Sharon Jones may be the most authentic soul-music performer to emerge in decades, but before that, she was in and out of jail — on a daily basis.
Touring on the heels of her latest, 100 Days, 100 Nights, Jones and her backing band, the Dap-Kings (Amy Winehouse's sometime backing band), have been at it now for nearly 12 years. Before the 51-year-old singer's break came in 1996, when she was called for a backing-vocal session by fledgling producers and Desco label founders Phillip Lehman and Bosco "Bass" Mann, Jones was working as a guard at the notorious New York City prison Rikers Island.
That detail, plus her brassy, assertive singing, paints the picture of a hard-as-nails woman you don't wanna mess with. But in conversation, the toughness vanishes.
"They had me with the men," Jones says. "I looked at them and thought, You're mostly young minorities. Your life is being ruined. So at least when you come in here, you should have some kind of respect. You shouldn't be trying to steal from each other and hurt each other. Why do you want to hurt him and take his sneakers, take his manhood? I couldn't understand it, and it saddened me. The inmates told me, 'Miss Jones, you're not going to last in here because you're too nice.'
"They were right," she continues, laughing. "When I left, the inmates were very gracious to me. You first must show respect if you want to get it. I give it, no matter who it is. Those inmates, I didn't turn up my nose at them. I wasn't there to judge them."
Born in 1956 in Augusta, Georgia (James Brown's hometown), Jones was raised in Brooklyn but shuttled back to Augusta every summer as a youth. In Augusta, she sang in a gospel choir, and the back-and-forth between New York and small-town Georgia gave her a wider perspective on the world. Jones' quaint description of the radio formatting of her adolescence — "three stations that played Motown, Stax and the Beatles" — suggests a simpler, more romantic time.
But the tensions of the civil rights era and the real-life heartache and struggle under the surface of later Stax and Motown hits also exist at the core of Jones' sound. She also stresses that her respect for people comes through in her work.
On closer inspection, the underlying vulnerability in her voice does indeed give the music an edge, and the boom in her singing represents a stubborn optimism persisting in the face of world-weariness. But when pressed, Jones can offer little insight as to how the band and its producers capture that old-soul vibe, other than to say, "I don't have to pretend. I've lived it."
To hear her tell it, you either have it or you don't. And, through working with Mann (who founded Daptone Records after Desco's demise) and the Dap-Kings, some of whom were still in their teens when they started, Jones has "learned not to judge a book by its cover."
"The first thing that came out of my mouth when I saw him," she says, recalling her initial impression of the then-21-year-old Mann, "was what does this little white boy know about funk? But as soon as those white boys started playing, my mouth dropped and I was like, OK."
Jones was struck by Mann and the Daptone collective's passionate interest in vintage soul and R&B, their collector's drive to search out rare 45s and spin DJ sets of soul music, and their natural affinity for the music. In fact, as compelling as Jones' story is, the makeup of the band itself — mostly young and white with a sizable Jewish contingent — says more about the enduring universal appeal of soul music and its potential to reach ever wider and younger audiences.
Many modern acts (G. Love, Soulive, etc.) show a reverence for the analog textures and recording styles of bygone eras. But too many of these contemporary groups overshoot the mark and come out with records that sound exaggerated, pumped up. Their hearts are in the right place, but their production values have been spiked with steroids.
Mann, Jones, the Dap-Kings and all involved at Daptone Records simply seek to capture that old feel. The music doesn't exude a concerted effort to sound retro. It just sounds natural.
"The band isn't running around trying to play all this Jay-Z and stuff out here," she says. "We didn't say, Let's try and hip-hop it up and add a little t-t-t-t-t, ba-dum-ba-dum-ba-dum," she says, making blips, beeps, and scratching noises with her voice.
Catching herself, she begins to cackle.
And that's about as good an answer as you're going to get. As her laughter reveals, however, you don't need to think about soul. You just gotta feel it.