By Ashley Zimmerman
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Everyone loves a genre revival. From garage rock to folk music, '60s surf guitar, and '80s synth-driven pop, new stuff that sounds old has been one of independent music's most dominant trends over the past decade. And right now, Sharon Jones is the charismatic songstress at the forefront of a full-on soul resurgence.
Helping to revitalize the late-1960s Motown sound and heavy '70s funk, Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, combine Aretha-like vocals with James Brown-style swagger, delivering each and every nostalgically intoxicating note with unbridled passion while wildly gyrating across the stage. Yet for all her recent success and the sheer, undeniable force of her performances, Jones' path to indie-soul stardom has been a long, hard road.
Born in the Godfather of Soul's hometown of Augusta, Georgia, Jones is the youngest of six children — three boys and three girls. At age 3, she moved to New York with her mother and siblings after her parents separated. Growing up, though, young Sharon spent summers visiting her father in the South, singing at church, and taking part in local talent shows.
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The girl was talented. But industry scouts didn't seem to notice. In her 20s, she found it nearly impossible to break into the music business. "Record labels were choosing people with a certain look," she said in a 2010 interview with the Daily Comet, a newspaper in Thibodaux, Louisiana. "They told me I was too dark, too fat, too black. Then I turned 25, and I was too old."
Determined to keep singing, Jones continued to perform at church and the occasional wedding while holding down day jobs to pay the rent. She served for two years as a corrections officer at Rikers Island in New York and even worked as a guard on an armored Wells Fargo vehicle.
"I thought, let me get a good city job," Jones told New Times in a recent phone interview. "I took the police test, the court officer test. I took the sanitation test — one of the first women in 80-something years to do that. I took those jobs because no record labels wanted to sign me."
But then in 1996, at a studio session with North Carolina funk man Lee Fields, Dap-Kings cofounder Gabriel "Bosco Mann" Roth discovered the then-40-year-old singer. He was producing an album for Fields, and Jones was providing backup vocals. Within weeks, the pair built a working relationship. And by 2000, Roth had launched Daptone Records as the home of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, eventually releasing the band's debut, Dap Dippin', in 2002.
Fast-forward to the present and many still consider Jones a relative newcomer to the music scene, even though last year's album, I Learned the Hard Way, was her fourth full-length with the Dap-Kings. "We've been out here now like 17 years," she says. "I know the deal."
Again, Jones is talking about the inner workings of the music industry. The game that prevented her from breaking into the biz for being too fat and too black. The same game the entertainment industry exploits on television with reality talent shows like American Idol and The X Factor. "I never did appreciate a talent show too much," she says. "Everything is to make money. It's all business."
And while Jones will agree that sometimes reality shows do provide good exposure for talented individuals, a lot of programs "have a certain code," she says, that often prevents gifted artists from advancing. "Look at Jennifer Hudson," Jones says with a playful laugh. She was a contestant on season three of American Idol. But as Jones points out: "She didn't even make it to the finals." Hudson was eliminated, finishing seventh before going on to win an Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls and a Grammy for her self-titled debut album.
And there's another question: What's a Grammy really worth? The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are a hit-or-miss bunch and have yet to recognize Jones' work.
In a society plagued by homogenous bubblegum pop and short-lived radio trends, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have spent the better part of a decade under the radar, releasing remarkable albums, playing sold-out shows for thousands throughout the world, and quietly enjoying the spotlight sans industry accolades.
When the Grammy committee announced its 2011 nominees in December, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings were left off the list yet again. Instead, the cast of Glee and Katy Perry earned nods for their musical contributions, as did Justin Bieber, the prepubescent pop star who somehow managed to con voters into nominating him just two years after a YouTube video gone viral inexplicably catapulted him to superstardom.
"Who's Bieber?" Jones quips. "[The Grammys] don't mean anything. Everything is the same. Everyone's doing the same dance." However, Jones admits that recognition from her industry peers would be nice. "We're gradually working toward [a Grammy]," she says with a touch of cynicism. "I just figure Daptones can stay independent but recognized."
And yet despite the fact that the record industry continues to deny her, Jones' life has changed for the better in so many ways. She no longer needs to work a day job. Finally, after decades of striving, notice and critical success are starting to ease the singer's financial woes. On May 4, Jones will turn 55 years old, and for the first time in her life, she can celebrate her birthday at her own home ("with my moms") and not in the projects of Queens, New York.