Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: Save the Last Dance for Me
Sharon Jones refused to put much thought into retirement. Even as The Dap-Kings frontwoman reached age 60 and battled pancreatic cancer, the power-house soul singer never lost her exuberance and drive. Up until the time when it simply became impossible to carry on—she passed away on Nov. 18, 2016—Jones had only one way to get through the pain and sickness: Keep looking forward, keep singing. The title of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ Grammy-nominated 2014 album was Give the People What They Want, and that’s exactly what she and her band intended to do.
“She had this will to sing, to connect to people,” says Gabe “Bosco Mann” Roth, who serves as The Dap-Kings’ bassist, producer, bandleader and chief songwriter. (He’s also the co-founder of Daptone Records, the group’s Brooklyn-based label.) “Vocally, she got stronger and stronger her whole life, even the last few months. We were always completely blown away by that. Physically, she was a strong person. I would not want to get into a boxing match with Sharon Jones. But, mostly, it was emotionally intense.”
That intensity permeates Soul of a Woman, the seventh studio album by the singer and her longtime band, whose final lineup consisted of Roth, guitarists Joey Crispiano and Binky Griptite, drummer Homer Steinweiss, tenor saxophonist and Daptone co-founder Neal Sugarman, baritone saxophonist and Robert Walter’s 20th Congress vet Cochemea “Cheme” Gastelum, percussionist Fernando “Bugaloo” Velez and trumpeter Dave Guy, who also plays with The Roots as part of The Tonight Show’s house band.
Released almost exactly a year after Jones’ death, Soul of a Woman, which features all eight Dap-Kings and a slew of extended Daptone family members, is the final curtain call that the singer never wanted to take. But, when recording commenced, there wasn’t a sense among Jones and the band that it might be their last release.
“It was never like we sat down and said, ‘Let’s make our last album,’” says Roth. “We didn’t wait until the last minute and say, ‘Well, Sharon, you’re gonna die, so let’s record.’ That’s just what we do—when we’re out on the road, we’re always working on the next record. If you just wait until you’re done touring behind a record and then start recording, you’ll put out a record every five years. It wasn’t that intense [in the studio]—when the band was hanging out, it was always fun and relaxed.”
“Even though she was sick, we all thought she could beat anything,” says Gastelum. “We thought, ‘OK, she’s gonna kick its ass and then we’ll get back on the road.’ That’s certainly what she thought. We were never grim. She was a fighter, through and through. We didn’t really have it in mind that things were changing. Everyone was excited to make a new record and we all worked together on it with Sharon. We wanted to finish it and get it out there. Everyone was writing, and we had been playing a couple of the tunes on the road. That was really the vibe—to make the best record we could.”
The band members all learned of Jones’ illness shortly after she’d experienced pains in her back and side. “Then her eyes started looking yellow,” Roth explains, noting that Jones went to the doctor soon after and was diagnosed with cancer. “It was shocking to all of us. Sharon had been with us for a long time and we were really close; we were family.”
“It was heartbreaking,” adds Gastelum. “I didn’t really want to accept it. But she actually got stronger during the last few years of touring, and she was singing differently from night to night, really stretching out in ways I hadn’t heard before.”
“Standing in front of an audience, she would kind of explode; it was electric,” adds Roth. “She was singing so beautifully. Not just loud— even the ballads, the tender stuff—she had such control and there was so much emotional content to everything she was doing. And so much rhythm—she had such amazing rhythm! She would bring these songs to life and really push the band.”
Sharon Jones’ death marked the end of a remarkable, albeit late-blooming career: Although she’d sung all her life, Jones’ ascent as a star of the soul revival movement didn’t begin until 1996, when at age 40, she connected with Roth.
Born Sharon Lafaye Jones on May 4, 1956, in Augusta, Ga., she lived in North Augusta, S.C., before moving to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn as a young child. Like so many other R&B greats, she began singing publicly in church and later found work as a background singer and as part of wedding bands, while earning her living as a corrections officer at the notorious Rikers Island prison and as an armored car guard with Wells Fargo. Jones was singing on a session with R&B artist Lee Fields when Roth and his friend, musician and graffiti artist Phillip Lehman, heard her.
Longish story short, the Brooklyn-based entrepreneurs launched another label, Desco Records; then, after forming The Dap-Kings, Roth and Sugarman started Daptone in 2001. The following year, Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings became the first full-length release from Daptone, as well as Jones’ debut. The LP received mostly positive reviews, and critics praised the band’s loving faithfulness to the tenets and style of ‘60s/early-‘70s soul music. Despite playing in front of musicians sometimes half her age, and from widely different backgrounds, Jones made sure her Dap-Kings felt like a family. Her band was even present, keeping her company and playing music by her bed, when she passed away in Cooperstown, N.Y., in the fall of 2016, just 10 days after the presidential election that troubled her so much.
With each successive album—and, especially, as word of the band’s sweaty, ecstatic, festival-ready live shows spread—Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ audience grew exponentially. They released Naturally in 2005, followed by 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007), I Learned the Hard Way (2010), Give the People What They Want (2014) and It’s a Holiday Soul Party (2015). There was a long string of singles—the original medium for distributing soul music—but eventually, sold-out venues and five-star reviews became the norm.
Having famous fans led to even more opportunities— Prince joined the band onstage at a Paris show in 2011 and British DJ/producer Mark Ronson employed The Dap-Kings in 2006 for Amy Winehouse’s second release, Back to Black. “I just couldn’t believe that these guys in Brooklyn were getting this sound,” Ronson told MTV News back in 2007. “It sounded like the records I loved.” The Dap- Kings also backed Winehouse on her maiden U.S. tour.
Unlike Winehouse, Jones didn’t have a “look.” In her own words, she was “too fat, too black, too short and too old,” and not in the least bit eccentric or ashy. What she possessed was that singular voice, stage presence and indomitable spirit. She put everything she had into every performance and every song, and she was still at the top of her game when she learned that she had cancer.
“Everybody’s first concern was Sharon’s health and getting her to feel better,” says Roth. “But at the same time, some of the guys got hit in the pocket right away—you’re living one month to the next and, all of a sudden, your calendar is clean and you can’t pay your rent. I think for Sharon, that was the biggest concern. [She thought she’d] have surgery, go into remission and get right back on the road. The band was pretty adamant, telling her: ‘Don’t do it for us.’ A lot of times, you felt like she just wanted to take care of the guys. But it was also very clear that she was only totally happy when she was onstage.”
That fire and vitality, still present in 2013 following her diagnosis and through her first round of treatment, was captured in documentary lm director Barbara Kopple’s 2015 release, Miss Sharon Jones! And that same energy is pervasive in Soul of a Woman. Its 11 tracks reflect the sheer pleasure that Jones found in her music, as well as the band’s range as songwriters and players.
“Creatively, it ended up being a really nice collaboration,” says Roth, who produced the album using an analog 8-track tape machine rather than modern digital equipment. “A lot of people miss the point of it. People get hung up on the technology and all that stuff—tape, to my ears, sounds nicer. But tape forces your hand in a way that pushes you in the studio. Everything has to be figured out when the band’s performing. You have to get the arrangement right, and they have to play it right and balance it right. I feel that it’s better doing that with musicians in the studio than at home in your underwear on your computer.”
It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint Soul of a Woman’s highlights, but surely Jones’ sole composition, the gospel album-closer “Call on God,” is one of them. Written by the singer before The Dap-Kings existed, the track includes EL Fields’ Gospel Wonders, the choir from the Universal Church of God in Queens where Jones first tested out her considerable pipes.
“For a long time, Sharon wanted to make a gospel album,” says Roth. “We’d talk about what songs she wanted to do. It was kind of crushing that we weren’t able to do it. ‘Call on God’ was actually recorded at an earlier session and put on the shelf because we were planning on using it for this gospel album that we never finished. After her memorial service, we went over to Daptone and recorded the choir behind her. She really would have wanted that. Those were the people she did that song for. They put on their headphones and they were able to sing with Sharon one more time. It was pretty emotional.”
With Jones’ passing, as well as the recent death of Daptone star Charles Bradley, The Dap-Kings are facing a difficult question: What now?
“We’re musicians; we want to play music,” says Roth, who, along with his bandmates, participated in the SuperJam at Arizona’s inaugural Lost Lake Festival this fall. “We have a sound that we’ve cultivated for 20 years. It’s not something that we want to put in the closet or throw out. But at the same time, we’re very conscious that Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings without Sharon Jones isn’t the same band. We’d love to do some kind of collaboration but, in my gut, I know we’re never going to have that same feeling again. I would hate to try to re-create that with somebody else. I don’t think I’ll ever be as high as I was standing behind her onstage. She was made of something else. It’s not going to happen.”
“We all love each other and love playing together,” adds Gastelum. “We’re a family, so when the opportunities come up, if they’re the right thing, we’d love to come together and play. But we’re excited about this record and everyone is really proud of it. I’m just grateful that the music’s out there, and that something we worked hard on together can be out in the world.
“It still doesn’t seem real that she’s gone; it still feels kind of fresh,” he adds after a pause. “She was 100 percent soul.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Relix.