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Published: 2008/01/23
by Mike Greenhaus

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: A Late Blooming of Soul

Sharon Jones is preparing to get her hair done when she picks up the phone. She drives an ’88 Honda and laughs a lot while we talk. By all accounts she’s more of regular woman’ than a soul diva,’ as she’s been routinely labeled, and is rightful amused by the recent attention she’s received from both the mainstream media and hipster indie-press since releasing 2005’s Naturally and its highly-anticipated 2007 follow-up, 100 Days,100 Nights. She’s also probably the only person to play Coachella, Jam Cruise, Langerado and jam with both Lou Reed and MOFRO’s J.J. Grey (not to mention share a band with Amy Winehouse). But, as the now fifty-something singer is quick to point out, she wasn’t always so universally accepted.

In many ways, the story of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings is really the story of Gabriel Roth, the forward thinking, composer, producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist who co-founded Daptone Records. In the mid-1990s, Roth made his name throughout the downtown New York and Brooklyn music scenes as the visionary behind the now defunct Desco label, at the time one of the few outlets for underground soul and world music. For a while he lived on the outskirts of Brooklyn with Antibalas leader Martin Perna and the members of TV on the Radio, establishing a fraternal bond that exists to this day.

“It was a great time to be in Brooklyn, before things [got really] gentrified,” Perna says. “We all lived in this loft and bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs lived right around the corner.”

Though he played with Antibalas at some early gigs, Roth’s true calling was behind the scenes and, despite being a white Jew in his 20s, the multi-instrumentalist earned the respect of musicians across both racial and stylistic lines. One early supporter was Lee Fields, an African-American funk singer who initially made waves in the 1970s, before falling into relative obscurity. Roth signed Fields to Desco and, based on a tip from one of his session musicians, brought in Sharon Jones to sing backup on a recording.

According to legend, at the time Jones was working as a corrections officer at Rikers and offered Fields and Desco an “impromptu prison rap,” which was originally envisioned for a male singer.

“At first I thought, what do you know about funk,” Jones laughs years later. “But Gabe had faith in me. Everyone else told me I was too old and didn’t have the look. I was too fat and too black. But he really believed.”

Unlike Roth, who came of age in California in the 1980s/90s and fined tuned his craft at NYU, Jones was born in Augusta, GA in 1956 and eventually moved to New York where she played in a variety of church and wedding bands. At one point, she even unsuccessfully auditioned for David Byrne’s solo group.

"Just because I never had an album doesn’t mean I gave up on music,” Jones cautions. “I had the wedding band and the church. Not everyone can have an album, but I recorded these dance hall tracks which I guess they are trying to sell now [laughter]. I guess everyone has to make a living”

The next few years were lean times for Desco, but Roth continued to cut records and singles with a revolving cast that included Fields and Jones as part of the Desco Super Soul Revue. Fashioning Desco something of a modern day Motown, Roth established a house band he dubbed the Soul Providers, playing bass under the name Bosco Mann. Around the same time, Antibalas began to make waves on the afro-beat, avant-garde and jam scenes, hosting residencies at fabled clubs like Wetlands and S.O.B’s and collaborating with world-music icons ranging from Femi Kuti to Burning Spear (the latter of which took place at the 2005 Jammy Awards). But, by 2000, both international business problems and internal artistic differences began to weigh on Desco and the label soon folded.

Roth and Jones soldiered on, refashioning the Soul Providers as Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and settling on a lineup that included Perna, Roth, guitarist Binky Griptite, tenor saxophonist Leon Michels, drummer Homer Funkyfoot’ Steinweiss, percussionist Fernando Boogaloo’ Velez, trumpeter Anda Goodfoot’ Szilagyi and saxophonist Neal Sugarman, who had recorded for Desco as part of the Sugarman 3. Along with Sugarman, Roth also re-envisioned Desco as Daptone records, with the Dap-Kings serving as a lynchpin tying together the label’s numerous soul, funk and world projects. The group began to gig out and, shortly before heading to Barcelona for a summer residency in 2002, recorded a handful of tracks at Antibalas’ frontman Amayo’s Brooklyn studio.

Almost as important, Roth and Sugarman established residency at an old flat on the Bushwick outskirts of Brooklyn’s indie-rock incubator, creating a multi-purpose office/rehearsal/recording space that allowed Daptone near free reign over its artistic endeavors. By the time the studio was profiled on MTV in 2007, it had served as the homsebase for a full revue of intertwined artists, including Antibalas, The Mighty Imperials, The Budos Band, Charles Bradley, Naomi Davis & the Gospel Queens, the Bushwick Philharmonic and, of course, the Dap-Kings.

The Dap-Kings were temporarily derailed again in 2003 when Roth was seriously injured in a car accident while nearing the final stages of production on Sharon Jones & the Dap-King’s second album, Naturally. The accident delayed the project a number of months and forced Roth to sport the dark shades that are now his signature article of clothing. But Naturally spread virally and the group began to turn heads thanks to catchy, soulful numbers like “How Do I Let A Good Man Down?” and “How Long Do I Have To Wait For You?.” The group’s ties to the New York music scene and session man edict also landed Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings on bills with groups like MMW and, of course, members of the extended Antibalas family. (“Gabe was like my Barry Gordy and I hope that I’m his Gladys Knight,” Jones often says).

The Dap-Kings earned a grassroots following, particularly in culturally prominent urban pocket and, even, headlined marquee rooms like New York’s Irving Plaza. Through word of mouth connections, Jones also became an in-demand session musician, scoring her youngest fans when she appeared on the Ropeadope-affiliated kids’ album Baby Loves Jazz along with Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein and other members of the experimental jazz world. A number of lineup changes also ensued, as members began to work on their own projects or devote time to emerging Daptone outfits like Budos Band, and the group’s touring lineup ballooned to include adjunct players like saxophonist Cochemea “Cheme” Gastelum (who is perhaps best known for his work with Robert Walter’s 20th Congress and his now-regular slot in the abovementioned Budos Band). As of press time, the Dap-Kings’ permanent lineup is Jones, Roth, Sugarman, Homer Steinweiss (Drums), Binky Griptite (Guitar), Bugaloo Velez (Congas), Dave Guy (Trumpet), Tommy ‘TNT’ Brenneck (Guitar) and Ian Hendrickson-Smith (Baritone).

But the group’s real break came after uber-hip New York producer Mark Ronson, the man responsible for hits by Robbie Williams and Lily Allen, hired the Dap-Kings to appear on Amy Winehouse’s 2006 album, Back To Black. The group contributed to much of the disc, including singles like “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good,” and the tabloid-worthy celebrity later took the Dap-Kings out on the road as her backing band. Winehouse’s notoriety coupled with a wave of revived national interest on late blooming soul sensations like Bettye LaVette was enough to attract attention to the group in late-2006.

"I told them they have to keep working,” Jones says of her band. “They should never turn down work.”

2007 was a banner year for Jones. In addition to a world tour with the Dap-Kings, she scored a role in the feature film The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, where she sings "That’s What My Baby Likes." “I recently got some bad news that my part was cut,” Jones admits. “But at least Oprah got to see it and liked it [laughter].” She appeared in Lou Reed’s Berlin project and scored some notoriety, when she pulled out a few days before the next leg of his tour. “He was upset but he got over it,” she says frankly. Last summer, she also scored the chance to perform with several of her heroes, recording with Al Green and playing a tribute to the Stax record label with Booker T and the M.G.s. “We didn’t even rehearse. They just told me the key and we did (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’.”

In the midst of all this, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings cemented their reputation as the definitive modern soul act by releasing the heavily R&B-influenced 100 Days, 100 Nights in September and celebrating with a sold-out an all-star show at Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theater, which featured appearances by members of Antibalas and Fields. “He joined us James Brown medley,” she says. “To Play the Apollo, now that’s something.”

2008 is shaping up to be an even busier year for the Daptone family. In addition, to another world tour, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings recently played Jam Cruise, where Jones performed alongside George Porter Jr. in the Jam Room, and will cement their hipster cred with an appearance at Coachella this April. Assuming Winehouse is sober and granted her visa, the Dap-Kings are also scheduled to back the singer at the Grammy Awards this winter. Meanwhile, Daptone acts like The Budos Band are forging their own paths, while both Antibalas and TV on the Radio had banner years in 2007. Indeed, Jones has many reasons to smile, not even counting her upcoming haircut.

“It’s funny, David Byrne recently asked me to record with him,” Jones says with a laugh. “When I was in my 30s, he said I was too old and now that I’m in my 50s I’m suddenly young enough.”

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