NUVO Interview: Sharon Jones 

There’s neo-soul, an amalgamation of R&B, gospel, smooth jazz, mainstream pop and hip-hop recorded most famously by crooners like Alicia Keys, Maxwell and Erykah Badu, which uses 1960s-style soul and funk as only a spice in the proceedings, one influence among many. And then there’s Daptone Records, a Brooklyn-based label that attempts to recreate the sound and aesthetic of only that first era of soul (late ’50s to the early ’70s) by releasing on vinyl (full-length and 45) and recording with vintage instrumentation.

The house band for Daptone — the Dap-Kings — is a versatile eight-piece (bass, two guitars, percussion, set, two saxes, trumpet) that can sound like Stax, Motown and everything in between, and that has been together in one incarnation or another since the mid-’90s (with personnel constantly shifting to accommodate other creative projects, including those leaving for other funk labels and the Afrobeat collective Antibalas). And in front of the largely young and white band sways Sharon Jones, 52, an R&B singer who, in retrospect, was just waiting for a group of obsessive young record-collectors to give her a chance to lead a genuine soul band after years of wedding gigs and sessions on backup vocals.

In 1996, Jones was singing with a wedding band and hustling studio work when she was hired to sing backup vocals for a studio session arranged by Desco Records (a precursor to Daptone) for ’70s soul legend Lee Fields. While Fields was a respected performer from an earlier era, those associated with Desco (and many of the musicians who came to be in the Dap-Kings) were much younger, not from an era or place organically associated with soul. Daptone co-founder bassist Gabriel Roth was 21 at the time of that first session. “And I was like, ‘What do these young white boys know about funk music?’” Jones, talking on the phone a week before her Bloomington show, remembers asking herself. “And that’s the only time I could say that I ever felt doubt, but once they started playing … I’ve watched them over the years and how they’ve gotten much better.”

Jones recorded both the background vocals and lead for one song — “Switchblade,” a spoken-word prison story — during the Fields sessions, taking both the male and female parts. “Gabe just said, go in there and just talk some junk, and I was like, ‘I told ya, I’d cut your throat …’” she recalls. “They were laughing, I was laughing, and he slowed the vocals down. It was good.” And leaving her longtime wedding band, which she says was a “good group,” she joined Gabe in his endeavors, both with Dap-Kings precursor the Soul Survivors and in the band’s current incarnation.

Dap Dippin’

Desco, a label also devoted to classic funk and soul, collapsed in 2000, followed on by Daptone — the through line is Roth, who reconstituted under the name of the Dap-Kings. When Jones and the band scored a summer residency in Barcelona in 2001 — Jones says that Europe was the only place they could make any money in the early years — they quickly recorded a first record, Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Not as stylistically coherent as following recordings, the album featured a funk arrangement of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” and a James Brown-style introduction — “Soul brothers and sisters from coast to coast get up and get down whenever her records are played; they’re doing all the funky new dances. They’re doing the Bump and Touch, they’re doing the Dap Dip, everything.”

In the tradition of Stax’s Memphis studios and Motown’s Hitsville, USA, Daptone needed a studio, and they moved into a dilapidated two-family house in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in 2003, renovating the first floor into a recording studio where Jones and the Dap-Kings recorded their second and third albums: Naturally and 100 Days, 100 Nights. “I hope the landlord never decides to sell the building or kick us out; we’d have to buy it or something, or just move Daptone to a different place,” Jones says. “I had a hand in it — I helped put in electrical plugs and helped soundproof the room, so it’s all good.”

While Jones and the Dap-Kings play some covers — including a take on “I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Is In” recently released on a single — the majority of material is composed by members of the Dap-Kings and only sounds like it could have been written in the ’60s or ’70s. Jones says that, while she was a songwriter at one time, it’s because Roth and other writers are so immersed in vintage soul and funk that they can write music that so successfully conjures up that music that they love. “People are like, ‘Why don’t you write, you’d get money,’” Jones explains. “And I’m like, ‘You know what? I wrote years ago when I was young. And when you lose something, you have to get it back.’ Writing is a gift just like my singing is a gift.” But Jones reels off a few tantalizing ideas of her own, including a version of the spiritual “Trouble of the World” set to the music of Alicia Keys’ “Fallin,’” an instrumental dance track called “The Spank” and an optimistic ballad that she thinks anticipated the rhetoric of the Obama campaign. “I had written a song two years ago talking about ‘We need a change,’” she explains. “And now look at the scene with Obama, and my whole thing was about: What do we need? We need a change. If we don’t get that change, one day we’re going to wake up, and everything is going to be rearranged. And now I’ve got to try and finish that up and get it out now. Maybe it’ll be on the next album.”

Juke joint soul

Both the Dap-Kings and Jones have taken on high-profile work apart from each other. The Dap-Kings recorded some backing tracks for Amy Winehouse’s Back in Black, giving producer Mark Ronson the classic soul sound that he couldn’t quite recreate with studio trickery. (When asked about the record, Jones notes that when the Dap-Kings recorded those sessions, “They never expected anything,” and goes on to say that she’s praying that Winehouse can overcome her public tribulations.) And Jones took a part in the film The Great Debaters, playing a juke joint singer named Lila who performs a Lucille Bogan song and delivers a couple lines in the film, and recording several more tracks for the soundtrack.

Jones is aware that her relationship with the Dap-Tones may not last forever — if she loses her voice or can’t get up the energy to perform, she says she’s willing to retire, although video of live performances suggest that Jones has all the passion she needs to deliver a vocal, dance with the energy of a dynamic frontwoman and get the crowd involved, whether by dancing or in a more interactive call-and-response. And the younger ones might move on to other projects: “I’m quite sure that everyone is going to get older and get married, and things are going to change; musicians move on,” Jones says. “But I think they can always remember this family and keep this going. I told them, this is not just going through a phase, we’re creating history here, in what we’re doing. We’re starting something.”

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Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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