It’s Good to Be Kings

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings draw influence from music created in the Queen City

May 10, 2010 at 2:06 pm

In a feature in The New York Times Magazine, Gabriel Roth — co-owner of Daptone Records and creator, songwriter, arranger and bassist (under the name Bosco Mann) for the increasingly successful retro-Soul/Funk band Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings — recalled the great music he listened to in college. That was in the early 1990s; he’s now in his mid-30s.

It was James Brown’s work for Cincinnati’s King Records that Roth especially liked, and he had a specific fondness for Brown’s Gettin’ Down to It, a 1969 album he recorded with (as Roth told writer Saki Knafo) “these white Jazz guys — but it was actually a cool record.” Though it wasn’t mentioned, those “white Jazz guys” he was praising were the Dee Felice Trio, a popular Cincinnati-area acoustic Jazz group of the day that featured the late Felice on drums.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings play the Southgate House Monday and also headline the Nelsonville Music Festival (at Hocking College in southeast Ohio) on Saturday night. The nine-piece band, complete with horn section, is touring in support of their fourth album, the new I Learned the Hard Way, which Roth produced. Their last album (2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights) has sold more than 150,000 copies, an astonishing amount for an indie band with an updated retro sound whose records are issued by their own independently distributed label.

During a recent phone conversation with Roth, as he and the band’s other members waited for a flight back to the U.S. from a European tour, I mentioned that Brown’s records were recorded in Cincinnati. Roth, who grew up in Southern California and now is Brooklyn-based after attending NYU, was way ahead of me. He's a Soul-music connoisseur par excellence.

“There were a lot of great musicians in Cincinnati,” he says. “The Collins brothers (Bootsy and Catfish) were there. And even before (them), a lot of great records were being made at King studios.”

Brown’s music of the late 1960s, as he moved from the more traditionally structured hooks of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat” to the tightly syncopated and even funkier music of “Say It Loud,” “Mother Popcorn” and “Hot Pants,” fascinates Roth. He’s so into that era of Brown he even loves the anomalies, like Gettin’ Down to It with its jazzy versions of songs like “Strangers in the Night,” “That’s Life” and “Sunny” (with Marva Whitney).

“Partly I like the novelty of (Getting’ Down) because it was a real different sound for him,” Roth says. “Once you’re really deep into James Brown stuff, hearing all those strange versions of songs is a real treat.”

Roth is even hip to a rare and highly collectible Soul Jazz album that Brown produced for Felice, 1969’s In Heat on Bethlehem Records. And he’s into an even greater Felice obscurity from the same period.

“There’s also another album they did at same time with Marva Whitney that was never released,” he says. (That album, a collection of Jazz standards called I Sing Soul, was recorded for King but shelved.)

With this kind of interest in deep-catalogue Soul and its various permutations, it’s no wonder Roth chose the career path he followed. It’s been a difficult one to get to the point he’s at now. By the mid-1990s, he was producing Neo Soul/Funk tunes, sometimes featuring performers old enough to have been around during the music’s 1970s-era heyday. One of them was the diminutive, now-53-year-old Jones, who — like James Brown — had been born in Augusta, Ga., and loved music. By the 1990s, she had worked as a corrections officer in New York to support herself. Roth first used her as a back-up singer but immediately saw her potential.

“It didn’t take that much insight to see that,” Roth says. “Her personality and voice speak for itself. Right on that first session, she actually sang lead on a couple songs written for other people.”

After a false start trying to run another label, Roth with Neil Sugarman — a saxophonist with the Dap-Kings — started Daptone in 2002. It released as its first album Dap-Dippin’ with the Dap-Kings, and it’s been straight ahead since then. Jones has become a star, a result of the band’s many TV and festival appearances. And the Dap-Kings have grown very, very close.

“We’re a real family,” Roth says. “It’s something very natural. We’ve been playing together a long time — we play together like a family, work together like a family.”

The group’s funky sound has also become influential in pop music, a result not just of its own music but also of backing Amy Winehouse on her Grammy-winning Back to Black album. A key to the authenticity of the Dap-Kings’ music, Roth says, comes from recording in analog. While the band does sometimes use overdubs of Jones’ vocals for its finished tracks, it basically plays live — with Jones singing — in the studio.

“The technical aspect is secondary to the approach,” Roth says. “By recording that way, it changes the process of making records. The people going to the studio have to play right. The arrangements have to be right. Everybody has to be paying attention, as opposed to modern records where they kind of reassemble the record later in the computer. I don’t think the sound of tape is so superior to digital, but I do think this approach is essential."

SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS play the Southgate House Monday with The Heavy. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.