By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
The outdoor crowd of some 6,000 fans in Boise that night in April probably remember a few distinct things about the show they'd come to see.
One: It was great. Of course it was. This was Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, after all — the raucous but tight-as-a-drum soul powerhouse fronted by a not-quite-five-foot dynamo. The group, together nearly twenty years, has made a living putting smiles on the faces of crowds around the world.
Those in attendance also likely remember how very cold it was. So cold. It had dipped into the twenties. You could see the breath of the trio of Dap-Kings horn players between blows.
Despite the frigid Idaho air, Jones was everything fans have now come to expect — a whirling firecracker of a woman whose megawatt smile alone could generate enough electricity to power Times Square. They surely remember that despite the cold, she didn't wear a jacket. At one point she even kicked off her shoes, shimmying across the stage for the remainder of the set barefoot, in a sequined black dress complete with tassels that shook in unison with her shoulder-length locks.
They remember a party.
What they don't remember — what they couldn't have known — is that Jones was hurting that night.
Sometime midway through the show, she felt as though she'd been sucker-punched in the small of her back. The instant it happened, she turned away from the audience. Only her band could see the rictus of pain etched across her face.
Then it seemed to pass. Maybe the cold had exacerbated the aches she'd grown accustomed to, the price of a life lived on the road.
But the pain she felt that night never did really go away. Jones knew something was terribly wrong.
Six months after that Idaho concert finds Jones convalescing in her friend Megan Holken's home in Sharon Springs, New York. It's a speck of town upstate where thousands once flocked hoping to remedy a litany of ailments via the curative springs that percolate up from the rocky terrain. Rectangular pads of beige Berber carpet line the wooden staircase, placed by Holken to ease the burden on Jones' sore feet and lessen the chance of a painful spill. At 57, the woman known for being a ball of endless energy is constantly exhausted. Something as mundane as showering feels like running ten blocks.
Autumn came quickly to this sleepy town on the edge of the Catskills, and the frosty October has Jones feeling cautious. "I've been doing things, but since my white blood cell count and immune system has been down, I'm careful. It's important. I don't want to be around too many people right now," she says, curled up in an oversized lavender reading chair whose swirling floral pattern matches the daisies on her silk blouse.
The pain she felt in Boise that night worsened over time. She made multiple visits to various masseuses who worked on the gnawing knot, but nothing seemed to untie it. By the time the long tour wound down, she needed a bandmate to place her items in overhead bins during between-concert flights.
From massage therapists, she graduated to doctors and hospitals and seemingly endless tests in her native South Carolina. Then, finally, she got the ugly truth.
In early June, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Stage II.
"I just started crying," Jones recalls of the day a doctor delivered the news. "It all came out at once. I always figured I was going to die at a young age."
It was only three short years ago that Jones lost her mother to cancer. By the time they had it located, it was too late to treat.
"Once the cancer got me, I thought, 'Oh, this is it; I'm getting ready to die.'"
How can you really respond when you hear something like that?" asks the Dap-Kings' handlebar-mustachioed bandleader and Daptone label co-owner, Gabe Roth. The band has been together eighteen years.
"Tightly together," he notes. "Rolling around in vans, smelling each other, yelling at each other. Laughing, getting drunk and crying. Everybody's been through a lot together. It's really a close group of people."
Roth says he's closer to Jones than to some of his siblings.
It's not hard to understand why. More than a band, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who play the Pageant this Sunday, are a business. Built from the ground up, the band is the flagship property of the Daptone label Roth founded with fellow Dap-King Neal Sugarman after the two grew tired of being manhandled by a largely unfeeling, uncaring, behemoth music industry. But more than a business, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are also family. And the family business has been very good.
It took a lot of work.
Sharon Jones grew up in North Augusta, South Carolina, a town just across the Savannah River from Georgia, in a house that had no running water. "Had to carry water in and had an outhouse in the back," she remembers.
A wood-burning stove kept her and five older siblings warm in colder months. Her father, Charlie Jones, taught her how to use a slingshot and to fish, a hobby she finds peace in and remains passionate about today. But peace was rarely present in her parents' caustic relationship. "He used to beat her," Jones says. Eventually they split, and Jones moved with her mother to New York to start a new life.