The devil vs. Miss Jones

Put your money on Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

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By Lilan Kane

arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC A contemporary throwback, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings sound like they stepped right out of Curtis Mayfield's 1972 soundtrack for Super Fly (Rhino/WEA). Authentic soul music is hard to come by these days, but recording on 8-track reel-to-reel with some of the funkiest live musicians and one of the baddest soul singers on the planet, the group has successfully recreated and updated a late 1960s to early '70s soul sound. In the process, it has captured a devoted fan base, selling out shows worldwide and gigging everywhere from the North Sea Jazz Festival to The Colbert Report. This journey has been no easy task, as made clear by the title of a new album: I Learned The Hard Way (Daptone).

The super soul sister with the magnetic je ne sais quoi has had some strong trailblazers to look to along the way. Asked over the phone who she would most like to perform with, Jones answers without hesitation: "I always wanted to sing with Mr. Brown." Indeed, her favorite memory is meeting the Godfather of Soul in April of 2006. She's also covered his track "I Got The Feelin'." James Brown "changed my life," Jones says. A longtime lover of soul music, she had difficulty finding her place in the industry. Breaking the mold of Disney tween sensations and autotuned pop stars, she faced rejection and prejudice. Music industry image and its underlying injustices allowed record execs and DJs to tell her she was too black. Her response? "Damn right. I'm black and I'm proud."

Brown hasn't just been a key influence for Jones — he also helped inspire the music and the sound of the Dap-Kings. In 1996, the group's bandleader and bassist Gabriel Roth (a.k.a. Bosco Mann) invited Jones to sing backing vocals on a Lee Fields session, an experience that prompted a friendship and musical relationship between the two. An avid Brown fan, Bosco has collected every obscure JB record he could get his hands on since college. Over the years he's brought together some of the best musicians in the New York area to form the Dap- Kings. The band is highly sought after for session work, especially after its contributions to Amy Winehouse's Back To Black (Republic, 2007).

Jones fans know and love her brilliant remake of Janet Jackson's 1986 hit "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" Interviewing Jones, I had to ask who had the genius idea of covering the song. Turns out it was a family affair — Bosco's sister brought the song to the table, and Bosco made a killer arrangement, resulting in one highlight of the 2002 debut, Dap Dippin' with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (Daptone). People can't be blamed for thinking that Jackson had covered a Jones song, and this time-tripping is characteristic of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings' sound. The group's first 45s were undated, and even soul music collectors often were fooled into thinking they had somehow missed them while on crate-digging missions to discover the most underground soul recordings.

I Learned the Hard Way is, of course, soulful. But beyond that, it's socially and politically aware. Jones' favorite track, "She Ain't A Child No More," is about an abusive mother and the painful yet newfound triumph experienced by her grown child. The subject matter is heavy indeed, but the song is written and performed in a way that exudes strength and courage. Another song, "Money," is a clever twist on unrequited love. Recorded five years ago, it has finally made it onto a record — with perfect timing. "Money, where have you gone?" Jones wails. "Money, why don't you like me?" Many people will find themselves singing along, mad that the money has up and left. With 10 other wrenching songs, the whole record packs some serious heat.

SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS