Sharon Jones doesn't sugarcoat her words. "I've been to six funerals [recently]. I've sang at four," she says. The 51-year-old soul singer has seen tough times lately, from her brother's death and her mother's stroke to the loss of many close friends, but she's as resilient a survivor as you're likely to find. "Out of all the bad things, I think the good things still outweigh them."
The good things come after decades of fighting her way through the music industry, all the while being told that she was too dark, too fat, or too old to make it. Or that it just wasn't her time.
Well, now, finally, Sharon Jones' time has arrived. Her voice can be heard everywhere, from TV shows and commercials to Denzel Washington's newest film, The Great Debaters. In the past year, she's toured Australia with Lou Reed, sung with Booker T. and the MGs, and laid down tracks for a new Al Green album produced by the Roots' ?uestlove, who gushed to Jones about what a big fan he is. Part of the reason so many industry heavyweights are finally paying attention after all these years is that she's more marketable than most people ever realized. She's got the natural down-home twang that blue-eyed British soul singers Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse are making millions off of right now. Retro has become contemporary, and Jones is fusing those two worlds better than any other recording artist on the market.
Her band the Dap-Kings, meanwhile, backed Amy Winehouse on tour and contributed both to Winehouse's breakthrough Back to Black album and her producer Mark Ronson's Version. That has brought a lot of new fans to the sterling group of funk-soul pros that the founders of Daptone Records assembled around Jones. "I don't look at it bad," she says of the Winehouse association. "It's great for me and the Dap-Kings."
Such high-profile moonlighting is timed well for the release of 100 Days, 100 Nights, the group's third album together. It may be a slow-burner compared to the blustery R&B of 2002's Dap Dippin' and 2005's Naturally, but Jones' rich, defiant voice rings out as loud and clear as ever over backing that's more timeless than retro. The Dap-Kings actually seek out vintage horns, organs, and recording equipment to bring that timeless sound of the '60s into the present. It's a subtle touch, but it's given all of their work, especially that on 100 Days, 100 Nights, that much more authenticity.
The album's mellowness could be due to a more settled, conventional recording process. "The first one was done in the basement," Jones recalls. "They built a little studio. We had just put that together. I literally helped put in the sockets. I think we were still running wires when we recorded Naturally."
Songwriting on 100 Days was also more of a group effort. Several members of the Dap-Kings contributed, in addition to Bosco Mann (born Gabriel Roth), who wrote much of the first two albums and who co-runs Daptone. The only song not penned by someone associated with the Dap-Kings was the closing "Answer Me," a horn-punched climax that summons Jones' lifelong love of gospel. She grew up singing in church, and as her star power rises to the highest level it's ever been, it's befitting that "Answer Me" helps return the soul diva to her sanctified roots.
"It is gospel," she confirms. "That song is something I sang with my choir in 1980 when it came out. I finally learned to play it on piano. I taught myself." Jones still goes to church when she's home and plays organ and sings for the congregation, just as she did as a kid. "The first time I sang in church, I enjoyed that feeling of people looking. That was it for me. And I knew it was a gift God gave me."
Jones was born in James Brown's hometown of Augusta, Georgia. Despite being shipped off to Brooklyn shortly afterward, she managed to keep a bit of Southern grit in her singing voice. It's easy to assume that she's a reject of Stax Records or that she fought her way through the chitlin circuit of the South, but, in essence, she's New York all the way. Ironically, that's made her 30-year quest to become a recognized soul powerhouse even more challenging.
Accolades and magazine write-ups are happening more frequently for Jones, but she's still no superstar. Her beat-up '88 Honda gave up on her recently, and all she wants in the world is to get her mother out of the projects in Queens. Performing, though, has helped her through life's harder moments. It was just over a decade ago that Jones was virtually shut out of the music industry and working as a prison guard in New York on Rikers Island — one of the most hard-core correctional facilities in the country. After that, she worked as an armored-car guard for Wells Fargo Bank. So it's clear that toughness and moxie are qualities Jones has plenty of.
She recalls getting news of her brother's death just before hitting the stage on New Year's Eve. At that moment, it seemed impossible to go on, she says. But "those tears just seemed to literally evaporate off my face," she continues, when she heard the roar of the crowd. The tour continued as scheduled, about which Jones says there was never any doubt. "How can I go home? I got, like, 17 people out here who need to get paid."
Rigorous touring is yet another thing for which Jones and the Dap-Kings have become famous, along with volcanic performances and that indelible old-school sensibility. But don't call Jones a nostalgia act.
"Maybe it's coming back for others, but I've lived through Motown and segregation and Stax and Otis [Redding] dying," she asserts. "I've lived this part of history, and now I'm singing it. And I'm not pretending anything. I'm not pretending to be anything but Sharon Jones."