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Soul singer Sharon Jones on music, cancer and what she really wants: Respect

Cancer became the inescapable loss lurking in the background of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ latest album, “Give the People What They Want,” the sixth release from the indie soul group credited with reviving the genre a dozen years ago.

Jones, the 57-year-old singer who rose to prominence after a career as a backup singer and a stint working as a guard at New York’s Rikers Island jail, lost her mother to cancer while writing material for the album, and the brother of saxophonist Neal Sugarman succumbed to the disease, too.

Jones herself had bile duct cancer, which pushed the album’s release from last August back to this week, and underwent her final chemotherapy treatment Dec. 31.

The singer spoke with Reuters about soul music, cancer and getting her due.

What is it like for you to see this album come out?

Sharon Jones (Jacob Blickenstaff)

I actually thought that I wasn’t even going to be around for this album. I thought I was going to die.

Does it have a special meaning to you?

It’s dedicated to two people that we knew who died from cancer, and I survived cancer — so this album is like a testimony of mine. It’s a survival. I was thinking I wasn’t going to be here to give them the album [and to] perform it. They wasn’t going to see me perform this album live, and so it means a lot to me now that I’m looking at it. Every time I go back and look at it, I’m going to remember my cancer.

Many consider you a survivor in the music industry, only coming to prominence after age 40.

I just think that they’re not giving us, me and Dap-Kings and [our label] Daptone Records and other true soul — any other independent soul record labels — the major labels aren’t giving us an opportunity to be recognized, saying that soul music died in the ’60s and the ’70s. And it did not. I’m a soul singer. I’m not a retro singer.

Would you claim credit for helping repopularize soul music preceding the rise of Amy Winehouse? She even used the Dap-Kings as her band for her megahit album “Back to Black.”

I would be a nut to say no. Of course, I just told you we’ve been out here 19 going on 20 years, pushing the music we’ve been doing, and we’ve never changed. So now people are finally hearing. So why do you think [producer] Mark Ronson came to us for Amy? Michael Bublé wanted me. He wanted a soul singer. He wanted somebody to do it, and we did that. Al Green had us on. They needed a certain soul sound. And so I think being there, hanging in and doing what we’re doing, we’ve opened doors. Now you look, there are so many different independent labels doing soul music — all over Europe. More in Europe than here in the States.

The major labels don’t recognize soul music or they don’t know how to put someone in a category because they don’t have soul singers. They don’t understand that. You get somebody that’s young, a [Justin] Timberlake or somebody, and play some soul riff behind them and they can get up and sing something, but that’s not soul singing. If you want to call that retro, you can do that. But I’m a soul singer.

Do you feel like you’re still fighting for respect?

Of course, definitely. That’s the fight it’s going to be on until the time [comes that the Grammy Awards] recognize soul music. That’s my fight. I just want them to recognize that there are soul music out here and soul singers today.

Do you often consider your own legacy?

No, I don’t. I don’t even look at it, because to me, it’s just me doing what God has blessed me to do. . . . I’m getting what I’ve put all these years of hard work into. It’s finally coming around.

— Reuters

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