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Spreading The Gospel

20 August 2014 | 12:11 am | Samson McDougall

This is gonna be the last job that I ever work, when I leave this gig I’m retiring

Sharon Jones is all about channelling the energy of the early soul performers, bringing this stuff to a new generation. The story of her tough road to ‘discovery’ is fairly well documented, so we’ll kick off in the midst of her now-regular gig with The Dap Kings – the Daptone Records house band. Jones and Daptone are largely associated with a widespread soul revival. We’re seeing it in Australia with the rise of Clairy Browne & The Bangin’ Rackettes, The Bamboos, Hiatus Kaiyote, even punk-soul outfits like Royal Headache, but according to Jones it’s a worldwide thing. And whether or not her influence is a right-place, right-time kind of scenario or whether she’s actually responsible for any of this coming to bear, her festival appearances (Sydney Festival, Meredith, Falls, Roskilde, Glastonbury etc etc) are bringing slabs of soul to younger audiences.

Jones knew long before Daptone Records’ first album release – Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings (2002) – that they were onto something special. “I don’t know if those guys knew it but I went to Gabe [Roth, Daptone founder] after we started doin’ it and I said, ‘Look, let me tell you somethin’... This is gonna be the last job that I ever work, when I leave this gig I’m retiring, so y’all, let’s get serious’,” she says. “And that’s when we started. I knew then. I said, ‘Right now you guys don’t even realise [but] we’re makin’ history here. You don’t know what’s goin’ on’. No one [was] doin’ this – well, people were doin’ it but no one [was] as serious as we are.”

The goal was to be electric and authentic, to continue in the traditions of a musical form that was in danger of fading away, rather than mimicking a sound-gone-by. The key to validity was in harnessing the energy of the old-time soul performers. And watching thousands of young folk dancing in a festival field to music that was conceived a long time before they were is testament to how well Jones & The Dap Kings have hit the mark.

When the band are on the road, they still turn to old footage of the greats for inspiration. “James Brown or Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Ike & Tina Turner onstage – to watch that energy they have is totally amazing,” she says. “So to see that we’re actually doin’ that, really doin’ what they were doin’ onstage, it’s unbelievable.”

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Jones laments never seeing James Brown at the famed Apollo Theatre – a venue she’s now played – but she did have an early brush with greatness. “My brother was singin’ at this club and we went to see him and James Brown happened to show up, because my brother used to imitate James Brown,” she says. “I remember [Brown] gettin’ up on stage and I was standin’ at the stage at eye level and I remember lookin’ at him. My father passed away when I was 12 years old, so at this time I had to have been maybe eight or nine, and I remember sayin’, ‘Look dad, he’s floatin’!’ It was like his feet ain’t even touchin’ the ground! Literally, I thought James Brown was just floatin’ across the stage.”

In 2013 Jones’s musical life was put on hold when a pancreatic cancer diagnosis led to months of treatment. The chemotherapy was a success and she’s currently cancer free – one of the lucky ones. “Everyone has a life and you have to deal with it the way you deal with it and your outcome is your outcome,” she says. She looks at this next phase of her life as an opportunity to spread the soul music gospel even further. “That’s why my life’s been spared through this cancer scare,” she says. “I’m plannin’ to go on for a few more years to help people recognise soul music.”

Since her treatment finished, the odd seven- or ten-day break is the only respite Jones has had. She loves fishing, and gets to do a fair bit of it on a friend’s boat while she’s not on the road. In fact, she would’ve been on the water had this run of interviews not been scheduled during her downtime. But drive is something Jones has plenty of and the success she’s experiencing now is something she’ll work hard to hold on to. She says since the cancer treatment she’s lost a bit of weight, is eating better and generally looking after herself. “I look at myself and I feel unbelievable,” she says. “Believe it or not right now, at 58, I feel more energetic and stronger than I did three years ago.

“For the last eight months I’ve been goin’ right from New Year’s Eve – my last chemo treatment – and I’ve been on the road ever since,” she continues. “New Year’s Eve was the last one and January fourth I was on [The Tonight Show Starring] Jimmy Fallon. Then I flew out to California and was on every night show: Ellen, Leno, Kimmel, Conan – every show, all in January. And then come February the fifth, here I am startin’ my tour, hittin’ the road.”