Sharon Jones was born exactly one month before my mother.
That’s pretty remarkable these days, in a business increasingly obsessed with youth, where only legendary, once-svelte young women, are still allowed to make music at her age. But, with no offense to my darling ma, the energy and zeal seeping from Jones’ every pore and emanating from her every note, belies her age of 55.
Whether cheerfully describing the flavor of her vintage soul music as “collard greens and hot cornbread” or unexpectedly riffing a few lines of the Luther Vandross-penned Aretha Franklin ’80s comeback track, “Jump To It,” she speaks with as much enthusiasm as she brings to the stage.
I talked with Jones as she and her crew, The Dap Kings, traveled to Richmond, Virginia for a performance that night. Typical of on-the-road reception, I couldn’t always hear her the best, which is a major contrast to her thunderous vocals and magnificent stage presence.
Thankfully, my trusty recorder later helped me suss out the details of our conversation, including the fact that Jones was looking forward to playing on the river for her July 16, Playing With Fire (PWF) concert in Omaha. But, after I tell her she would really have been playing in the river, and she asks a few questions about the flooded conditions, she approves the move to Stinson Park’s higher ground.
Jones is extremely confident, as her stunning vocals and fearless delivery suggest. “Come on out and enjoy the show. Hear us and you’ll like us,” she says.
That was certainly the effect at 2010’s South by Southwest Festival, where the act showcased its latest, and still most recent record, I Learned the Hard Way.
Many a conversation had or overheard on Austin’s street corners, in its alleyways and bars, pegged Jones and The Dap Kings as a festival favorite based on fiery, soulful live sets and top-notch musicianship. “She’s the female James Brown,” said one music journalist.
The sound is classic, first-class funk/soul revival with Jones the sultry, badass siren and The Dap Kings the brassy, rhythmic backbone. It’s timeless yet fresh music for a new generation. As if all of your old soul favorites found a fountain of youth.
PWF organizers saw the same appeal when trying to book a banner act for 2011.
“Jeff (Davis, PWF founder) wanted to have a big show this year, and I can’t imagine he could have a bigger one than Sharon Jones,” says Ron Gerard, PWF public relations director.
This year’s PWF is just the one big show, rather than the three- to five-concert, summer-spanning series of years past. After losing an important sponsor, PWF scaled back in 2011. The series is free and runs on sponsorships and freewill donations.
“We need to regroup after this year, gain some sponsorships and see what we can put together for 2012,” says Gerard.
Jones says she and The Dap Kings will regroup this fall to record new music.
“We’re touring now, but coming up we’re working on the next album, in September, October, November, we’ll find some time,” she says.
Jones has been with The Dap Kings more than a decade. They are a crack ensemble that matches her spirit and is also known for backing Amy Winehouse’s Grammy-winning Back to Black and other projects. The formation with Jones started with eight members, but added a conga player and two background singers.
The Soul Providers, an early evolution of The Dap Kings which would start Desco Records, discovered Jones when she sang backup for Lee Fields on a James Brown-inspired collaboration. They were so impressed with her pipes that they recorded two tracks with Jones helming vocals, “Switchblade” and “The Landlord.” The songs landed on the Soul Providers debut, Soul Tequila, first pressed on Pure Records, and later reissued on Desco with only “Switchblade” making the jump.
Desco and Soul Providers splintered in 2000, with Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman eventually launching Daptone Records and, along with a handful of former Soul Providers and new additions, forging The Dap Kings.
“It’s different with us,” Jones says of the songwriting process. “The guys in the band write stuff, they come up with the music, they come up with lyrics, I come in with my ideas and we work it all out together. You know, they’ll get a rhythm going on the bass or the drums, we feel it and fill it in from there. So it’s a different way that we write, compared to some.”
To date, the ensemble has recorded four full-lengths, with 2005’s Naturally beginning to tap into the mainstream, after eliciting a warm reception from listeners inside and outside the genre. Fitting to the retro sound, they record all analog, another peculiarity in this era of auto-tune and other digital trappings.
Jones and crew are also known for eclectic collaborations, ranging from Phish to Michael Buble. I question Jones on upcoming collaborations and at first she can’t think of any – but then she remembers: “Oh yes, we’re playing July 24 with Stevie Wonder at the Hollywood Bowl. And in a few days we’re opening for Prince in Paris.”
I’m hard-pressed to imagine I’d forget a date with Prince or Wonder, but it’s all in a day’s work for the confident, yet down-to-earth Jones.
Her management is contacted regarding a lot of collaborations.
“I go in, see if it works and if it works we keep it,” she says. “I never know what to expect, or if it’s going to work, but if I’m gonna sing something it’s gotta be right, that’s just who I am. If it ain’t right, it ain’t right, and no offense.”
Her classic influences are obvious, and she says she was steeped in them growing up.
“I was born in ’56, so my first experiences [with music] was when all the soul music was all just popping, jumping and being created,” says Jones. “James Brown was coming up with his soul stuff, then you had funk, and different eras of Otis (Redding) and Aretha (Franklin), between Motown and Stax, that’s what I was raised upon so I guess that’s why I do this. That’s my influence.”
“From the ’50s to now, I’ve heard everything that’s come along, from Jackson Five uber-soul to Michael Jackson King of Pop. I’ve watched it all. A lot of the new stuff [doesn’t] excite me, a lot of these singers, they all sound the same. But, you know, it’s all good.”
Jones says she doesn’t see a lot of live music herself, but she recalls one favorite. “At Superfest in New York in the ’80s, I got to see Aretha, Stephanie Mills, Ashford & Simpson, Chaka Khan, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Luther Vandross, he had just written that song for Aretha Franklin, ‘Jump, jump, jump.'” Jones happily sings a few lines, then quickly sobers, “and that was at the time I wasn’t really singing because I’d been told that I didn’t have the look and all that kinda stuff.”
“Yeah, it was one guy from Sony records; told me I was too black, too fat, too short, and once I passed 25, too old.”
I say that she has gone far beyond just proving him wrong.
“Of course, now I’m 55,” Jones says, and pauses for a mischievous giggle. “And I’m still doing this. The main thing is just hanging in there. I felt that God gave me a gift and I hoped that people would accept me for my voice. It all came true. You have to face the challenge, that’s all. It’s just part of the gift.”
She credits “the gift” with her endless onstage energy as well. That energy, along with Tina Turner-style sparkling fringe dresses and James Brown-worthy delivery and dance, are what allowed her to break through.
As if the Godfather of Soul comparison wasn’t already apt, Jones hails from Augusta, Georgia, as did Brown.
“When I was young my father took me to a show and he (Brown) came out onstage and started dancing, and I was just a little girl, and I remember telling my daddy, ‘Look daddy, he’s floating. His feet aren’t touching the floor.’ And that’s the only experience I remember of him from Augusta,” she says.
She would have one last, brief encounter. “In April of 2006 I met him in Italy. And of course, he passed away that year,” Jones says.
Before her gift paid off, Jones worked her way through dead-end jobs. She worked at the hardscrabble Rikers Island jail from 1988 to 1990.
“It was crazy. I had to get a job and make some money. It looked like I wasn’t gonna make it in the singing business. I went in there, I tried it. I actually got injured in a car accident and then they tried to fire me, so I resigned,” she says, again with a wily laugh.
In the ’90s she worked steadily as a wedding singer but never abandoned her dream, tenaciously accepting one small backing vocals gig after another until she met the future Dap Kings. It all eventually coalesced into the luscious flavor of today’s Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings.
“Our music tastes like good, home-cooked collard greens. And hot cornbread,” says a characteristically excited Jones. “She said ‘Mmm-mmm-mmm,'” she playfully tells her tour mate of my reaction, with that infectious, sly laugh once more trailing off.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings perform Saturday, July 16, at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village, 67th and Center. BluesEd band Crimson Dawn, Malford Milligan and The Brad Cordle Band open the FREE Playing With Fire concert. Free will donations support the PWF series and Food Bank of the Heartland. Gates open at 4 p.m., first act goes on at 4:30 p.m. For details, visit playingwithfireomaha.net