So Soulful

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings do retro right

The Daptone House of Soul is a squat, two-story brick row house on an anonymous side street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Graffiti mars the entryway, and cars from the auto repair shop next door block the sidewalk in front. Only a small, shiny Daptone Records sticker on the mailbox hints at what lies behind this dilapidated facade: the home base of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and the worldwide headquarters of a surprisingly successful retro-soul movement.

A self-styled heir to Motown, Daptone has watched its fortunes soar in tandem with the growing reputation of Jones, its flagship act. But when Jones met her band, the future Dap-Kings, in 1998, she was an unlikely diva. Born in James Brown's hometown of Augusta, Ga., the singer had lived in New York most of her life, singing at weddings and making ends meet however she could — at one point, working as a prison guard on Rikers Island. She had long given up on being a star. Record labels, she says, told her she was “too black, too fat, too old.”

But then Jones was hired by young bassist and producer Gabe Roth to sing backup on a song by veteran soul singer Lee Fields, “Let's Get a Groove.” At the time, Roth ran Desco Records, a niche label that released fake Afrobeat “reissues” from bands that never were (the Daktaris' Soul Explosion) and “reissued” funk soundtracks to kung fu movies that never existed (The Revenge of Mr. Mopoji). Jones was the only one of three singers to show up that day, so she ended up singing all three parts herself. Impressed, Roth immediately recorded her singing lead on a track called “Switchblade,” backed by the Desco house band, the Soul Providers.

“At first I said, 'What do you white boys know about funk music?'” Jones remembers. “But then I saw how serious they were about it once they started doing it.” Adding a few members and rechristening themselves the Dap-Kings, Jones and the group cut the full-length Dap-Dippin' … with the Dap-Kings in 2001, a record that sounded like James Brown's backing band with a dynamite female soul singer, circa 1968. When Desco folded, Daptone Records was born.

Jones and the Dap-Kings' retro sound received both praise and criticism early on. But the right kind of attention came from producer Mark Ronson, who in 2006 hired the Dap-Kings to provide the backdrop for Amy Winehouse's smash album, Back to Black. When Winehouse later self-destructed in the media glare, Jones and the Dap-Kings used their newly heightened profile to get busy. They toured incessantly, morphing from a group of vintage-funk enthusiasts to a supertight ensemble rivaling their Motown and Stax idols. And Jones showed the world what she always had been — the genuine article, a legendary soul singer who makes the American Idol finalists sound like members of an amateur church choir by comparison. Impressive albums — Naturally in 2005 and 100 Days, 100 Nights in 2007 — only added to her reputation.

The band's latest record, I Learned the Hard Way, is its best yet. It still sounds like it was recorded in 1968 (this is the Daptone universe, after all), but it adds color to a palette that sometimes settled for black and white. “The Game Gets Old” has lush strings, a vibraphone fattens “Give It Back,” and Jones goes doo-wop over just a guitar and handclaps on “Mama Don't Like My Man.” From start to finish, she holds court like a true Queen of Soul, pleading on “I'll Still Be True,” and cutting in on a wandering lover on “Window Shopping.”

“Retro is someone young trying to sound old,” Jones says of the group's oft-used descriptor. “I am old! I don't mind being called retro, but they should just call it soul music, because that's what it is.”

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