Even Sharon Jones, now widely recognized as the Queen of Funk, spent the majority of her career performing as a wedding singer. It wasn't that she didn't try for more. It was that people in the music industry consistently turned her away. "I was too this and too that," she says from a tour van approaching Texas, speaking quickly for fear that Sprint might turn her cell phone off at any minute. "I was too dark, then I was too short, too fat, too old and I'm older now than I was then."
Jones, who has one of the finest sets of pipes we've heard in ages, has been singing since 1949. And yet, as far as most of her fans are concerned, she's a new act.
That doesn't get the unconventional diva down. "I've been around," she says knowingly. "I guess that's why we're independent. When you got a gift, nobody can hold you down."
When she says we, she's talking about herself and her backing band, the Dap-Kings, the dapper men who follow her around, laying down beats, singing backup, and generally making things funky slathering that soul sound on her audiences, making sure everyone's ready before she arrives onstage. In fact, the band will usually play for nearly half an hour before Jones makes her grand entrance. A recent show saw her introduced by guitar player Binky Griptite as "super soul sister... 110 pounds of soul excitement... a sister so bad, she's badder than bad," after which Jones made an entire first song of asking the people in her crowd if they felt all right. Later, she and the band exchanged high-voltage repartee, the diva yelling "Band!" and her kings answering each time with a quick "What?"
Together, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings create music that sounds straight out of the '70s. On her 2005 album, Naturally, Jones performs an old-school soul duet, "Stranded in Your Love," featuring James Brown acolyte Lee Fields, who knocks on Jones' door after midnight, claiming that his car's been stolen, that the bus isn't running anymore, and that he needs to stay at her place. The begging and pleading recall Otis Redding's "Tramp." And listening to Jones' version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" should make any disaffected patriot downright weep. (The latter is on Naturally but first appeared as the B-side of one of her 45s. The A-side is an election-year anthem of discontent called "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?") Whether denouncing the government, reluctantly cozying up with an old beau, or letting a good man down, Jones does more than just sing. She belts it out from the diaphragm, and she ain't afraid to say Unh!
And she dances, often getting down on her knees several times in a single show and demonstrating her version of the funky chicken. Her audiences made up of hip-hop kids, old-school soul fiends, and emo types (both reformed and current) get down too. Winning the hearts and the feet of the young club-kid demographic has been a point of great pride for Jones and her Kings. Their online gallery, which includes photos from their current tour, features a photo of white kids in plaid, made blurry by their own movements. The caption: "Even the emo college kids were moving and grooving." Last year in Lawrence, Kansas the ultimate college-rock town she boogied with a break dancer and was inspired to shout, while struggling to catch her breath, "You got some dancers out here in Lawrence!" Leave it to Jones to draw them out of hiding.
Rare-funk DJ Josh Powers opened for Jones at that show, and he testifies on Jones' behalf. He confesses that he's not much of a dancer, but he says that when Jones came to town, he couldn't help moving. "It was packed," he recalls. "The entire floor was dancing. She's five-foot-two and a ton of dynamite." Powers enjoyed the show and got to unwind with the band afterward. He had such a good time that he tried to strike a deal with Dap King Griptite, who does a funk and soul radio revue in New York City. "He does fake commercials," Powers says. "It's as if you were listening to a radio show you just happened to pick up in 1953."
Powers, then working at a Kansas area radio station, tried unsuccessfully to convince the station's board to pick up Griptite's show. "They weren't into any of the programming ideas I thought would be really good for the station," he says, "like having a member of Sharon Jones' band do a show."
Well, that's disappointing. But even if a few people in an office somewhere weren't into the idea just like a few people in an office somewhere once thought Sharon Jones was too dark or too fat the footloose crowds at her live shows make a solid argument that the suits have us all wrong.