Sharon Jones's Cancer Returns: 'It's Back. I Haven't Beaten It. I Have to Beat It Up Again.'
Sharon Jones backstage at the Beacon Theatre, February 6, 2014
Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
Sharon Jones is no stranger to a standing ovation. And on September 11, in a packed movie theater in downtown Toronto, the crowd, though still on its feet, was left stunned and silent once she took the microphone. But, on this night, their reaction had as much to do with dismayed shock as it did her larger-than-life voice.
The soul singer was in town for the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Miss Sharon Jones!, the documentary that followed her harrowing and ultimately triumphant battle against pancreatic cancer — which Jones opened up about in detail in a 2013 Voice cover story — and the most remarkable year of her career to date. Miss Sharon Jones! is a victorious tale through and through: Jones not only recovered, but would go on to release 2014's Give the People What They Want with the Dap-Kings, the album that would nab the group their first Grammy nomination and an avalanche of critical praise. She wasn't sure she'd survive the making of the record, the release of which was delayed due to her illness, but Jones was back onstage and belting, kicking and shimmying herself into a frenzy — back to normal, really — mere weeks after she wrapped her final chemotherapy treatment.
Miss Sharon Jones! turns an unblinking eye on all of this — the jarring, tearful moment where a hairdresser shaves her head for the first time; the frustrated, exhausted hours spent in band practice and the chemo lounge; the nerve-racking return to the stage at the Beacon Theatre last February; the dizzying tempest of fringe and flailing limbs fueling the tail-end of her year-long tour. It made it all the more devastating when director Barbara Kopple, Jones, the Dap-Kings, and the crew took to the stage following the conclusion of the first Miss Sharon Jones! screening at TIFF to say a few words about the film — and Jones informed the room that her cancer had returned.
"There's no way I could get up there with people telling me, 'We're so glad you beat cancer!' " she explains to the Voice, calling in on her way home from Toronto. The decision to break the news of the recurrence at TIFF was one she made at the festival. "It's like, 'No. No. It's back. I haven't beaten it. I have to beat it up again.' I had to tell the truth, so I told my manager, 'Whether you like it or not, I'm going to announce it when I get up in front.' After I did that, I felt better. Now I can accept it even better now. I figured by my fans knowing now, they know what I'm going through."
Jones was told in June that her six-month checkup had revealed three tumors growing on her liver, and she began chemotherapy last Wednesday before heading to the film's premiere. Her doctors are optimistic that they can shrink and remove the tumors and in June cleared her to join the Dap-Kings for a run of shows supporting the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Jones and the band have a number of performances scheduled in the coming months — while in Toronto they played the James Street Supercrawl in nearby Hamilton, Ontario, in between showings of the documentary — and they're releasing their first holiday album, It's a Holiday Soul Party, on October 30. Jones says she and the band have enough new material for a record but that its release date depends on her treatment plan.
"We got together during the summer to work on songs for a new album that we thought was going to come out in the beginning of 2016, but maybe we'll go back in and get that album out by the end of 2016," she says. "We'll see. Right now, we just gotta try to juggle." As with Give the People What They Want, Jones is ready to tackle both her cancer and her to-do list with the Dap-Kings. Her health comes first, but she has places to be, and if cancer didn't figure it out the first time around, it's best that those tumors make like her single — "Retreat!" — and get the hell out of her way.
"This is nowhere near like the first time, but I still know the chemo will have some effect on me," she says. "I have a few more [shows] to go, and I have to see how I feel. I'm taking it show by show, one day at a time. I just want people to know this. If I'm going to be doing this, you might as well do it right — be truthful, be straight."
Her illness changed the context of Give the People What They Want, turning "Retreat!" into a empowerment anthem rather than the flip-of-the-bird perspective of a woman scorned. Through the documentary, she's able to view her relationship with her bandmates and loved ones from the outside, and it only deepens her commitment to the music they make together. There's a scene in Miss Sharon Jones! where she goes to church and floors the congregation with an a cappella rendition of the spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." She sang it again at TIFF shortly following her announcement. One line in particular — "May the work I've done speak for me" — has taken on a particular resonance.
"To watch that movie — to see my sickness and the closeness we have for each other — that movie is great," Jones says. "I think it'll bring us closer. It'll make them realize, 'Look at those years and what we've accomplished.' That's why the other night [I] sang that song, 'May the work I've done speak for me.' All this work, all those years that we're out there not making money — and even still now, this job, we can't pay our insurance — we still want to go out there and sell a million records."
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