The '80s and '90s weren't exactly halcyon decades for soul music, or even R&B in general. It was an era of mushy synthesizers and electronic drums, ear-shattering melisma vocal effects, and dance squads in matching paramilitary uniforms. Proper soul—catchy harmonies with revelatory lyrics, sung in a way that connected emotionally with listeners—was fast becoming a lost art in the rush to feed the great pop machine.
So that's why Sharon Jones was working as a prison guard on Riker's Island. And as an armed security guard for Wells Fargo. And at law-firm print departments. While she has the voice of a classic-era R&B angel—vulnerable enough to lure a hound dog, strong enough to make him think twice about straying—Jones was out of style at the time. There was no record-company appetite for "retro" music. But, thanks to crate-digging DJs in search of rare grooves—and an upstart label co-founded in a Brooklyn row house in 2002 by an R&B purist in his 20s—sweet soul music was about to stage a comeback.
"No, there wasn't a market, we started the market," declares Jones, the star of the Daptone Records label, from her apartment in Queens. "We didn't care about no market. The market didn't want me. Excuse my language, what the hell do I care about what the market wants when it don't want me? So to hell with the market, we start our own thing. Now the market wants us."
And it's true. When bassist/producer Gabriel Roth quit his temp job at Sony Records (after being offered a promotion) and started Daptone, his basic goal was to just make the kind of music he obsesses about: old-school R&B. So he assembled a house band called the Dap-Kings, built his own studio ("House of Soul Studios") and outfitted it with archaic recording equipment, and began churning out vinyl records. Among the singers Roth gathered—including Naomi Shelton, a gospel singer who cleaned houses, and Charles Bradley, a James Brown impersonator—was Jones, whose few singing gigs then included wedding bands and doing back-up vocals. At the time, she was 46, and had grown up listening to the legendary voices of R&B when they were first popular, influencing her own impeccable style—but that combination had previously failed to get the attention of music executives.
"The record labels are looking for teenagers and people in their early 20s—they told me I was too old, I didn't have what they wanted," says Jones. "And then here comes someone starting a label, printing 45s! People thought that 45s were done in the '60s. And that's how it all started. I was still doing the wedding band stuff, but [that was] enough to start singing and performing with them. Once we got the record out [Dap-Dippin' with the Dap-Kings in 2002] and went over to Europe, I had to leave the wedding band because now I had to travel. And we scuffled, believe it or not. We just started progressing in the past six years, just working hard to get established, before people even started hearing about us. Once Daptone met up with Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse, people started, like, ‘Who, wha', huh?'"
It was the Dap-Kings' backing of Winehouse on her 10 million-selling album, Back to Black, that put Daptone on the current pop-culture map. They got the gig because Island Records producer Ronson wanted an authentic R&B sound, and the Dap-Kings were one of the few contemporary bands that could still play it well. That break led to Jones and the band appearing on Letterman, Leno, and Conan; articles in The New York Times and USA Today; performances at festivals like SXSW, Coachella, and Bonnaroo; two consecutive sold-out shows at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem; and even a performance with Prince at Madison Square Garden.
The last few years have been a wild rush of success for a band that sounds like it might have recorded for Stax or Motown 40 years ago. While Roth is now 37 years old, his songwriting and production styles sound older than he is—the Dap-Kings perform a perfect emulation of vintage, horn-driven R&B. But it's a recreation with a true spark of life, contributed by Jones' commanding alto voice and vibrant phrasing. In 2008, she asked Roth for publishing royalties on the Dap-Kings' songs, which he technically wrote. She got them.
But even with her belated fame and fortune, Jones must still plan her escape from the housing projects of Far Rockaway, Queens, where she's been living with her mother since 2000.
"Everyone wants to succeed in life," she says. "You don't get out here and work hard for nothing, you know, and I thought all my life I just wanna have some decent things—a decent home to live in, a place you can invite people and go home and be comfortable. I want to have a house that I can invite people to. I can't invite anyone here, there's nothing to come to here, this nasty place." She'll soon be moving her ailing mother to a house in their hometown of Augusta, Ga.
"I'm planning maybe in another year or two I'll be able to get my place, too," she says.