Ms. Dynamite

Soul/Funk juggernaut Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings show strength and resilience in the face of adversity

click to enlarge Despite her battle with cancer, Sharon Jones has continued to bring her unbridled energy to stages across the country while on tour with her powerhouse Soul band, The Dap-Kings.
Despite her battle with cancer, Sharon Jones has continued to bring her unbridled energy to stages across the country while on tour with her powerhouse Soul band, The Dap-Kings.

M

uch has changed for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings since the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based retro Soul/Funk band played the (old) Southgate House in Newport, Ky. in 2010. The venue’s ballroom was packed tight, and you could tell this band was on the verge of becoming far more than a club-sized attraction.

Five years on, and the ensemble of younger instrumentalists and Soul enthusiasts fronted by the 59-year-old powerhouse vocalist Jones have indeed become big. The band is co-headlining the Wheels of Summer tour, which stops Friday at Riverbend’s PNC Pavilion, with the bluesy Tedeschi Trucks Band in a Roots-music rave-up of a concert. This comes after Jones and her Dap-Kings received a Grammy nomination in the Best R&B Album category for their 2014 Daptone Records release, Give the People What They Want.



Unfortunately, not all of the changes have been so positive. In 2013, just after the band had recorded Give the People What They Want and were preparing to tour, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Everything was put on hold as she began medical treatments and recovery. 

“I’m going on the road and I’m back strong,” she says, speaking hurriedly and excitedly during a phone interview from the studios of Spotify just before the tour start in May. The Dap-Kings and Tedeschi Trucks Band were preparing to perform a few numbers live for the streaming site; earlier that day they had appeared at SiriusXM’s studios, too.

“But I don’t feel ever cured until I go into the doctors’ offices in two or three or five years and they say, ‘You’re cancer-free,’ ” she says. “I went in just back in December for a CAT scan and they found a tumor on my liver, so in January I had to have another operation. Now I’m waiting in June to go back again for my next CAT scan, and I’m praying they don’t find anything. I’m nervous and scared because I never know if I’ll go in and they say, ‘We see something.’ ”

(As of this story’s writing deadline last week, Jones’ publicist said she had not yet had that appointment but as of now is in total remission.)

Jones’ story is one worthy of a biopic. Born in Augusta, Ga. — also where James Brown was raised — she grew up there and in New York singing Gospel and loving Soul and Funk music. But she was never able to launch much of a solo career and instead took some pretty tough available work, including a job as a corrections officer at New York’s notorious Rikers Island and as an armored-car guard.

But even as the Soul/Funk era seemed to pass after the 1970s, Jones kept performing when she could. In 1996, serving as a back-up singer for another older Soul performer still looking for a breakthrough, Lee Fields, Jones drew the interest of Gabriel Roth, co-owner of a new label, Pure, who was trying to revive interest in classic Soul and Funk. He recorded Jones on a solo track, “Switchblade,” which wound up on an album called Soul Tequila by The Soul Providers, a pre-cursor to what would become the Dap-Kings.

Roth and his partner soon started a new label, Desco, which released several Jones singles. He then started Daptone Records with Neal Sugarman and its first release, 2002’s Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, announced a new talent. So did the live shows, in whcih Jones’ on-stage dynamism and enthusiasm became a touchstone for the retro-loving younger crowds that began to emerge in big cities in the 2000s. Roth, also a member of the band, described in a 2010 CityBeat interview how much inspiration Cincinnati’s King Records provided him. (One of King’s funky acts was Cincinnati-based Beau Dollar & the Dapps.)

In our recent interview, Jones expanded on the King influence, adding that she also loved the late Marva Whitney, a King vocalist, who often toured with James Brown. In the past, Jones has performed Whitney songs in concert.

“The Dap-Kings was all about James Brown and the JBs and that sound. I remember seeing him on stage in Augusta and I told my dad, ‘Dad, he’s floating!’ ” she says, referring to Brown’s magical dance moves. “I know I was young then, because my father died when I was 12. (But) I still got James Brown in me.”

So you might call Jones a real Ms. Dynamite on stage. Despite her health issues, she’s still a physical whirlwind. In that regard, she has surprised and inspired her band.

“The first night I came back (from the cancer-caused hiatus), we were on stage at (New York’s) Beacon Theatre and them guys were saying, ‘Don’t overdue it. Don’t dance. Have a chair to sit down,’ ” she says. “I said, ‘Let me feel it and see what happens.’ But everything worked. Every night I got stronger and stronger.”

In February, Jones and the Dap-Kings recorded a Christmas album for later release (she is especially proud of the Hanukkah song they recorded). And in August, there are plans to do studio work on a new secular album for 2016. The band has tracks left over from the Give the People What They Want sessions as well as some new material.

“We want to do an orchestrated sound,” Jones says of the forthcoming material. “But when you see us do it live, we’d be doing it without that stuff. And then we can bring in an orchestra when we want to perform that way.”

Daptone’s success with Jones has helped create a demand for authentic, seasoned Soul artists that has seen other middle-aged performers like Fields, Charles Bradley and Saun & Starr — Jones’ back-up singers — finally find an audience. (At the same time, the Dap-Kings backed up Amy Winehouse on her 2006 breakthrough album, Back to Black.)

“All of us are older,” Jones says, acknowledging her and some of her peers’ late start. “But I don’t want to be out there by the time I’m 75. I want to be retired, working with kids. Let someone else be out there working hard.”

When that time comes, that person will doubtlessly be taking cues from Jones’ work with the Dap-Kings.


SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS play Riverbend’s PNC Pavilion Friday. Tickets/more info: riverbend.org.



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