Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Dap Queen

Back in 2004, I worked at a music publishing company that had a very impressive roster of writers. An important duo happened to be in the office one afternoon for a visit, and I was ridiculously excited to meet them. Their names were Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, a pair of writers responsible for The Philadelphia Sound, which includes classic soul tracks like “Love Train,” “Don't Leave Me This Way,” and “For the Love of Money,” along with many, many others.

As I shook their hands and gushed about what wonderful music they had bestowed upon the world, Mr. Gamble looked at my t-shirt and said, “Sharon Jones?”

“Oh, I saw her last night," I said. "She's an amazing performer -- a soul singer.”

“Yes,” replied Mr. Huff. “I've heard of Miss Sharon Jones. I've heard she's good.”

In the fall of 2006, I got to tell Sharon Jones the story face to face. “Really? Gamble & Huff heard of me?" She said, clapping her hands at the love. "Well, that's something, ain't it?”

Sharon Jones is definitely something. For the last ten years, she has traveled the world with her backing band, the Dap-Kings, amassing an international following of funk-crazed fans eager to partake in her frenzied soul revues, as well as two critically acclaimed albums. And there doesn't seem to be any stopping the 50-year-old Augusta, Georgia native now.

Sharon Jones is a little woman with a big personality, who gestures, laughs and sings constantly during conversation. Her stories all connect back to singing, and she needs to sing a few lines of some song during conversation to help make a point. Hell, she winds up singing a few lines of something when she's telling jokes. The woman is always singing.

Jones remembers her first performance in a church Christmas pageant, dressed like an angel, complete with wings and halo. “I did ‘Silent Night,' so I guess I knew then. But it's not me, it's a gift,” she adds bluntly. “God has blessed me all these years, and he's continuing to bless me now.”

Her childhood was spent both in Brooklyn and Augusta , and she had plenty of opportunities in both neighborhoods. She spent time singing gospel in choirs, but also performed in local bands playing weddings. In New York, she even landed studio time as a back-up singer. And she got into the funky stuff early, listening to the Supremes and the Temptations, idolizing Patty Labelle and Aretha Franklin.

“My brother used to imitate James Brown all the time,” she laughs. “He'd do the slides and the splits and stuff like that. I was a little tomboy, so everything they tried to do, I'd say, ‘I can do it too!'”

Jones' blossoming showmanship got her band noticed in the early 80's, when they were asked to open for acts like Peaches & Herb and the Four Tops. The band, which included a couple of girls from her church, mainly performed covers of current hits like “Last Dance” or “Push Push (In the Bush).” She was doing studio work as well, but wanted to get a career of her own going. If only everyone else could get with it.

“They told me I was too dark skinned, too short, too fat...” she says. “And then they told me I was too old when I got into my twenties!”

She stopped performing for a while -- and even briefly worked as a prison guard -- until she was approached by a band leader who overheard her singing for friends at a picnic. He asked her to join his group, which played mostly covers at weddings and private events. She stayed with them for 18 years.

“At that time, women didn't really sing in wedding bands, and especially not black women,” says Jones. After some initial concern that the band might not get as many gigs with a black female singer as well as a white one, they decided just to let the talent shine… which it did. It wasn't very long before Sharon Jones was the featured singer, and the band constantly had work.

“We did lots of Whitney… LOTS of Whitney!” Jones adds.

It was towards the end of this period that she was noticed by the Soul Providers, now known as the Dap Kings. The band of young soulsters knew that Sharon 's voice would be a natural fit for their sound, and brought her in to record backup with Lee Fields (aka “Little J.B.”), a soul singer from the 70's who had achieved a cultish fame for his rowdy funk numbers. Her spirited accompaniment prompted the Dap-Kings to give her a couple of covers, including the classic Eddie Bo track, “Hook & Sling,” for a compilation, and it wasn't long until they were immediately picked up by funk DJs all over the country. The retro sound confused people, who had a hard time telling whether the comp was a collection of discovered oldies or new adopters going old-school.

More like a combination of both. Sharon Jones calls herself “the female James Brown,” but she definitely channels the spirit, energy, and natural soul that gets booties shakin'. Her performances are exhaustive events: She dances (shoes off and on, depending) constantly, brings men up onstage to sass them mercilessly, jokes at length between songs, brings enthusiastic audience members up to dance with her, interacts seamlessly with her band of finely dressed young men. Let's just say the show goes on. And on. And she loves it; it's evident in every note, hand-flip and hip-shake. And her audience vibes off her every move, all over the world.

She's currently at work on a follow-up to Naturally, and recently joined Lou Reed as a singer in his Berlin performances done in Sydney earlier this year. And while Jones and the Dap-Kings' catalogue so far mainly music consists of originals and funked-up covers songs like Janet Jackson's “What Have You Done For Me Lately” as well as gritty, mournful tributes, such as her revision of Woody Guthrie's folk classic, “This Land is Your Land. Meanwhile, the originals are classic soul updated for the new millennium. Jones and the Dap-Kings lay down “How Do You Let A Good Man Down” and “Got A Thing On My Mind” that harken back to the moving styles of Lynn Collins or Vicki Anderson, who were incredibly passed by in their time. But Miss Sharon Jones is here now, and she's making the most of it.

“Now that I'm 50, I'm still dark skinned and I'm still short. I think I'm pleasantly plump,” she says with a smirk. “And I'm glad I didn't let that stop me." She smiles. "I don't know how many years I'm gonna have, so I'll keep doing it as long as I can.”

(reprinted from Morphizm, where I drop in from time to time... Photo by Kelly Jo Garner -thanks!)