Soul Singer Sharon Jones: 'The Cancer Is Here, But I Want To Perform'

Jul 28, 2016

Growing up in South Carolina, soul singer Sharon Jones knew from the first time she sang in her church's Christmas play that she would be a musician.

"I was, like, maybe 8, 9 years old ... and I got to sing 'Silent Night,'" she tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross. Jones remembers audience members taking note of her performance. "Right then and there," she says, "I knew that I was going to be a singer. God had blessed me with a gift."

Now the lead singer for the soul group, The Dap-Kings, Jones is inspired by the classic soul and R&B she grew up with. The band, which recorded its first album in 2001, is known for its energetic showmanship and '60s-style soul revue shows.

In 2013, Jones was forced to take a hiatus from performing after she was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer. A new documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, follows Jones in the first seven months following her diagnosis.

Jones says that while extensive surgery and chemotherapy took a lot out of her, her desire to make music never faltered. After finishing chemo, recovering from the surgery and getting clean scans, she returned to the stage with The Dap-Kings in 2014.

The cancer has since returned, but Jones wants to continue making music. "This cancer is here, and I have to take the chemo," she says, "but I want to perform. I just want to be able to get onstage and move."


Interview Highlights

On not listening to music while she was sick

I didn't. I didn't. 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 center under my breasts, all the way down to the top of my navel, almost. They had to cut through the diaphragm, through the stomach, remove stuff. They removed like 10 pounds of things ... 10 pounds that I never gained back.

On when she realized that she would eventually get back onstage

I had a February date, and my goal was to be back at that date. And everything in the filming, there's a scene with the church scene, that was my first time even attempting 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. I knew that sickness wasn't unto to death.

I thought I was going to die maybe a couple of hours after the doctor hit me with everything. You know, you go through that. So for a couple of hours I was on my deathbed. But other than that, I overcame that. Doing the film was also my therapy, and I knew that it would help someone out there with cancer, or going through it, as long as I inspired someone. 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 what I'm going through.

On getting back onstage the first time after her treatment for pancreatic cancer

The night I went out there, it was a different Sharon, because the hair is gone. That energy, I mean, everyone said my energy was great, but I didn't feel it at all. Even now, the days on the stage I'm just not myself, I don't have that energy. The legs doesn't lift up like I want to with the pain, the neuropathy from certain chemo. It's a hinder, but I do the shows, but it's not the same.

On how she and Dap-Kings songwriter Gabriel Roth create songs together

I just take the music and hear his idea and then I go with it from there. You know, basically he gives me what he thinks, but I have to do it my way, because I'm the soul singer. They're not soul singers, so you can't teach me how to sing soul. You can tell me where to go, just allow me to be myself. That's what we have there with these guys.

A couple of times they got in they thought they had to try to give me some tracks and stuff, and I nipped that in the bud right away. Listening to somebody else singing, I'm trying to go where they goin' and that's not where I would go. I would go nowhere, sing that song. You could get five singers in here and each one of us is going to sing that song differently. Just let me be me. That's how we've gotten where we are today, at Daptone [Records], by them letting me sing the way I feel it.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please welcome Miss Sharon Jones.

GROSS: My guest is soul singer Sharon Jones. Her music is inspired by the classic soul and R&B she grew up with by performers like James Brown and Aretha Franklin. She's backed by the horns, guitar and rhythm section of the band The Dap-Kings, which also backed Amy Winehouse on her album "Back To Black." Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings are known for their showmanship, reminiscent of '60s soul revues.

Jones is a powerhouse, but in 2013, she was diagnosed with Stage II pancreatic cancer, had extensive surgery and months of chemo. After finishing chemo, recovering from the surgery and getting clean scans, she returned to the stage and did a world tour with The Dap-Kings. But then the cancer returned.

The new documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!" is about the first seven months after her initial diagnosis. The film was directed by Barbara Kopple, who won Oscars for her documentaries "Harlan County, USA" and "American Dream." Let's start with a song from the soundtrack of the new film, a recording that was also used in a Fitbit commercial. This is "100 Days, 100 Nights."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "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. For 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. One hundred days, 100 nights...

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

JONES: Well, I had chemo yesterday. The doctors took me off of one chemo medicine, the one that's causing the neuropathy. I told them I didn't want to take that anymore because it's really causing more pain and stuff in my legs and causing a problem. But today is one of my - I feel one of my best days in the last few days. 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.

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 onstage. 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 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 onstage 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. Why did he want to basically commission a documentary?

JONES: Well, he went to VH1 and knowing VH1 - 'cause I know the story now hearing it from Barbara Kopple and everyone. It's great. And he was like, there's a story to be told here, and VH1 been fans and wanted to do it. They took it on and they asked Barbara Kopple to direct it. And she's been a fan, read up on me and what it was about and chose to do that. And here we are today.

GROSS: What did you initially think of the idea, and forgive me for asking something so straightforward...

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 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.

You know, my faith and my belief and and in myself I knew I was ready to go back out. And I knew that sickness wasn't until death. After - I thought I was going to die maybe a couple hours, you know, after the doctor hit me with everything. You know, you go through that. So for a few - a couple hours I was on my deathbed (laughter). But other than that, yeah, I overcame that.

And doing the film was also my therapy. And I knew that it would help someone out there with cancer or going through it. As 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.

GROSS: 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 - it's not only the band. It's the whole - my whole, I mean, management, my whole, you know, we got posters out. We got - it's so much, you know. It's a whole big - we got an LLC. We got - it's a company here. And so - with a lot of people not getting paid, including myself and one of the doctors wasn't included in the insurance so we have 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 one 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 divorce and then, you know, losing stuff and the gang...

GROSS: Oh, your guitarist, yeah.

JONES: ...Not being able to get the loan and just different people in the band, you know, lost apartments and, you know, they had to move in with - so it was a lot that, you know, 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. I knew we had to. You know, our money is when we work.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear another recording? And 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." Do you want to say a few words about this song?

JONES: Oh, no, it was just - when we recorded that song, you know, we was trying to think should we have named the album "People Don't Get What They Deserve" or - I mean - but it came out to be "Give The People What They Want." So that song was going to - it's going to be the title of the album. Are we going to just, you know? And that's just a great song out, you know. It's just a song we wrote and it's one of our first ones that we wanted to push out to get out there on a single.

GROSS: OK. So this is a song included on the soundtrack of the documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE DON'T GET WHAT THEY DESERVE")

JONES: (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. And cheaters will fail. That's what they all learned. But there is a man who was born with a fortune. A hard days 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 the top of my navel, almost. They had to cut through the diaphragm, through the stomach, remove stuff. They removed, like - 10 pounds of things was taken out of my body.

GROSS: You're kidding.

JONES: Ten pounds that I never gained back...

GROSS: Gosh.

JONES: ...You know.

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 'til actually September - when you saw me in that church sing was the first time I sang in months. You know, and then I had to get prepared to do the - 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: And waving - I mean, that's pretty strenuous when you've had major surgery.

JONES: Oh, my God, yes. And then December I had a lot of TV shows, different things that opened up before. And then January I'm doing all the TV shows and all this stuff, and then February, boom, the stage. So I was preparing myself. Everything that I - you know, the singing was there. It wasn't - I wasn't ready to do it. I couldn't get the air in. And to breathe, you know, to push it back out, and so until we started rehearsing, and yeah.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is soul singer Sharon Jones. And there's a new documentary about her called "Miss Sharon Jones!" Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is soul singer Sharon Jones. And there's a new documentary about her called "Miss Sharon Jones!" It covers the time when she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and went through her first round of chemo. And then ended up having to get right back to work, go right back on the road. And, amazingly, she did, like, a world tour basically as soon as the chemo ended. And now the cancer has since returned. She's getting chemo again.

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?

JONES: OK.

GROSS: And then we'll talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MISS SHARON JONES!")

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

GROSS: You were not holding back (laughter).

JONES: No, I was - I was letting it all out. And I was - you know, and that's a difference and an anointing came over me. I just opened my mouth and they just come out, you know, the air just flowed. And - and that was, like I said, from that day 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 and to be the song that you sang in this small neighborhood church?

JONES: Because if he watches over a 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 send our faith up and believing. If he watches over a sparrow, I know he watches over me. And that was the song. And it's 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, to prepare me for when I was 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 and...

JONES: Too fat.

GROSS: ...Too fat and...

JONES: And I just - I didn't make it there with that - the younger - 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 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 could have an album out, "Dap Dippin'." 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 church 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 hmmm. And those people that - true, 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 did 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: 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 to - 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: Yeah, the night I went out there, it was like a different Sharon because the hair is gone. That energy - I mean, everyone said my energy was great, but I didn't feel at all. Like, Binky would always say, oh, 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 that 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, because you - for anybody who hasn't seen you perform, you do a lot of dancing and jumping around on stage. You are not still.

(LAUGHTER)

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

JONES: Yeah, yeah. It's - 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 nerve's gone, all the nervousness. And the pain, you know, I fight through it. You know, those first couple of seconds or the first five minutes, it's - you know, it's the most that I could 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.

JONES: (Laughter).

GROSS: I mean. There are 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 love your voice. Like, why wouldn't you just sing sitting down if you needed to?

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

(LAUGHTER)

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

(LAUGHTER)

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

GROSS: Fine.

JONES: ...Around the stage.

GROSS: Fine.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guest is Sharon Jones. She's the subject of the new documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!" We'll talk more after a break. And our linguist Geoff Nunberg will trace the evolution of the slogan law and order. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL STILL BE TRUE")

JONES: (Singing) You call me your woman. Then you go and do me wrong, expecting me to carry on like it's good. We always hurt each other, even though we're miles apart. You leave me with a wounded heart over you. Loving you, it's so easy to do. You can say that we're through, I'll still be true.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with soul singer Sharon Jones. The new documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!" is about the first seven months after she was diagnosed with stage II pancreatic cancer in 2013. During that period, she recovered from extensive surgery and had a long round of chemo. She returned to the stage after those seven months. But the cancer returned, and she's back on chemo but still performing. Let's hear a song that's included on the soundtrack of the new documentary. Here, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings with "If You Call."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU CALL")

JONES: (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 could live, live and die like this forever, if I know I'll taste your lips again. Doctor, doctor, come cut my heart out.

GROSS: That was Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings And that song is featured on the soundtrack for the new documentary about her which is called "Miss Sharon Jones!" and the documentary is about when she was diagnosed with stage two pancreatic cancer and had to go - undergo a pretty serious surgery, very serious surgery and have a long round of heavy duty chemo.

We were talking about returning to performing after the surgery and the chemo and figuring out like who is Sharon Jones now now that you've gone through all of that? And it seems to me like you're trying to be this like powerhouse on stage, but allowing yourself to be just a little vulnerable onstage, like when you first return at the comeback concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York. You still have a little bit of chemo brain, and you're worried you're going to forget the lyrics. And you do on the first song. You blank on a couple of words.

JONES: First couple, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And you explain it to the audience. You tell the audience...

JONES: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...What's happening. They're totally...

JONES: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...With you. But I bet being even like the least bit vulnerable onstage was something kind of new to you.

JONES: It was new to me, and that's why I take the time. I have to talk about it because if I don't talk about it, it'll hold me back, and I won't concentrate. I'll be concentrating on that, you know - of what's going on. And I - even now, when I get on the stage, I tell the people what my day, you know, it's tough back here. I've been sitting back, you know, I've been in pain, but I get through it. You know, and I let them know that, you know, I'm not wearing my little fancy dancy heels and I got to wear these shoes because they're comfortable.

You know, I just - and, you know, just got to wear what's comfort or I take them off and then I - and then once I tell the audience how I feel, I relax. The pain go away or I can deal with it. And I'm like thinking about it, and I'm just there to let the audience know and they see that I'm, you know - that's my therapy. That works for me. So I talk about it and go ahead and do it.

GROSS: So you said that when you're onstage, like, the pain is gone, you know - you just - you are totally in the music. But do you have to pay a price for that like the day after?

JONES: Sometimes or not even the day after - soon as I get off the stage, I can go to the dressing room and maybe another half an hour, hour later I can barely stand up, you know. I could stiffen up again or, you know, sometimes. And then any other time I'm like, whoa, I feel great today. You know, so yeah - it's all - it's like a bomb. I just keep saying that over again. It's one day at a time. Each day is a little different.

GROSS: And the band understands?

JONES: Oh, the band I - and I learned certain things, even if I'm not, like, feeling - like I be in a lot of pain and if I tell them I'm in a really lot of pain, and they see that in my face, it sort of gets them down because all night they watching me now. You know, and sometimes I might tell them I'm really, you know - little pain, so Gabe will start off too slow or calling slow songs, and I look at him like pick it up, pick it up, you know. And so I've learned.

Now I'm like no matter what, I'm going to throw - look at them and flash a smile. I'm OK guys, you know. I'm all right. Pain is pretty good. I don't feel that much pain. Even if I do feel a little bit more pain, I have to get that smile, and let them know that that pain is not that bad because they'll read it differently. You know, and I have to get through with it, so they're watching me.

GROSS: OK. This isn't exactly like having a documentary, but your record "100 Days And 100 Nights" was used as music in a FitBit commercial. And so...

JONES: A coffee commercial, yeah. That was in a couple.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So...

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I know you watch a lot of TV. So what's it like to put on the TV and have one of your songs in a commercial?

JONES: Well, wait, it was that one and then also I did September for the Target. They had the - I did the cover of - what was that? - black - (singing) everybody dance, ya'll.

That was me when they...

GROSS: That was you?

JONES: ...Did the summer denim stuff. Yeah, that was me.

GROSS: (Laughter) I didn't realize that.

JONES: And so I had all of this just this year, you know, just from summer on up to the three commercials. Then the fourth one with the - and then this one - the Lincoln. I'm - you see me in the commercial so...

GROSS: With Matthew McConaughey?

JONES: Yeah, so that was like exciting, you know. Just all the stuff happening in the last few months, and so it's really good to sit back. And, you know, those things was like great for me because everything I've done and everything I've gained in my life has been with my music. Thank God I got my manager before Alex came in and started managing me. I got the opportunity to be with them. The "Crazy Love" album with Michael Buble - and that "Crazy Love" album that recording was the down payment on my home for my mother. That's how I got my mother out of the projects and into the home from that.

And, believe it or not, this September past up, it's been six years now since I got the home and everything. And the commercial for the Target paid off my mortgage, so my house is paid for - so two good jobs that helped me that I wouldn't have had this thing if I hadn't had those opportunities to do that stuff.

GROSS: That's great. My guest is soul singer Sharon Jones. She's the subject of the new documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!" We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with soul singer Sharon Jones. The new documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!" is about the first seven months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013.

So I want to play a song that I suspect has different meaning for you now than it did when you first recorded it. And the song is called "Retreat!" and it was on your album "Give The People What They Want," which is your - the album that you had to hold back in 2013 when you were diagnosed with cancer. And it's also on the soundtrack album for your new film. So what did that song mean to you before, and what did it mean after the diagnosis?

JONES: Well, when we had recorded that, I hadn't even thought about that song anymore - "Retreat!" - until I'm laying in the hospital. And Gabe comes up like, well, we got to do a video. I'm like, of what? And he was like, "Retreat!" You know, that's the only that - we had released that. That was going to be for me to, you know, promoting - so that was already released, so now what are we going to do? Now people are not going to hear from me again until months, you know? So - and he's like, well, we're going to animate it. And they did the animation.

GROSS: Right, since you couldn't appear in it live.

JONES: Yeah. I couldn't appear in it, so they did the animation and I was like, oh, that's going to be great. And I'm laying in the hospital and I see this. I was like, wow. I mean, for one thing, the drawing and the shoes and the dress - it was so cute. And I said, they even put my mole. They had the mole on the side of my head, which was great. And I'm looking at this film and I'm like, wow, it's, like, it's telling another story.

And Saundra, my background singer Saundra, comes up, you know, Sharon, that video is, like, just telling the people, like, the little wolves chasing you around, that's like the cancer and how you just outgrew it and you just came back and you broke your mic out of the rock and you picked it up and you start walking over the world, like, tell them, hey, world, I'm back. I'm back.

And that - so that video and the scene in it took on a different meaning, just like another song, "Get Up And Get Out," that took on a different meaning. We changed that from - you hear "Get Up And Get Out" on the album and sounded almost like a country western, a gospel (imitating guitar) and but then when I do it live, it's like a Tina Turner "Rolling On The River" type. I start it off slow and do it fast and I say - not only do I say get up and get out, I tell the cancer to get up and get out. And if you don't get up and get out I'm going to shout you out. And I get to shout.

And I do that song each night because that lets the people know that if I got the energy to stand there and shout and sing that song - that's a high-energy song. And I do that for me to let me know that I still got the energy. And at night, that's sort of like a ritual song for me to do. I get to express myself.

GROSS: All right. So this is Sharon Jones singing "Retreat!" with The Dap-Kings, and this is on the soundtrack for the new documentary about her, "Miss Sharon Jones!"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RETREAT")

JONES: (Singing) I see you coming from a mile away and you're looking real cocky. You think that you can keep the sea at bay. But it's about to get choppy. Play with me and you play with fire. I can make you pay. I'll burn you up if it's my desire. Do you hear what I say? Boy, you don't know what I'm all about. I'll chew you up and then I'll spit you out. So if you know what's good for you, retreat. Retreat, yeah. Step back, boy, because you can't fix crazy - retreat, retreat, retreat, yeah. Raise your wife at night 'cause I'm coming in blazing, retreat...

GROSS: That's Sharon Jones singing "Retreat!" with the Dap-Kings backing her up. And that song is on the soundtrack for the new documentary about her which is called "Miss Sharon Jones!" 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. Did you do covers?

JONES: Oh, yeah. Oh, that's what we did was covers in the wedding band. The name of my wedding band - well, we had two names. They started out with the John Lawrence Orchestra. And then later on it turned to Good and Plenty. And believe it or not, that's how I met Saundra and Starr. So Saundra and Starr have been in...

GROSS: Your backup singers.

JONES: Oh, yeah, they've been with me since the early '90s. And backup, I, you know, we did the, like, the "I 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, what 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 with accent) I learned the hard way. (Laughter) I learned the hard way, baby. I was like, oh, my God. We're going to get some background singers right now.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: And so you start traveling, and they would hire some - you know, like if we go over in Europe - over in Australia they had some sisters that got them. We'd be in the States. I said, look, we got to get somebody that's permanent, and along came Saundra. And Gabe - and I'm like this would be good for Sharon. She needs this, you know, and I'm back out there on that road and there you go.

They came in, and they was there with me and been the support. They helped me over the last five, going on six years now. So they've been behind me these last six years. Then being away from the wedding and knowing each other, so we've been around each other a good some years in here with us - 18, 20 years. We got some time in our friendship and backing up and singing together. So it's great having them - such an ease, such a comfort. And now that they have their own album out - Saun and Starr "Big Wheel" - they also get to open up for me those nights that I have that long show now. And if I have to do an hour and a half, they come out and do three or four songs maybe, you know. And if I need to go off and come back, they got me, you know, there. So it's all working out for the great in this. I'm so glad they're there.

GROSS: The Dap-Kings has a great horn section, including baritone horn, so that gives such body to the sound like rhythm and body. And what's it like for you as a singer to have these great horns behind you?

JONES: That's all - they're there, and, you know, and it reminds me of, you know - you look back on the day you get records, and you put them on. And to hear a good horn solo to, like, be playing something (unintelligible) go around like take a solo right there, you know, to hear that. And these guys - they're being such great musicians, you know, instead of that synthesizer - anybody can go up and press a button (imitating synthesizer), you know. And you know, like go (imitating synthesizer), you know, you get the drum machines. I mean, I want to hear the drum (imitating drums), stop, break it down like, make soft. You know, different stuff like that or you could stop them on the dime and (imitating drums) and come back in.

You know, the - what The Dap-Kings and I have over the years, you know, being out there so long to like - we just feed off of each other. I can call something they - we - a lot of nights, they have no idea what I'm going to do or who I'm going to call or where I'm going to go with this song. I don't even know. I just take it as I get up there and how I feel, and I go with it. So great musicians - that horn they stepping, and I like to see them over there stepping. I got to get with them, and they got to get some more steps. They got to get some more stepping going on here.

GROSS: A lot of the songs you sing are written by Gabriel Roth who writes under the name Bosco Mann and is the leader of The Dap-Kings. When he writes a song for you, how do you learn it? Does he make a recording for you? Does he sit at the piano and play it?

JONES: No, well, he don't play that - make that recording for me because then you're trying to show me how to sing it. He'll come in. He has the idea. He'll play something on the piano (imitating piano), you know, and I go, oh, OK. He's not a singer, so I have to hear where he's going. I just take the music and hear his idea, and then I go with it from there. You know, basically he give me what he think, but I have to do it my way because I'm the soul singer. They're not soul singers, so you can't teach me how to sing soul. You can tell me where to go and just allow me to be myself, and that's what we have there with these guys. You know, a couple of time they got in and they thought they had to try to give me some tracks and stuff and I put - I nipped that in the bud right away.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: You know, you can take that away from here because - I mean, listen to this track and listen to someone else singing it, I'm trying to go where they going, and that's not where I would go. I would go nowhere singing that song. You can get five singers in here and each one of us is going to sing that song differently so, you know. You know what I mean? So just let me be me. And that's how we've gotten where we are today at that tone by them letting me sing the way I feel it.

GROSS: Sharon Jones, it's just been great to talk with you. I wish you good luck with your health and with, you know - with the chemo, and I'm so glad you're still performing.

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

GROSS: Sharon Jones is the subject of the new documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!" It opens in New York tomorrow, LA next Friday and in other cities in the weeks to come. After a break, our linguist Geoff Nunberg will trace the evolution of the slogan law and order which has been adapted by the Trump campaign. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.