It wasn't an easy '13 for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, but it could have been a lot worse.
The Brooklyn soul band made its SXSW debut that March at a Daptone Super Revue -- with labelmates Charles Bradley, Budos Band and more -- and was excited to be releasing its fifth album in August along with sitting in as a wedding band in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" later in the year.
Then came an alarming statement from the singer in June: "Over the last few weeks I haven't felt good, and I didn't know what was going on. We sadly had to cancel shows while I went through a series of tests and short hospital stays. We just found out that I have a stage-one tumor on my bile duct ...."
The album and tour were postponed, but she noted brightly that she would have surgery and get back on the road after rest and recovery.
Understandably, she was slammed emotionally.
"At first, it took a lot because music is my life, doing what I do," she says in a phone interview. "And then being ready to hit the road and finding out you can't go on the road because it's cancer ...."
It got worse before it got better, as the diagnosis progressed.
"When I found out it was [stage 2] pancreatic cancer, I thought I wasn't going to be here. I really thought I was going to die."
She says her doctor assured her she would live, and her faith and fans helped her through the ordeal.
"I always felt that God has always blessed me," she says. "And one of my sayings we sing in church is, 'I don't think he brought me this far to leave me.' And when management let the fans know that I was getting chemo and that it was worse than everyone heard months ago, once the fans started sending me texts and mails and emails all on the fan page, it even inspired me to want to get out there faster."
From May through October, that powerful voice -- evocative of Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples and other great soul divas -- was shut down.
"For months, I couldn't stand up straight, where they cut me straight across the diaphragm, so I couldn't sing, I couldn't get air. Once I could sing, the next step was just getting my strength, getting my energy."
The first gig back was a breeze, in some ways, as it was the Macy's Day Parade in New York on Thanksgiving.
"We didn't really sing," she says. "We were lip-syncing. But I was still taking chemo at the time."
She also got to cover her head with a hat. The next few appearances were a challenge for the singer, going more or less live.
"Those first shows in January -- Fallon and Jay Leno and Conan and Ellen -- were tough because I was still weak. Those were the couple weeks I was trying to get my strength back, when I was on TV."
In mid January, the Dap-Kings finally were able to release "Give the People What They Want," an album that furthers the band's mission of creating authentic-sounding R&B/soul on vintage equipment with vocals from a late-blooming soul belter who didn't get her break until her 40s.
The 57-year-old Ms. Jones, born in Georgia and raised in New York, was a corrections officer at Rikers Island and an armored car guard for Wells Fargo Bank who did her singing in the church and in wedding bands, with occasional studio sessions. The one that changed everything was for singer Lee Fields in 1996, organized by Gabriel Roth and Philip Lehman, of the French label Pure. The producers went on to create the Soul Providers, which evolved into the Dap-Kings and debuted in 2002 on Daptone Records, a label founded by Dap-Kings member Roth (aka Bosco Mann) and Sugarman 3 saxophonist Neal Sugarman.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have taken the grassroots touring approach to success, working clubs and festivals, and earning acclaim for a Stax/Motown sound that some call "retro," to the dismay of the frontwoman.
"I want them to recognize that soul music is here," she says. "They said that soul music doesn't exist anymore and the only soul music now is retro -- some young kid trying to imitate someone from back in the day. Well, I'm not imitating anyone from back in the day. I am a soul singer. I'm not imitating anyone, so I'm not retro."
She knows all about imitators, having done some James Brown imitations of her own as a kid.
"You know, they've got James Brown imitators. You get the guy come up there, he's got the hair and the cape and he's splitting and he's singing. With me, they tell me I remind them of James Brown. I can do some of that stuff, but when I'm singing my song, I might sing a song and say, 'Oh, this reminds me of Tina Turner.' You might hear me hit something and say, 'That almost sounds like a riff Tina Turner would do,' so, yeah, we're going to rip off a riff, a line somewhere, but I'm not trying to sing like Tina," she says, before perfectly imitating the opening to "Proud Mary" -- "Left a good job in the city" -- on the phone.
"I'm not trying to sing like her, so yeah!"
Ms. Jones isn't finished talking about the need for a legit soul music category -- Grammy only has R&B -- in the new millennium.
"They keep saying soul music no longer exists, that it died out in the late '60s when people like James Brown and Otis [Redding] and all the old soul singers supposedly died. But Charles Bradley is a soul singer, Lee Fields is a soul singer. It might still have some little pop feel when we're writing it, but to me, I have a very soulful voice. Allen Stone, to me, he sounds like a cross between Marvin, Stevie and Smokey. And he's a little young white boy! So it's not about the color, it's the sound, how you portray it, how you put it out there."
She ought to know, as her right-hand man, Bosco/Roth, is a white boy originally from Riverside, Calif., whose lawyer parents worked on civil rights and discrimination cases. Aside from his usual band work, he's played for Antibalas and engineered the Grammy-winning Amy Winehouse record "Back to Black," which featured the Dap-Kings in the studio and on the road.
"Sometimes I'm doing interviews and stuff and people talk about me being a white kid trying to make soul music, or black music, and stuff like this," he told waxpoetics.com. "I really, personally, never tried to be somebody I'm not. Or tried to emulate some music, or tried to steal some history or tradition that I'm not a part of. What I try to do is make records that sound good to me and make honest records. I really try to write with my heart and play with my heart."
He did all the writing on the first two Dap-Kings records, but that's loosened up with the last three as more members have contributed. The key for the Dap-Kings writers is to match the songs to Ms. Jones' style and somewhat tough persona.
"I hear the music and I'll go in there and if I like it, if I can figure out the story, it makes sense, then I'll do it," she says. "They might have to change a couple words here and there. Everyone in the band writes, especially this album is a mixture of everyone. I think that's why this album is so different, has such a different groove. And we did like 20-some songs. So Gabe had to pick those 10 songs out of like 22, I think, for the album."
Because it was recorded long before it was actually released, she had to relearn some of the songs for the current tour. The band also has been dealing with the usual revolving personnel changes, as horn player Ian Hendrickson-Smith and David Guy went off to join The Roots for "The Tonight Show," and there are times when Mann/Roth, the bassist, isn't able to be on the road with them.
"Gabe is like the leader and everything," she says, "but he's got a family and he's also the head of Daptone and the producer of some of the other albums. So sometimes he might take a couple weeks off to get an album out and produce something. So we might have to get someone in to play bass, but it's all good. It's a little bad for me when the bass and drums is subbed out. It's a little tough, but once we get the players in and I get used to it, I can deal with it.
"That's what soul music is all about, it's about keeping a steady groove, keeping a steady beat and being able to lay on the note. Some people gotta learn that, these new artists out there. That's groovin' when you can just lay on a note and lay on the chord. It's not about how many notes you can sing. Like some of these young singers, they say they can sing 56,000 notes, they wanna go here and go there, you know. It's just about how you sing it, how you play it, how you round it out."