I mean...

JONES: Oh...

GROSS: ...How many girls dream of, you know, like, being the lead singer or being a backup singer but doing that in a - just having the power that comes with having backup singers, the vocal power.

JONES: Back-up singers are such an important role. I'm just a background singing - no, you're not just a background singer. You - that's why you call it background. You're keeping that back and your grounding - I mean, it's all - we all in that band, every one of us is important to us when we become the band. When we say Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, that's who we are. And we're a group. And back-up - I - you know, we did the - like, the "Learned The Hard Way" album. And, you know, you go in the studio, some of the first early recording I did a lot of the backgrounds myself, you know, tripled up on them. And then later we would get a couple of singers in, and I still would sing with them, too. I would be third person in that backing up of the album.

But Saundra and Starr have been singing so long together and the three of us - and after going on the road with I learned the hard way and no harm I have, you know, Binky and Gabe and Fernando, my conga player. They're like, oh, don't worry. We do the background for you. And, you know, Fernando have that little accent. And so we went on the road, and I'm hearing (singing imitating accent) I learned the hard way.


JONES: (Singing imitating accent) I learned the hard way, baby - I'm like, oh, my God, we're going to get some background singers right now. And so we would start traveling, and they would hire some - you know, like, we go over in Europe - over in Australia, they have some sister that got them.

We'd be in the States, I said, look, we've got to get somebody that's permanent, and along came Saundra. And Gabe - and I'm like, this is going to good for Sharon. She needs this, you know? And I'm back on there on that road and there you go.

GROSS: Sharon Jones, it's just been great to talk with you.

JONES: Well, I'm going to keep on keepin' on as long as I've got my health and strength and God give me that will to do it.

GROSS: Sharon Jones recorded last July. She died of pancreatic cancer last Friday at age 60. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Michael Chabon's new novel inspired by his grandfather's life story. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More from Hawai‘i Public Radio