Sharon Jones: Bringing Back Old School

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Listen to Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings on MySpace

Words by: Andrew Bruss

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings
For anyone who suggests that soul music is dead, you clearly haven’t heard Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Jones and her Motown-esque backing band are one of the most authentic, heart-wrenching groups to bring r&b to the stage since Marvin Gaye asked, “What’s Going On?” The Dap-Kings, the house band for Daptone Records, garnered a significant degree of media attention from their role in the rise of British sensation Amy Winehouse, who they’ve worked with both in the studio and live. But, the old school sound Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings champion has been winning people over since well before Winehouse had been heard of Stateside.

After a midlife career shift that drove Jones from singing part time with wedding bands to making music full time, she saddled up with the Dap-Kings to bring the sound she grew up with on the road. But before any of this, the story of Sharon Jones starts in the hometown of James Brown, Augusta, Georgia. “I didn’t really grow up in Augusta” says Jones. “I grew up in New York, but every summer, since I was twelve, my mom would send me South because my parents were separated.”

Jones’ upbringing was split between the urban, culturally influential surroundings of New York City and the rural, church-heavy atmosphere that bred the Godfather of Soul. Like many of the legends Jones grew up on, particularly Aretha Franklin, a big stepping-stone in her musical journey began in a church choir. She cites an early interest in music that her days in the choir helped to nurture. When the notion of taking her voice on the road came along, it seemed as though everyone she encountered drove her dreams into the ground. “I’ve always been into music. I’d been singing in church since I was a little girl, but as far as making it professionally, in the early ’80s and on, people told me I didn’t have the look and that disgusted me. They told me I was too dark, too short, too fat and once I got past 20-something they told me I was too old. They told me I needed to bleach my skin,” laments Jones.

Sharon Jones by Delineated
Interestingly enough, a lot of the criticisms Jones was forced to bear have in time proven to be beneficial to her career. Her age has given her a sense of wisdom that comes from having lived for 51 years. As she struts around onstage with the mic in hand, her stout build stands as evidence to everyone in her audience that she is more than just another pretty face that a label deemed marketable. The confidence comes from her sense of self – a fundamental component of her stage persona.

After years of performing part time while working as a prison guard, Jones decided to ignore the voices of discouragement and attempt to follow her dream of being a professional singer. “If you’ve got a gift, and you can sing, go for it,” Jones enthuses. “They told me all of that [about my look] years ago. I said ‘God gave me a gift, and one day people will accept me for my voice and for who I am, not for my skin or for how fat I look.” With a fresh burst of confidence, Jones dove headfirst into a journey she had been hoping to take since she was a child. “With other groups, I was doing a lot of cover stuff and studio sessions and background work” recalls Jones. “But when The Dap-Kings came around, we were doing originals.”

Sharon Jones
Jones approached her musical career with the natural handicap of having spent much of her life avoiding performing, but as soon as she met up with The Dap-Kings, the ball got rolling. “They needed three background singers to sing for them, and I said ‘Why use three girls when I can do a three part harmony.’ So, I went in with them to do some background stuff and next thing you know they kept me and we went from there,” explains Jones.

As her tenure with The Dap-Kings seemed to solidify, things started picking up fast for the group. “The first major moment [was] back when The Dap-Kings were called The Soul Providers. I’d say things changed when we opened for Maceo Parker [in London]. That was a big thing because I’d never sang in front of that many people. Then about five years later, we sang for thousands of people in Canada at a festival, and that’s when I knew things were starting to happen,” Jones offers. “Then we started to pick up in the magazines more and more, and that’s when I really knew something good was coming from what we’re doing.”

 
In another four or five years I want my name to be on everyone’s mind. When someone says Beyonce, they say, ‘Oh yeah,’ and when they say Sharon Jones I’d like if they say ‘Oh yeah, she’s bad.’ That’s what I want to hear. Then I could make some money and build me a house. Instead of buying an ’88 Honda and living in the projects, I could relax, retire and use the gift God gave me to make people happy.

-Sharon Jones

 
Photo by John Melohy

Jones grew up on the r&b classics by artists like James Brown, Tina Turner and Otis Redding, and although the members of The Dap-Kings are considerably younger than Jones, the roots of their sound grew out of the same influences. “Just me being born in 1956 helped me be where I’m at right now. These younger guys in the group right now, they love all that old stuff, and they collect all of the classics,” says Jones. “That’s how The Dap-Kings got into that sound when they were 16, 17, 18. Now, they’re in their twenties, some of ’em are in their 40’s [and] grew up trading that stuff. I was lucky enough to be raised with it.”

The Dap-Kings
Right around the time Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings started taking off, another young twenty-something who was raised on the sounds of Motown took interest. Neo-Soul sensation Amy Winehouse tapped the underexposed talents of the Dap-Kings for her 2006 (2007 for the States) release, Back to Black, giving her edgy, soulful voice the authenticity of the artists she grew up wanting to emulate. The success of the single, “Rehab” shot Winehouse into superstardom and helped provide The Dap-Kings with a significant degree of public exposure along the way. When asked about Winehouse’s decision to utilize The Dap-Kings, Jones talks about the decision as though the group couldn’t have been a more obvious choice. “Amy and her producer [Mark Ronson] had been admiring The Dap-Kings for years, and they wanted the sound and knew they couldn’t go to any other band or any other label. So, they came to Daptone, and in order to get it they got The Dap-Kings.”

Jones seems to harbor a subtle degree of resentment against the success Winehouse achieved with “her” backup band, but that resentment seems to be rationally overpowered by the attention the young singer’s success has drawn Jones. “People ask me about Amy ‘discovering’ The Dap-Kings. She didn’t discover them, but they play with her on MTV and a lot of people started liking her. Amy helped bring The Dap-Kings to a different audience, and now everyone’s hearing about Daptone and The Dap-Kings.”

While Winehouse toured with The Dap-Kings and continued to draw a huge response, Jones and company took to the studio to record their follow up their 2005’s Naturally. The result of their efforts, 100 Days, 100 Nights (due 10/2/07 on Daptone Records), is a well refined blast from the past that offers listeners a hearty dose of soul, funk and r&b.

Plenty of artists today, such as Lauryn Hill and Outkast, have incorporated old school r&b into modern hip-hop but Jones doesn’t want to have any part in this.

“Ain’t nothing I listen to today that effects my style,” comments Jones. “Nothing I’ve heard lately has had much impact [on me]. Everything that affects our sound is from the ’60s and ’70s, and to a lesser extent, the early ’80s. I’d say most of the songs on this [new] album sound like they’re from the late ’60s. They’ve all got a nice and slow mellow [feel], and when I listen to them I think of Tina Turner. On one song called ‘Let Them Knock,’ I sing ‘Getch yo self a new one,’ and I feel its got a lot of Tina in it.”

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings by Dulce Pinzon
Because today’s musical landscape has little or no impact on Jones’ sound, one has to wonder how Jones and The Dap-Kings manage to create music that can successfully convince a listener it predates the Civil Rights Movement. “We just attribute the sound to what we hear and what we like. We just feel it,” Jones says. “We don’t try to say, ‘Let’s make a song that sounds like this.’ We just start playing something in the studio and it sounds like something from way back then.”

With the forthcoming release of 100 Days, 100 Nights, the group has high hopes for success, and for good reason. Their touring schedule has brought them to bigger venues, their music has been used to market multiple major brands and the media has begun paying them more attention. It seems as though everything is falling into place for Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings to break into the mainstream. However, whether their new album is a smash hit or a crushing disappointment in the business sense, Jones’ hopes for the future seem to be broader than any sales expectations. “I just hope in five years I could tour Japan and Hawaii, just different places. I just want more people to hear about our stuff. I just want to be heard,” Jones says. “In another four or five years I want my name to be on everyone’s mind. When someone says Beyonce, they say, ‘Oh yeah,’ and when they say Sharon Jones I’d like if they say ‘Oh yeah, she’s bad.’ That’s what I want to hear. Then I could make some money and build me a house. Instead of buying an ’88 Honda and living in the projects, I could relax, retire and use the gift God gave me to make people happy. With Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, it comes from our hearts. And whatever comes from the heart will reach to the heart.”

JamBase | Soulsville
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