Soul music has lost a bit of the spark that fires it with the passing of Sharon Jones.
Jones, who publicly fought pancreatic cancer since her diagnosis in 2013, lost her battle to the disease on November 18. She was 60 years old.
It was reported that Jones was surrounded not only by loved ones, but also her musical family — The Dap Kings — a farewell befitting a queen who reigned as the modern soul and funk ringleader that helped steer the Daptone Records label to its current heights.
Onstage Jones was a fireball, mixing equal parts Vegas showgirl moves with gritty, soulful laments that dug deep into the brownstone foundations of her Bed-Stuy upbringing and years working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island. Laying your eyes on her, you were assured that not only should you not mess with this woman, but that she was a truth teller, a singer with a soulful voice that can only be birthed from experience.
Jones never shied away from her upbringing, her experiences as a woman, or her illness. The documentary Miss Sharon Jones! highlighted how her strength carried her through every peak and valley.
Sharon Jones taught us that with adversity comes regal acceptance, and that the love of music can deliver the purest soul of all.
Goodbye, Miss Sharon — you will be greatly missed.
(Editor’s Note: The following feature was written by Mosi Reeves prior to Sharon Jones passing and was originally published April 27, 2016)
Daptone Records may be the most distinctive imprint in soul music.
The name itself is shorthand for a readily identifiable rhythm & blues stitched together with tightly wound arrangements and raw, wailing vocal tour de forces. Unlike much modern R&B, the Daptone sound doesn’t need guest verses from famous rappers to get noticed — it’s a thing of beauty in and of itself.
Some of Daptone’s releases stand as the best soul music of the past 15 years
“We’re very selective. We only put out a few records a year,” Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth says. He estimates that a year’s slate usually includes two to three albums and six to seven 7” singles. “It’s a very small company.”
Call it the mouse that roared. The label’s modest release schedule stands in stark contrast to its outsized reputation as the leading exponent for retro soul, a term which it has long derided.
There’s a small galaxy of imprints dedicated to deep funk and stoned soul, including Truth & Soul (home to Lee Fields and El Michels Affair) and Adrian Younge’s Linear Labs. Each tends its catalog with care so as not to burn out its audience. But Daptone stands apart.
“When you go to a fine restaurant, you’ve got one chef cooking all the food and trying to make it all just right, you can’t crank it out the same way you can at Burger King, y’know?,” Roth says. “You’ve got to pay attention and get all the details right on each one.”
Some of Daptone’s releases stand as the best soul music of the past 15 years. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings is its leading artist, thanks in part to how often the group’s shimmering popcorn hits like “100 Days, 100 Nights,” “How Long Do I Have to Wait For You” and “This Land Is Your Land,” which have been licensed for commercials and film soundtracks. Charles Bradley’s 2011 debut No Time for Dreaming reverberates as a titanic expression of screams, wails and universal love.
For beginners, Roth suggests the Daptone Gold compilation series, which comprises the label’s “best of the best” like Antibalas’ Afro-Latin jam “Che Che Cole Makossa” and the Budos Band’s sprawling instrumental funk opus “Up from the South.”
It’s curious the long-forgotten 7” vinyl single makes up Daptone’s bread-and-butter. While the format doesn’t hold much currency in the mainstream outside of nostalgia, the label still moves thousands of 45s, many undoubtedly bound for those garage-rock-and-classic-soul DJ parties that you can still find in the deep pockets of major cities worldwide.
For a lot of people, 45s is the main medium of soul music — there are many, many famous groups that never put out albums
Recent 7” successes include Saun & Starr’s “Hot Shot” and the Menahan Street Band’s “Make the Road By Walking.” Coin may rule when it comes to CDs versus vinyl, but Roth says “if you look at what’s the biggest thing as far as the Daptone brand, and our relationship with our fans and stuff, it’s definitely the 45s.
“For a lot of people, 45s is the main medium of soul music. There are many, many famous groups that never put out albums,” he explains. “We’ve always started working with artists introducing them that way because it gives you a little more freedom to explore. You don’t have to invest the same amount of money in promotion and manufacturing.” Bradley, for example, spent nine years dropping 45s before No Time for Dreaming. That’s right — nine years.
Roth is closely associated with the Daptone brand as a co-owner with Neal Sugarman of organ jazz combo the Sugarman 3, a producer (who uses the alias Bosco Mann), and as a bassist and percussionist in The Dap-Kings. He had spent much of the ‘90s running Desco Records, an under-appreciated label that released cult classics like the late Joseph Henry’s “Who’s the King.”
While Roth has been dismissive of the acid jazz craze that blended house and dancefloor grooves with soul jazz chestnuts from the ‘50s and ‘60s — he once called it “bullshit”– it’s clear the trend helped precipitate a newfound appreciation for vintage R&B. Also important was how rap music in the late ‘80s and ‘90s revived classic funk and soul through the art of sampling. By the time Roth split with Desco partner Phillip Lehman (who went on to form Truth & Soul) in 2000 and started Daptone Records, many hip-hop acts had begun transitioning into throwback sounds, like the L.A. band Breakestra, and DJs Cut Chemist and Shadow.
In fact, you can hear a subtle hip-hop aesthetic on Daptone’s work. The sound of its releases, usually engineered by Roth, are often crackly and unpolished like 45s encrusted in scratches and basement dust. The album artwork often alludes to classics from yesteryear: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ Give the People What They Want, for example, has a cover design reminiscent of the Chi-Lites’ (For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People. The vocalists are graduates of the soul-blues scene that still lingers in black communities. Sharon Jones was a corrections officer and part-time backup singer when she came to Desco (and later Daptone) for a Lee Fields recording session. Charles Bradley was a James Brown impersonator known as the “Screaming Eagle of Soul” when he showed up at Roth’s apartment in Brooklyn.
Since forming over a decade ago, Daptone has expanded to include the rustic gospel of the Coco Mamas, the garage-rock of the Mystery Lights (who issued a 7-inch on Daptone’s new imprint Wick Records), and the U.K. blues & soul of James Hunter.
“Every [Daptone] record used to be Neal and I. It was us and our friends in some incarnation,” Roth says. “We were always playing on every record. Now it’s getting to be James Hunter, the Frightnrs, and the Mystery Lights… Things that are being done by outside artists. It definitely broadens it. But it’s still a very tight club.”