Denzel. Oprah. Amy.
The way Sharon Jones tosses around these names, you’d think she’s a big star. Actually, if her connections with Washington, Winfrey and Winehouse work out, the 51-year-old singer finally will be a big star.
Jones is already a cult hero, the old-school R&B singer of choice among the college- and public-radio crowd. Now the masses are starting to notice Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.
The attention began when the Dap-Kings backed Amy Winehouse, pop’s top breakthrough artist of 2007, on disc and in concert. Never mind that the often-loaded Brit singer is a potential train wreck onstage - her CD is brilliant and so is her live band from Brooklyn.
“It put us in the mainstream,” Jones said. “Like I told the woman from Rolling Stone, if it hadn’t been for Amy, you wouldn’t be interviewing me. But I don’t take no backseat to no one. Amy said I inspired her. That’s a good thing.”
The recognition could have a manifold increase next month when Jones makes her film debut with Washington in “The Great Debaters,” about a debate team at a black college in the 1930s. She knows she beat out Shemekia Copeland and possibly Mary J. Blige for the part.
Jones spent five days filming in Marshall, Texas. Because the lighting had to be just right for her scenes at a juke joint, she was on the set from about 4 p.m. `til 6:30 a.m.
“I had two lines,” Jones said proudly from her New York home. They ended up getting trimmed, but her singing scenes are still in the movie, which Washington also directed, and she contributes six period numbers by Bessie Smith and others to the soundtrack, recorded in the legendary Ardent Studio in Memphis.
Jones is part of Washington’s plans to promote the film. And she has her eye on one target.
“I might get to be on Oprah,” the singer said, sounding like a regular viewer. “If you can listen to James Blunt (on Oprah), you’re gonna like me, too.”
Born in James Brown’s hometown of Augusta, Ga., Jones moved to Brooklyn as a child. She sang gospel in church and then fronted local funk bands. Attempts to land a record deal were fruitless, she said, because of her full figure. She sang at weddings and recording sessions while holding down day jobs, including as an armored-truck guard for Wells Fargo Bank and prison guard at Riker’s Island.
At a studio session in 1996, she met bassist/bandleader Gabriel Roth, cofounder of Daptone Records, a fiercely independent R&B label featuring such throwback artists as Lee Fields, Sugarman 3 and the Dak’taris. She and Roth formed the Soul Providers, which in 2000 became the Dap-Kings, an eight-piece, horn-driven band that plays original material in the spirit of vintage soul. The current lineup includes guys in their 20s, 30s and 40s, both black and white.
Daptone looks to James Brown as a model for how to run a business, Jones said.
“We’re still struggling,” said the singer, who hasn’t had a day job since 2000. “But our independent-ness is paying off.”
To promote 2005’s splendid “Naturally” CD, Jones & the Dap-Kings played 267 shows in 14 countries on three continents. Since then, she has toured with Lou Reed in his production of “Berlin” and sang backup on recordings by Rufus Wainwright and They Might Be Giants. The Dap-Kings recorded with Al Green, Robbie Williams and Boyz II Men, toured with Winehouse and played in the house bands for award shows on ESPN and MTV.
“You gotta make money,” Jones said of the outside endeavors.
She has had offers to sing backup for Green, Stevie Wonder and David Byrne. She finds it ironic that the former Talking Head is calling.
“In the 1990s, they was auditioning to go on the road with David Byrne and I was put down because of my age,” she recalled. “Now he’s coming to me.”
But Jones, who moved in with her mother “in the projects in Queens” after her brother died last December, says she doesn’t have time.
“I wanted to get me back to me,” she said.
She and the Dap-Kings just released their third disc, “100 Days 100 Nights,” the first project recorded in their new Daptone studio. They kicked off a tour last month at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater.
`People ask me why there were so many young white people at the Apollo,’ said Jones. “They’ve been around me for the last 12 years. I didn’t see color; I saw a mixture of people.”
With her burgeoning fame, Jones is dreaming beyond “Oprah.” She mentions talks with the Weinsteins, those sibling movie moguls, about appearing on Broadway. She even sees the possibility of collaborating with Winehouse in the recording studio. But for now, she and the Dap-Kings are “starving to do our own thing.”
“This is my last gig,” she declared. “I’m not going to leave Daptone. I’ve got 20 to 25 years to go. I’m just starting to see where I’m going to go.”