Soul Survivor

For most people, fishing is a quiet, contemplative pastime -- but not when Sharon Jones is involved. The fifty-year-old lead singer of the Dap-Kings, a rhythm-and-blues revival group good enough to be compared with its inspirations, Jones likes to be in charge whether she's entertaining audiences or drifting in a rowboat across a New Jersey lake alongside a couple of family members intent on catching supper. So when her brother-in-law's attempt to reel in his hook does nothing other than bend his pole, she stops answering an interviewer's questions long enough to instruct him about the proper way to get untangled. "Don't pull up like that!" she declares. "Drop the line! Drop the line!"

Jones's brother-in-law follows her orders, as anyone in his position would, and after paddling the boat away from some nearby rocks, he frees his hook. A moment later, a fish takes his bait and joins the day's previous victims: a couple of pan-sized bluegills and a big-mouth bass. Still, Jones isn't satisfied with the haul. "I didn't get that early start this morning," she says. "I should have; I was up at 4:30. If we'd gotten out here earlier, just think how many we could've caught by now."

This comment neatly sums up Jones's work ethic. She was largely unknown until she joined the Dap-Kings, with whom she's cut a pair of irresistible discs: 2002's Dap Dippin' With Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and 2005's Naturally, both issued on bassist Gabriel Roth's Daptone imprint. Yet she didn't spend her decades of obscurity patiently waiting to be discovered. Long after most people would have surrendered, she kept plugging away, certain that a reward awaited her. "I felt like God gave me a gift, and one day the gift was going to be used," she says. "I didn't think He gave me that gift just to bereave me. And then I hooked up with Daptone, and look what's happened since then. Boom! That was my calling."

A native of Augusta, Georgia, Jones was weaned on the music of James Brown, a native son of Augusta, and the classic soul tunes her mother loved to spin. Her family relocated to Brooklyn in the '70s just in time for the disco revolution, and Jones, who'd learned to wail in church, eagerly signed up. In later years, her impressive pipes won her session work for some of the era's lesser-known divas. For instance, she added texture to "Do It Properly," a composition by C+C Music Factory's Robert Clivillés that featured warbler Tonya Wynn. Jones describes it as "the only song I was on that I ever heard played on the radio."

Unfortunately, credits like this one didn't earn Jones many shots at the spotlight. She was once part of a duo, "but the person who was producing me tried to start a rivalry between me and the other girl," she recalls. "He was telling her, 'Well, you know, tell Sharon she needs to bleach her skin, get lighter, lose weight.'"

This scheme didn't surprise Jones, who understood the importance that record execs placed on image in the nascent days of the dance-music genre. "Remember Cheryl Lynn?" she asks, referencing the singer best known for "Got to Be Real," a 1978 scorcher. "Great voice. But after she had a hit, they made her lose weight and told her she wasn't attractive enough." Jones also name-checks Martha Wash, the plus-sized belter who sang on the 1989 C+C Music Factory smash "Gonna Make You Sweat" but was replaced in the ditty's video by someone Jones refers to as "this skinny little girl. They didn't want to show Martha, because when you're fat, they didn't want anyone to see you. And that's what happened to me. I was too dark-skinned and too short and too fat. And once I got past 25, I was too old."

Today, of course, Jones is making her mark at twice that age -- and, as she notes, "I'm the same as I was back then. I'm still dark-skinned. I'm still short. I'm still pleasantly plump. And I'm really too old. But now I'm doing music where people expect that, so it's different now. I'm coming out with funk stuff like 'How Do I Let a Good Man Down'" -- a terrific number from Naturally. "I'm not singing some lollipop hip-hop stuff."

Getting to this point took many more years of struggle, though. In the late '80s, Jones briefly gave up on music entirely and took a job as a guard at Rikers Island, a New York prison facility. "I was with the men," she says. "We were some of the first women who did that at Rikers, and it was pretty cool."

So was she, which helped her get through a couple of potentially touchy situations. "Once an inmate tried to fake like he was going to hit me, and I gave him a look, because I knew he wasn't going to do it. He swung past me and walked away, and then he came back and was like, 'You didn't even flinch. You didn't even jump.' And I was like, 'Why should I? You weren't fast enough to hit me.' And he was like, 'Where are you from? You must be from Brooklyn.'" In another incident, a con tried to intimidate her sexually. "He said, 'If I snatched you up in my cell, what would you do?' And I told him, 'If you snatch me up like that, I'll either be dead or unconscious. That's the only way you're gonna take anything from me. You want it like that?' He left me alone after that -- and that shows how you need to handle those guys. Let them know who's boss, and never show fear."

These tactics served Jones well when she left Rikers after two years and returned to an environment every bit as scummy as a maximum-security penitentiary: the music industry. The going was tough until she was hired to sing on a Daptone session for Lee Fields. Label owner Roth loved what he heard, and before long, Jones was installed as the frontwoman for the Dap-Kings, who try to capture the authenticity of the original soul era by doing things the old-fashioned way. "When we record our music, we play live in the studio," she says. "Everyone is all together. We can go in and overdub if we have to -- add an instrument or something like that. But there's no digital, and none of that electronic stuff." Moreover, Roth supplements regular Dap-Kings CD releases with vinyl LPs and seven-inch singles with large center holes for jukebox play.

When this sort of obsessive fealty is applied to music, it can result in songs that get the rudiments of past styles right without capturing the excitement that made them memorable in the first place. Fortunately, Jones and the Dap-Kings avoid this trap. Naturally is a sassy, vibrant platter thanks to the likes of "My Man Is a Mean Man," a roiling, infectious workout and a wholly unconventional R&B reimagining of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."

The Dap-Kings are currently compiling new material that should be included on their next disc, tentatively scheduled for release next spring, and Jones says several of the most promising ditties are already part of the band's notoriously lively set. "People can get a little overexcited and start jumping on you," Jones concedes. "You've gotta watch that." Luckily, her background at Rikers turned out to be good preparation for crowd control, as she proved during a recent gig when a couple stormed on stage. As Jones remembers it, "I said, 'Hold up, hold up, y'all. This is my stage. You don't jump on my stage unless I invite you up here.' And I made them get off -- but then I called them back on a little while later. When it was my idea."

Obviously, Jones controls her concerts just as efficiently as she commands the rowboat that's carrying her across the waters of inland New Jersey. After telling the craft's pilot to "get that oar moving," she mentions another Naturally song that's close to her heart, and her stomach: "Fish in My Dish." She laughs as she says, "That's what I'm doing right now -- and that's what I plan to get."

Be warned, all you bluegills and bass. Because Jones means business.


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