NEW YORK — It’s a romance-novel cliche to say someone lights up the room, but there’s no other way to describe the wattage Sharon Jones emanated strutting across the Apollo Theater stage in a bright purple frill-covered dress last month.
A dynamic singer who’s compared to James Brown more often than anyone since Prince — and who stands equal to Prince’s 5 feet — Jones seemed to feed off the Apollo’s history like a lion on a steak. The Harlem landmark is, of course, where Brown made his seminal “Live at the Apollo.” Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were also tied to the Harlem landmark early on. It’s the kind of fabled venue where performers give it their all and leave everything behind.
I Learned the Hard Way
(Daptone; US: 6 Apr 2010; UK: Import)
At 54, Jones has shed quite a past. She has been a prison guard, dental assistant, Macy’s clerk and wedding singer. She was doing the latter work in 1996 when she unexpectedly came across a group of young white hipster musicians with an affinity for old soul music. They called themselves the Dap-Kings and operated their own studio/ label out of Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, and they were literally the answer to Jones’ prayers.
Fourteen years later, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have issued four progressively better albums, topped off by the new and meaningfully titled “I Learned the Hard Way.”
Nothing on record can match their magic on stage, though.
I’ve never seen a performer go for broke the way Jones did at the Apollo. She shimmied and shook nonstop and gregariously played to the crowd without losing any of the rib-vibrating power in her voice. Catching up with Jones by phone two weeks after the Apollo, she offered insight into the elements that have turned her and the Dap-Kings into the best American live band of the moment. And she didn’t “aw shucks” or suggest otherwise when I told her the band deserves that title, by the way.
No. 1: Mean it. On stage, Jones physically exudes and embodies the soul in her band’s emotional soul music, especially in the hard-knock songs from the new album. During the sweltering “She Ain’t a Child No More,” she kicked the air and stomped the stage. During “Mama Don’t Like My Man,” she swooned and welled up like a lost girl. Jones explained afterward, “Those guys write the songs, but I feel like they write them for me. The songs run deep.”
No. 2: Your body is not a cage. Jones opened up to the Apollo crowd about her attempts to become a star sooner: “People said, ‘But she ain’t skinny enough. She ain’t tall enough. She ain’t light-skinned enough. She ain’t young enough.’ These young men didn’t care.” In the interview, she added, “I’m where I am now because God has blessed me. So I don’t need to spend any energy on telling anybody, ‘I told you so,’ because they can see me now.”
Indeed, anyone can see Jones’ star power on stage. The sheer physicality of her performances defies her age and stocky build. While it’s tempting to credit her years as a prison guard for her indefatigable style, Jones said, “Nah, they mostly teach you how to shoot a gun, which fortunately I never had to use.” Instead, she said the Dap-Kings offer all the workout she needs: “We’ve been together a long time, but we still look forward to getting on that stage. It’s like once me and the band connect up there, it’s a whole other world.”
No. 3: Size does matter, musically. Aside from Jones’ stature, everything else about the Dap-Kings looms large on stage. The sheer size of the band seems to be a factor, with nine members and sometimes extra orchestral players (Jones humorously didn’t know how to refer to the timpani player at the Apollo). The girth of their instruments seems to be a factor, too, with two of the key pieces being Binky Griptite’s boat-sized guitar and Ian Hendrickson-Smith’s hefty, billowing baritone sax, and even the rope-thick amp cord used by bassist/bandleader Bosco Mann (Gabriel Roth).
“I feel every instrument when I’m up there, like rocket fuel,” Jones said.
No. 4: Have a shared mission. The Dap-Kings’ common goal is to bring ‘60s-‘70s soul music into modern music circles, and doing so independently to maintain creative control. Said Jones, “In Bushwick, at the studio, is where the connection happened. I grew up with a lot of the classic stuff that these guys were nuts for and collecting. They’re crazy collectors of 45s and albums. So when I started with them, it was, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this song.’
“We take a lot of pride in what we’ve accomplished. We like seeing younger people trying to start their own label and be independent and do R&B and soul. We’re digging up some history here and moving into the future.”
No. 5: Be topical and timeless. One of the highlights of the Apollo set was the explosive new blowout “Money,” during which Jones offered up the timely dedication to “all the people who are losing their jobs, and their homes.” Surprisingly, the song had actually been hanging around Daptones Studio since well before the economic crisis.
“Believe it or not, we wrote ‘Money’ five years ago,” Jones said. “We changed it up quite a bit, with more of an orchestra background. We went for it and made it sound great in the end. And it wound up fitting in perfect right now.”
No. 6: Make James Brown your godfather. Jones grew up in Augusta, Ga., same as Brown, and his electrifying presence was practically in-bred in her. She said she only realized a few years ago exactly how much debt she owes him when she met Brown’s longtime drummer, John (Jabo) Starks: “It was somewhere in Europe, and Jabo sat and watched our whole show. He looked at me afterward and said, ‘Wow, watching you is like watching James Brown with a dress on.’ That was pretty cool to hear.”
No. 7: A killer dress helps, too. “Do y’all like my dress?” Jones asked the Apollo crowd, rhetorically, in a tone that was equal parts Carrie Bradshaw and Tina Turner. It was a total Tina-style mini-dress with bright shades of purple and frills galore, which shook to the music like a thousand miniature maracas. Afterward, Jones said, “I told (my designers) to keep bringing me the frills, because when you wear frills you gotta open up a little bit and shake it.”
No. 8: Be grateful. “It’s probably a good thing I didn’t break through (at a younger age) because I probably would’ve got with a major label and been doing some pop stuff, and I wouldn’t have lasted long,” she said. “My head is not big, and never will be. I’ve been out here too long to get stupid.”