Much has been made of British soul sensation Amy Winehouse employing Sharon Jones' soul-funk band, the Dap-Kings, to create the sound — and success — of her album Back in Black. But “rivalry” is really the wrong word to use for the two singers' relationship. “Ironic” is more like it.
As Jones pursued music sporadically from the mid-1970s through the '90s, she was told more than once that she was “too dark-skinned, too short, too fat, too old.” Apparently, David Byrne was one source of that message. “He was looking for some girls to go on tour with, do some background [singing],” she says. “Everybody was telling me, 'Don't tell them your age,' because all the other girls were in their twenties and I was, like, 37 years old. My voice was great, but he didn't choose me because of my age.”
It's ironic, then, that Winehouse — a skinny young white girl — inadvertently boosted Jones and the Dap-Kings' latest album, 100 Days, 100 Nights, beyond the modest following of retro soul enthusiasts they'd accumulated with their first two releases. “It hit the mainstream thanks to Amy and [producer] Mark Ronson — they got the Dap-Kings out there,” Jones says. “I heard her album went platinum or something like that, so the Dap-Kings are going to get a little [platinum] record. I wasn't on it, but still the Dap-Kings are on it — that's part of me. And the next time it'll be us getting our own platinum record.”
Compared to the band's previous efforts, 100 Days, 100 Nights is mellower, more song-centered, and offers fewer open-ended funk jams. “Tell Me” bears a couple Motown trademarks, including the fluent quarter-note snare-drum strut; bouncing, repetitive bass lines; crisp horns; and vocal call-and-response. “Be Easy” — a song Jones often addresses to young male fans at live shows — evokes the deep, gritty, unhurried grooves of Stax. The title track cruises along as a steady tempo before Jones — interjecting the old “Wait a minute, baby. I need to slow it down just a little” — brings on a swanky half-time breakdown.
Jones and Winehouse are often compared, but their voices bear little resemblance. Jones' bright belting is as compact and dynamic as she is, while Winehouse has a slurred take on R&B girl-group sass. Jones' singing is plenty spirited — so is her showmanship — but her range of expression isn't without limits. Sometimes she doesn't wring as much gusto as she could from a song, as on the melodically monotonous “When the Other Foot Drops, Uncle.”
Still, formerly closed doors are starting to open for this star. “I'm much older than I was then,” Jones says. “I'm still dark-skinned, still short. I'm still pleasantly plump. I don't think nothing has changed, but I just got a little older and wiser. And now the same David Byrne just got in touch with my manager. He wants me to sing some songs for him.”
The undesirable musical opportunities of the past (being asked to “entertain” men when she sang backup with Magic Touch at 18, fending off the J. Lo song requests Jones' wedding band received) have given way to more rewarding ones, such as working with Lou Reed and Booker T. Jones and singing blues and gospel standards for Denzel Washington's forthcoming film The Great Debaters.
When Jones surveys her current situation, her view is sharp and down-to-earth, but not bitter. “One guy asked me, 'If you had a choice, who would you choose to do a duet with, would it be Amy Winehouse or Tina Turner?'” she recalls. “I said, 'Tina Turner — what do you think?' Stupid question. I said, 'Didn't I just tell you that Amy said I inspired her to sing?' Tina inspired me. I want to do a duet with Tina.” There's no irony there — just the wisdom of experience.