Jim Carroll

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Archive: Sharon Jones

A 2008 interview with the soul trooper who died at the weekend

Sharon Jones

Mon, Nov 21, 2016, 08:56

   

Another trooper has left the stage: Sharon Jones’ death was announced on Friday night as pop’s grim reaper kept on trucking in 2016. The 60 year old had been suffering from pancreatic cancer. Anyone who ever came across Jones on a stage won’t forget her in a hurry: she was a firecracker, a performer who gave her all and then some when it came to rocking the stage with The Dap Kings.

I remember seeing her and the band in Barcelona in 2001 and couldn’t get over the fever and fervour of their set. Jones came to fame late in his life – she didn’t release her first album until 1996, when she was 40, after being spotted working as a back-up singer with Lee Fields – but she took her chance with both hands. Singing onstage was better than the variety of day-jobs she held, as she explained in this interview from 2008.

The best thing? The best thing in the whole darn world for Miss Sharon Jones about all this hullabaloo, all these tours and releases and acclaim and acting gigs? The best thing is that singing is now her day job.

Most likely, she won’t ever have to clock in for a shift as a guard at Sing-Sing maximum security prison in upstate New York again or strap on a gun and ride around in a Wells Fargo armoured van. Why, she probably won’t ever have to sing at a wedding again either.

“The last song I remember doing at a wedding”, she says, “was a Jennifer Lopez song, “Waiting Tonight”. That was the last one. I said ‘see ya’ after that.

“I enjoyed doing it, it was a gig. We were the wedding band who had soul. We played old songs, songs that had stood the test of time. But when people started requesting the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, I knew it was time for me to quit the wedding band game.”

By that stage, though, Jones has other things to occupy her time. The soul singer born in Augusta, Georgia who had spent her teen years screaming at James Brown and his soulmen when they played shows round her way every summer was ready for her very own close-up.

Sure, she’d sang in bands for ever (“I’ve sang with more neighbourhood bands than anyone I know”) and spent more than 100 days and 100 nights in recording studios (“I was on loads of albums doing back-up singing, I was on tracks which never saw the light of day”). But when a dude called Gabriel Roth came along and asked her to sing in his band, everything changed.

“I knew from the first time we all stood in a studio that we had something. I knew!”, exclaims Jones. “No-one else was doing what we were doing and it worked.”

What The Dap Kings are doing is quite simple: they play stone-cold classic funk music with Jones as the queenpin of that groove. The music may sound as if it was made four decades earlier, but this is no museum exhibit, as anyone who saw The Dap Kings swing in a live room can testify. This is the real deal.

Dap King band leader Roth has watched their audience grow and grow over the last 10 years. “It’s gone from 10 people at a gig to 100 to 1,000 over a couple of years. It didn’t happen overnight. People come out, check us out, dig it and tell their friends.

“Why? Well, I think it’s just a positive reaction to honest music which has a lot of feeling in it. People love Sharon, they really react to her.

“I’ve never been that in tune or in touch with pop music. When I was a kid, I was hooked on blues and soul records rather than pop. But I don’t make judgments about pop people when they start digging and appreciating our sound. The current ebbs and flows and people react to different things. Right now, there’s probably a backlash against processed sounds so we’re in the right place at the right time.”

Jones, though, is a lot more emphatic about how much the band have always stood out from the crowd. “When we started, there was no-one else doing what we were doing in New York. No-one else was playing funk music like we were and man, it was hard.

“But we moved to Barcelona for a month and we played and played and played over there in a little club. We brought over our first CD and sold it to make money. We had a blast. And after that, we knew what we were doing was right. We were convinced of it.”

Their current album, “100 Days, 100 Nights”, is a good place to check them out. Everything about this, their third release, is bang on the buck. You’ll note that Jones has a voice to stop you in your tracks, a soul belter reminiscent of Marva Whitney, Fontella Bass or Betty LaVette. You’ll snap your fingers to the dusty grooves of the Dap Kings, an ensemble who know just how raw, classic soul should sound. And you’ll most certainly dig those songs, full of love and life and longing and heartache.

It was only a matter of time, then, before some influential folks took a liking to that sound and style. Producer Mark Ronson, for instance, really dug what The Dap Kings were doing. “Their sound is a little bit dirty and it’s a little bit off”, enthuses Ronson, “but I really love the records they make.” He called on them to help with his “Version” album and to back up a singer called Amy Winehouse. The mainstream quickly got hip to what The Dap Kings were doing.

“We were underground and it took Amy and Mark to bring us into the limelight”, insists Jones. “Amy kept talking about me and Mark came over to the Daptone studio to record “Back to Black” there with the band. When Amy was up for six Grammy awards, people kept mentioning us and that’s helped us hugely.”

Roth sees a different advantage to the Ronson and Winehouse buzz. “What they have done for us Stateside is given a lot of our fans in the media the chance to go to their editors and pitch a story on us.

“We’ve had major national coverage here from people who have been fans for ages but have not had an angle to get the story in print or on air. Now, they can say to their editors ‘hey, we’ve got to cover these guys, they’re the ones behind this Winehouse record that has sold a gazillion records’.”

That, too, has a knock-on positive effect for their fans. “They can point to all that coverage and tell their friends that we’re the same band. That kind of communal consciousness has worked really well for us – if people believes you’re famous, well, then you are famous.”

Jones has simply flourished in the limelight. She yaps away about her little ol’ role as Lila in The Great Debaters alongside Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. She remembers with glee getting the call from Lou Reed to appear in the stage production of “Berlin” and asking her manager if he’d more tunes than that “Walk On The Wild Side” song. Yeah, she says, it has been a blast.

“It has helped my self-esteem hugely”, she says. “Like, last year was a bad year for me. Musically, it was great but personally, I had a lot of close friends and family die on me including my brother who had a stroke. I heard that he had died before I was due to go onstage and sing. I couldn’t call it off, I had to do the show.

“So thank God for things like The Great Debaters and Amy and Mark. Yeah, I’d love to be up for an award like a Grammy, thank you, because it means everyone liked it, but that’s not what it is about. I don’t need awards, I know I’m doing the right thing.

“The last 12 years have been amazing. I’ve been in a movie, I get to play all around the world and I’m in loads of magazines and papers. I’ve told the boys in the band that this is the last job I’ve ever do. We’re like Smokey Robinson and Motown – we’re joined at the hip.”