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After cancer battle, Sharon Jones emerges better than ever

Soul singer and leader of the Dap-Kings performs at Artscape on Friday

By Wesley Case

The Baltimore Sun

11:20 AM EDT, July 16, 2014

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Last year, after Sharon Jones' third round of chemotherapy to treat stage-two pancreatic cancer, the 58-year-old soul singer cried as she decided to cut off her remaining hair, which was “hanging onto strings in little braids.”

Moments later, the frontwoman of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based group Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings found humor and strength in her new hairstyle. She even seemed to like it.

“When I looked in that mirror, I was like, ‘Oh! My head is pretty round. I got a nice pretty round head. Come on! You can do this,'” Jones said last week from a hotel in Nice, France, where she was performing. 

Jones' fighting spirit is emblematic of a singer whose fierce presence — on stage and on record — has won admirers for more than 17 years. Now, nearly eight months after her last chemotherapy session, Jones is cancer-free and back where she belongs: touring with the Dap-Kings. (The band, which released its first album in 2002, is scheduled to close out Friday night at Artscape.)

Crediting doctors, an improved diet and positive energy, Jones said she feels better than she has in a long time. Her comeback began with a February date at New York City's Beacon Theatre, where Jones' doctor watched in amazement at his patient's first performance in months.

“My oncologist was like, ‘It's unbelievable' how fast I was cured,” Jones said. “Each night, I'm amazed at the energy and the strength I have on stage. Matter of fact, I feel better now at 58 than I did three years ago.”

The group is touring in support of their fifth album, January's “Give the People What They Want,“ which was recorded before Jones' diagnosis. She did not listen to the finished product, or any music besides the occasional gospel song on Sundays, during her hospital stay.

“Music is my joy, so listening to it and trying to sing — I couldn't even get my diaphragm to go up,” Jones said. “It would hurt me more trying to do something I couldn't, so I accepted in my mind: Music is your life. God is blessing you. He gave you that gift. Now you need to heal, and you don't think about music.”

Her respite, according to Jones, paid off, and now the singer is concentrating on another mission — to receive the credit Jones believes she and Dap-Kings have earned for years of waving the flag for what she considers true soul music. (As a lifelong devotee to the genre, Jones rejects any sort of “retro” label.)

For Jones, simple recognition would mean more than any specific award.

“You ain't got to nominate us, but just let people know what we're doing and hear what we're doing,” Jones said. “So many people still do not know of us or know that this music exists out here, and we've been doing this so many years.”

Jones lives at a fast pace — she said she's been home 22 days total since January — which she knows cannot go on forever. If she sounds demanding of respect, it's because Jones wants to be appreciated now, rather than later.

“How long do they think I'm going to do this?” she asked, before mentioning her bandmates often try to temper her outspokenness. “I'm like, ‘Guys, I'm telling you right now, when the fun's [ending], it's time to chill out.'”

Until then, Jones has no plans to slow down. (“I'm waiting to make my first million,” she said. “I want to see that. I've got things to do.”) On Friday, she plans to convert more new listeners into fans at Artscape through a live performance that, Jones said, is often compared to storied shows by Stax and Motown artists.

“All I get from [new fans] is, ‘Wow, it reminds me of back in the day, when I saw a show with James Brown,'” Jones said.

With her health scare hopefully behind her (her next checkup is in December), Jones is most committed to having her tireless work ethic represent her career. Album sales and award shows might be beyond her control, but Jones will continue to hustle to make her point.

“I always have this song in church that I sing, 'May the Work I've Done Speak for Me,'” Jones said. “I feel that the work that Daptone [Records] and the Dap-Kings and I have done over these years to keep soul music true, it's speaking for us now. It might be slow [to reach the mainstream], but it's speaking for us.”

If you go

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform Friday at Artscape's MEA Energy Stage, 1400 Cathedral St. in Mid-Town Belvedere. Galactic, Anthony Hamilton and other acts will perform across three stages all weekend. Friday's concert begins 4 p.m., with Jones and the Dap-Kings scheduled to take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Free. For more information, go to artscape.org.