Sharon Jones was on the road when she got the news of her brother’s death in late 2006—Sunday, December 31 to be exact. She and her band, the Dap-Kings, were preparing to play a New Year’s Eve date at Chicago’s Park West, along with labelmates The Budos Band. Before the soul revue-type show even began, a packed house was screaming and hollering, having paid $30 a head to get in.
“And I’m backstage, literally telling my tears not to fall,” Jones recalls. “‘Don’t cry—you gotta go on and do this show.’ And the band is looking at me, like, ‘You want to go home?’ No! We can’t go home. I’ve got 17 people out here with me… I’ve got a show to do.”
So Jones swallowed her tears, the band kicked into one of its signature, ’60’s-style deep funk grooves, and MC/guitarist Binky Griptite began his stage patter: “Ladieees and gentlemen, welcome to the Daptone supersoul revue…”
Such an indomitable will to perform and boundless stage energy—dancing like a woman half her age at shows—is the norm for Sharon Jones. As bandleader and longtime musical associate Bosco “Bass” Mann says: “The nights when the whole band is drained and dragging up to the bandstand, she’s able to get energy from somewhere. That’s the thing that inspires me to work harder and do right by her. Musically and business-wise, I just try to do everything I can to help her and the whole band get their due.”
Meanwhile, as the cheers of New Years revelers echoed into the early morning, Jones prepared to tackle the challenges of offstage life. “I got home Tuesday; we buried him Thursday,” she says. “Of course, I ended up having to pay for the whole funeral. Something happened with the insurance policy. My mother had let that lapse. And I was stuck with everything. So that little bit of money I made out of the road—I had to spend that and then borrow some from my manager.”
Godchildren of Soul
Sheron LaFaye Jones was born in Augusta in May 1956, the youngest of six children. Her mother and father separated while Jones was three, and Sharon’s mother decided to leave Augusta shortly thereafter. “She brought us to New York, a couple of us at a time,” Jones says. “And she left my father and came to New York on her own and she literally did domestic housework.”
Jones’ childhood was split between New York and Augusta, spending the school terms in Gotham and the summers with her father in the South—an arrangement that continued until her father passed away when she was in her early teens. But her time in James Brown’s hometown certainly rubbed off.
“My brother Henry used to sing; he used to imitate James Brown,” the singer recalls. “They used to call him Little Dyno. He’s just two years older than I am. People used to think we were twins. So when he would do the James Brown slide, I would imitate him and try to do that stuff—we were siblings and competitive, and I was a tomboy, so I felt anything my brother can do, I can do, too.”
Despite an adolescence singing in church, those JB-inspired moves, and a raw, soulful voice that can peel paint, Jones is a late-bloomer as a full-time entertainer. She and Mann didn’t meet until 12 years ago, when she was hired to sing backup for deep funk legend Lee Fields on the verge of her 40th birthday. Between day jobs, including a stint as a Rikers Island corrections officer in New York, she continued to play in church and with bands that played weddings and basically went nowhere.
Early on, she hit roadblocks because she was she was told she didn’t have the “look,” particularly the light-skinned appearance expected of R&B performers. One music impresario even told her to bleach her skin. “In the late ’70s, early ’80s, I couldn’t sing. You know, I had the great voice, but they wanted me to do like they did Milli Vanilli. You know, you sing and use somebody else [as the visual representation]. And I really felt in my heart that God gave me a gift. One day, people were gonna accept me—the same short, dark, fat, old woman—people were gonna accept me. And that’s what just happened.”
The Dap Dip
Even after meeting Mann (who reverts to his given name, Gabriel Roth, when not onstage), there was a lot of hard work ahead for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who are completely independent artists. Daptone Records, co-owned by Roth and saxophonist Neal Sugarman, was built from the ground up by the pair, who in 2003 leased a two-family row house in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood for the label’s offices and a state-of-the-art old-school analog recording studio. (During a recent visit by MTV News, Roth pointed to a single CD player as the only piece of digital technology there.)
And as Roth and Sugarman were building the label, the band was cutting its teeth as a live act. “We’ve had days where we’re doing 14 to 16 hours of travel,” Roth says. “And going straight to the stage and hitting—and sometimes hitting in a little jazz club for six people. We’ve paid lots of dues over the years and played some strange gigs and [Sharon’s] gotten into stuff, no complaining. I’ve seen her go up on stage and sing her heart out just as if she were in front of 10,000 people.”
In fact, Jones feeds off adversity so much that at one point, Roth decided to play a little joke just prior to show time. “I remember one time where we were in England or someplace,” Roth recalls. “And we’d done a bunch of shows; been on the road for a while. We were real dry. It was hard to keep the energy up and the morale up. So before the show, right before we went onstage, I told Sharon the promoter said he wasn’t going to pay us. It wasn’t true. I was just trying to get her riled up. And she got really pissed off. And I said, ‘OK Sharon, we gotta hit, no time, we’ll talk about it afterwards.’ And she hit the stage, and she was belting, man. She ripped that place apart. People were passing out that night.”
No Rehab Needed
The third, and latest, album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is called 100 Days, 100 Nights. It had been recorded long before its Oct. 2 release date, but was delayed to allow the band time to support its freelance projects, one of which turned out to be huge—recording a large portion of the music for the Amy Winehouse album Back to Black, which yielded the hits “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good.”
While recording Winehouse, producer Mark Ronson, in love with the vintage sound Roth had been able to achieve, paid a visit to the house of Daptone with the beehive-haired singer in tow. Ronson also hired the horn section for his own album, Version, and to perform on MTV’s VMAs in September. And prior to setting up a fall tour in support of Sharon Jones, the band spent the spring and early summer supporting Winehouse on live dates.
Jones admits that she was annoyed, initially, to be temporarily eclipsed by a younger, white singer, essentially co-opting her band. But she also understood that the pop spotlight created a moment for listeners to discover the sound she and her band have been refining for more than a decade. “If not for that, [big media outlets] wouldn’t be interviewing me.”
And while Roth gives Winehouse props as a singer and songwriter, he philosophically notes that such things have a long history in pop music. “I mean going back to the British Invasion or Elvis, you have rhythm and blues music that’s not completely crossed over to the mainstream,” he says. “Then you’re able to get a white artist who’s able to use some of that music, along with a lot of heavy handed promotion from major companies, and move a bunch of records.”
“There’s definitely some balancing we have to do,” Roth adds. “There’s a lot of that stuff we turn down because we don’t want to be distracted; we want to concentrate on doing our own thing. In the long run that’s what’s more important to us—making Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings records.”
Both Jones and Roth say the latest record, which backs off some of the uptempo funk jams that characterize previous records in favor of straightforward soul and R&B grooves, is the most collaborative thus far, with Jones road-testing songs as they were written. “Every two days, I’d go and learn another song,” Jones recalls. “I’d go onstage and mess up the lyrics, and people would laugh. People wouldn’t know it was a new song until I got it. So when I recorded those songs, they were there. … And I just went into the studio, and I ate ’em right up.”
While Jones was learning (and occasionally editing) songs on the road, Roth (who usually writes most of the Dap-Kings’ material) was opening up the songwriting and arrangements. “There are a lot more contributions from the band,” he says. “…A lot of people are working out songs together and working on things together. … There are still a couple songs I wrote and brought in, but even those songs, the arrangements were a lot more open … and really came into fruition from the band.”
Stay on the Scene
As the Dap-Kings were hitting the charts with Winehouse, Jones was scoring some hits of her own. She participated in a project on Verve Records called Baby Loves Jazz with Steven Bernstein (of Sex Mob) and John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin and Wood), sang backup with Lou Reed and then had to apologize to Reed for leaving the tour to play a small role in the upcoming Denzel Washington movie, The Great Debaters. In the film she plays Lila, a juke joint singer, and reportedly has two lines plus a song, though the film is still being edited.
“There’s a reality to her,” Washington recently told The New York Times. “She’s honest. I love her.”
As Jones has finally received some overdue recognition, her personal trials have multiplied. When we spoke, her mother was in the hospital and another brother had suffered a debilitating stroke. And in addition to her brother, she says 17 people—from family to close friends to fellow church members—have passed away since last Christmas. “And out of those 17, I’ve been to seven funerals, and I’ve had to sing at four,” she notes.
Jones, as of yet, is hardly wealthy, tooling around New York in a 1988 Honda where “every time I get in and drive to the store, I pray that the mufflers don’t drop off, and that it’s going to start up again when I come out.”
But she’s found a home with Gabriel Roth and the rest of the Daptone crew. “I tell them, you guys got my life in your hands—this is the last job I’ll ever have, so y’all better take care of me. I don’t want to be sleeping on no subway train saying, ‘I used to sing…’”
In the meantime, Jones will hold up her end of the bargain, bringing the energy of a teenager to the stage. “This is what I chose to do. These musicians out there … I’m feeding y’all. We’re all feeding each other. If I don’t do this show, we don’t do this show, and we don’t have any money. Some bills aren’t going to be paid. This is what we work for. So you got to go out there and do it.”