Photo: Garcia Valle / Courtesy of Motormouth Media

Daptone Records’ Gabriel Roth on Sharon Jones and the Power of Music

A recent compilation of rare covers by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings only highlights what we've long known. Soul music is of a rare and special breed capable of uniting people across many societal lines.

Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Rendition Was In)
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
23 October 2020

When Sharon Jones tapped her feet on stage, singing and shaking in a glitter dress, the dust from everyday life turned into sparkle to let us shine.

Backed by the Dap-Kings, her powerful yet kind voice, energy, and down-to-earth attitude delivered a near-mystic experience that celebrated the joys of life. Not only the joy but also the darkness of existence. Jones never stepped back from showing vulnerability and fears on the scene, like when she paused the music to tell her battle with cancer. “I spent a lot of time wishing she was still with us,” says Dap-Kings bandleader and Daptone Records co-owner Gabriel Roth “thinking about if cancer had not taken her, all the people that could see her on tour, listening to, and enjoying Sharon.”

An experience that is still lingering on whoever participated. Just scroll the #sharonjones on Instagram to feel how much love the fans share for the singer four years after passing. It is not surprising if some even picked a hashtag to honor her memory on Sunday, which resonates with Christians’ spiritual side of life. “She gave so much for so long, now it is on the label and me to make sure she won’t be forgotten, [that] young people learn about her, and her music is still around,” added Roth.

The story of Daptone Records began in 2002 with Sharon’s debut album Dap Dippin’ With…, while, at the time, she was a 46-year-old backup vocalist for soul singer Lee Fields. Her growing success became quickly identified with the label. At the same time, the band recorded in the studio with Daptone’s “House of Soul” artists: the late Charles Bradley, the Budos Band, and Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens — to name a few. In November 2020, Daptone released Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Rendition Was In). The album is a collection of covers made by Sharon Jones & The Dap kings, including five never heard before tracks, ranging from Dusty Springfield’s “Little By Little” to a rousing version of Prince’s “Take Me With U”.

PopMatters spoke to Roth, aka Bosco Mann, while he is in California to talk about Sharon’s power, his work ethic, and protest songs in civil rights movements. It came out a long conversation that unveils the ultimate purpose of music – to unify humans even on the coldest nights of our lives.

Since you are in California, I want to ask about the new studio and record label you founded in Riverside, Penrose Records. Is there the same energy that was in New York when you started Daptone Records?

Penrose is a new label geared to the Southern California scene, a place with a long tradition of soul music. It has been a real renaissance of many great young artists trying to capture some of this energy in the last few years. It is different in many ways, but it reminds me of when we started Daptone Records. Especially the family kind of nature: everybody plays on each other’s records and sees their background. It is very nice.

Penrose released only seven-inch single till now, and I wonder how important it is to collaborate with record collectors and DJs for your label?

That’s an interesting question. How far is it to have a relationship with them? It is important to understand who is buying your records and why as much as you can, but, at the end of it, it is more about making records that you believe in and sound good to you. We have been fortunate; we always had much enthusiasm from DJs that helped us because they influence other people. Some labels do very limited pressings because they are catered to collectors, and their records can go for a lot of money. So they can say, “My record sold for $200,” but we never thought it was a success to make a rare record. We never inflate our prices or potentially run short. The other side of that is you get support from collectors. It is hard to have your cake and eat it too.

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Speaking about the music industry, 2021 will be the 20th anniversary of Daptone records. Your label grew up while the industry changed so much.

Very true. Almost every year, it changes. One thing we have stayed in touch with is that you don’t necessarily need to follow every little trend in the industry. Not just in terms of the styles of music, but even the way people are absorbing it. We have been stuck to a model that allows us to make the records how we want to hear and see them. The kind of records that I would want on my shelf. If people like them, they buy them. And if they don’t, then we’ll sell fewer records. We have survived many twists and turns in the industry that has taken other labels down because we are not a huge label with millions of fans, but ours are very loyal. They like what we do, and we do what we like. We have been very fortunate that so many people have supported us.

Another positive aspect is that you opened up to different music genres. I think about the garage rock band the Mystery Lights, whose albums were released on Daptone subsidiary label Wick Records. Why did you decide to start a rock label?

My partners Neal and Mickey are real enthusiasts of garage rock. That was never my scene growing up, but they wanted to put out some of those records. So, Wick became a home for that sound. I think Daptone is home to a lot of different styles of music. Sometimes from an academic or journalistic point of view, you see these boxes of music: this is soul music, gospel, Latin, or rock, but you always find something common in all our records. It’s soulfulness, raw soulfulness. Something honest and that shows a lack of ego. We are musicians working towards something greater, sacrificing everything to make a record feels good. It that can be a garage rock record, or an Afrobeat, or a gospel one. Even if stylistically those are all different, there is something common about the feelings of our records.

Sharon Jones used to say, “What comes from the heart, reaches the heart.” It was a real nice way of putting it, and that is what I think about the work in the studio. If you put your heart in it and are honest in your music, not pretending to be something you are not, the people will feel it. That is what makes the difference. Trends come and go, particularly in soul music, nobody is doing it, and everybody is doing it. There is a throwback group, a label trying to have a line house thing. Daptone Records has been around before, after, and through that, and never catered to any trends.

In a way, the fact that people talk about Daptone Records as a label dedicated to the ’60s/’70s soul sound, a vintage label, bother you?

I think the way music is categorized often hurts more than it helps. I understand why it is necessary, for example, to create sections in record stores. The music we have done has always been very original, and unlike some people, we have been great about making sure that we are not ripping stuff off. If I had to make an electronic dance record or a Beyoncé sound, that would not be an honest thing for me. At this point, there is so much music to choose from in the world. A hundred years of recorded music from hundreds of countries, each with its different regions and styles. If you look at the top seven songs on the radio and say, “That’s what my music is going to sound like,” to me is a lot more close-minded. I want to look at all the music and say: “Hey man, I’m into Ethiopian music in the ’70s or Cuban big band music from the ’40s.”

Look at all those different genres, and you start to see the influences of Daptone Records, our artists, and musicians. If you minimize it, saying that we are focusing on recreating one sound is a neat thing. We are doing so much more. I don’t want to call them lazy, but look at what is on the radio: What are they exploring? How far are they deeply delving into music? Are they checking out where their influence came from? It’s just one record after numbness, exactly the same. I never have an agenda; I am just trying to make sure that my music feels good.

Last year, Daptone released Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Rendition Was In), a collection of covers made by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. I believe every fan has its favorite covered song, so how difficult was choosing the tracks to put in?

Selecting the tracks was hard. We started with a list of 30 or 40 songs that we put together over the years for different reasons and fought it out. Everybody says, “Oh man, I love this track. This is the best,” while somebody else said, “No, that’s terrible. That’s corny, man.” [laughs] I was excited by the time we finished mastering and getting everything up.

There are a lot of different reasons to put something on the record or not. Whether it is exclusive and people have heard it before, like we did with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”, We did it for a commercial; they wanted to license that song but can’t afford the Motown masters. Or whether it is a song we have rip apart and put back together like Prince’s tune or Janet Jackson’s. We didn’t want to be redundant. We had Rolling Stones covers and similar songs that nobody ever heard before, but they are B-plus.

We can keep a very high quality of music on records, partly by being honest with ourselves and not putting not so great stuff out. The songs in it are the cream of the crop. People ask if we would consider doing a second volume, and I said no. Everything in the second volume would be worse than the first volume. We don’t need quantities in music; it is quality music that the world needs. Particularly when you are trying to protect Sharon’s legacy, you want to be sure that you are releasing all the best stuff.

The album’s digital version also contains one of the most loved covers, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. I read that Kamala Harris and Joe Biden played two songs from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings before their victory speeches. It is a historical moment when people demand musicians to be more explicit about civil rights in their music and lyrics. Do you ever feel the pressure to write more politicized music?

It is such a strange time for musicians now in so many ways, a short-sighted time for everyone. In America, it used to be people from different sides of the political spectrum could have conversations about things and stuff. Now the country is so divided, and it’s hard even to talk. To me, music has always been like everything. Political struggles need soundtracks, and I don’t think they necessarily need to be literal.

For sure, there are important messages and freedom songs. As Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, we have written songs with a message in them. People could even get an instrumental and playing it behind a protest video, and all of a sudden, there is the feeling. People need music when they are sad or happy, when they are protesting, when they are in love and when they break up. Sometimes the feeling that people take from the music is not literally the one you put into it.

It is always exciting when our music ends up with good causes. It happened many times; people come to us for commercials, for specific candidates or causes. We have taken a song like Sharon Jones’s “Tear It Down”, and all the process goes to the National Immigration Law Center. The Sacred Soul and Penrose artists recoded “Give Us Justice” when George Floyd got killed to give money to social causes supporting African Americans. Honestly, I feel like that connection between politics and music is much more subtle and vital. As Sharon said, you put your heart into music, and then people will feel that. When they are creating with their hearts, the music is going to be appropriate.

Sharon herself was such a vital role model. Everyone who saw her on stage could perceive a power beyond any reasoning.

It is a good example of politics and all these things. I think you could sit down and write a very complicated song. It talks about what is wrong with the world and what you do about it. Honestly, I don’t know if that is a stronger statement than seeing somebody like Sharon, a short black American woman gets on stage and delivers that kind of power and love to so many people. It is hard to put into words the way she took over a stage and made people feel. Some artists get up on stage as idols, and they put themselves above everybody in the audience. They want you to be impressed with them as artists.

Sharon was never like that, she hit the stage, and everybody in the room was equal. She tried to lift them and feel like we are all doing this together. Artists often say, “I’m feeling off the energy of the crowd,” but with her was true. If the audience wasn’t engaged, the show just never went anywhere. She heated up from interaction with the audience, and when it happened, she would go nuts. It was like at a Baptist Church, very empowering and joyful.

I remember the Daptone Super Soul Revue show in 2014. At one point, Sharon stopped the band and talked so poignantly about her battle with cancer. It was one of the most powerful sensations I have ever experienced in a gig.

Sharon never faked it; she went through all the emotions for real. Standing behind her, I was always surprised by the things she would share with the audience, her whole thing with cancer. We tried to protect her and keep certain things private, but Sharon wanted to share everything with her fans, no matter how dark and scary. I think that’s where she would get her strength. Man, there were so many times which just felt like she was invincible; it was hard at the end to see her pass.

I saw that Binky Griptite shared the story of how Sharon died on Instagram.

Did he talk about her singing?

No, was Sharon singing?

She was singing; it was crazy. Sharon was battling cancer, and it happened on election night four years ago when the returns started coming in. She was flipping out watching TV, had a stroke, and went to the hospital. Me, Neil and Alex, and some other people met her. Soon she had a few more strokes, and she couldn’t react or talk. Doctor asked her to blink her eyes if she could hear, squeezing his hand, but she couldn’t do anything. The whole band came up there, and we tried to keep it as quiet as it could. It was mostly just the band, and some of the family gathered around her for those last few days.

The craziest thing was that Sharon started kind of moaning. We weren’t sure if she was in pain or something, Binky began playing guitar, and soon the moans became melodies. Over the hours and days, we realized that she was moaning specific gospel. “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, or just her favorite gospel songs. We started singing and playing with her, and she began moving her mouth again and forming words. Within a day or two, she starts singing. I mean, really singing harmonies, improvising, and she didn’t want to stop.

At this point, she hadn’t had any food or anything. She had been cut off from everything because her wish was to just been kept comfortable. The doctor kept saying that she would pass any minute; she still couldn’t acknowledge anybody. She didn’t have the part of her brain that would let her say, “I hear you”, or blanks. We couldn’t have any contact with her, and yet musically, she was there. No, I never saw anything like that. It was the most supernatural, miraculous thing I’d ever seen. It was pretty crazy.

Crazy and beautiful, thank you for sharing it with me. When you played in Rome, it was summer for an outdoor show in the street of San Lorenzo. That district is one of a kind; it was bombed during the Second World War. It has a vivid leftist and popular spirit. You won’t be surprised if you see an old lady going to buy the milk in her pajamas in those streets. Seeing Sharon play and experience her power, there was an explanation of how music can be a universal language of love.

I remember that show well. It seemed to me like something in Europe was strange. The further south we went, the more we liked it, but the further north we went, the more they liked us. [laughs] It seemed easy to make money when we went to North Europe, but nobody wanted to do it. We had always get gigs in Helsinki, Berlin, and everything up there. But, when we came down south to Spain, Italy, and Portugal, the band was the happiest. Those are our favorite places to play, particularly in smaller towns. Strangely, people always ask, “Oh, what’s it like to play in Germany, or Italy, or Australia?” In reality, it’s not about the countries; the size of the town is more important. There is something different about play in a small town in Kansas, France, or Italy.

I don’t want to say that people are more real, but they experience a different attitude. In big cities like New York, London, or LA, every band is there, and everybody sees shows all the time. People are looking at their phones and tweeting about what they saw or thought. In smaller towns, it’s almost like going to a local party or a wedding; there is a more traditional sense of entertainment. People are just excited to be out and listening to music, dance, and celebrate.

Alan Lomax comes to mind. He spent some years in South Europe to record the local traditional music. Lomax was impressed by the rich Italian folk tradition rooted in Mediterranean sound and as diversified as the American one.

That’s amazing; I never heard about that. Kind of like what I said, I feel like there’s something very common. It transcends the way people tend to see music in these straight lines, borders, but these connections are much deeper. We just recorded an album that we’ve been trying to put out, but we had some legal problems. It’s a band from Morocco, North Africa, and they play desert music. The guys are singing partly in Arabic, a guy is playing the sintir, the strange bass instrument, and they are crooning about wandering through the desert.

The sound feels like John Lee Hooker. This is a tradition that goes back to hundreds of years, from slaves being traded in Africa, sometimes it’s a diaspora thing when you listen to sounds from Cuba and West Africa. I believe it’s just a common feeling of inherently human. That is exciting to me and what we are always trying to capture on records.

To wrap up, let’s share some good news. I read that a theater in her hometown Augusta has been renamed after her, the Sharon Jones Amphitheater. Do you plan to do something special when Coronavirus is over to celebrate?

She would have been so proud, and I was thrilled to hear that. I would love to go down there and do a show or at least see the theater. It would be wonderful. It is hard to plan everything right now, but I definitely will do it when all this mess is over.