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Sharon Jones: soul revival

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Sharon Jones (Dap-Kings) Kelly Jo Garner photo
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ASPEN As she approached age 40, Sharon Jones main gig was on Rikers Island the New York City jail, where Jones worked as a corrections officer. Jones kept her vocal chops in shape by taking weekend jobs playing weddings, singing in church choirs, and doing the occasional small-time studio work.The combination of a taxing day job and marginal opportunities in the music business, however, wasnt nearly enough to damper her spirit. Jones listened to friends, family and music associates, who mostly advised her to give up her dreams of hitting it big as a singer. Rather than ditch her hopes, Jones cut loose those who didnt share the faith that Jones had in her abilities.A lot of people figured I needed to give up on my band because we werent going anywhere, said Jones from her home in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. So I had to turn my back on a lot of friends and family members. I had to leave them behind. I learned, OK, youre not doing anything for me. But I didnt expect anything from them. It wasnt about them. It was about me.Thats as far as Jones goes in throwing dirt on those who dismissed her artistic ambitions: Shes cast them aside and moved on. Jones, now 52, speaks with the sassy good humor of someone whose belief in herself, against long odds, has been validated.For seven years, Jones has fronted Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, a band which improbably finds itself around the center of a revival of old-school soul. Jones & the Dap-Kings are earning a reputation for being a brilliant live act; their appearance Saturday at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival is in an opening slot, for the rockabilly/swing big band, the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Still, Jones and her eight-piece, horn-heavy backing band seem to be the buzz of the festival. The impact the Dap-Kings are having on the retro-soul movement are being felt outside of the band itself, and even across oceans. British soul singer Amy Winehouse borrowed the Dap-Kings to record her Back to Black album, which went on to earn five Grammy Awards, including one for Record of the Year. Members of the band also appear on Al Greens Lay It Down, the acclaimed new album that marks a return to the soul singers 60s and 70s roots.

Jones was born in Augusta, Ga. As a kid, she moved with her mother to Brooklyn, but a few months every year were spent with relatives in Augusta the same town that produced one of her heroes and primary influences, James Brown. Jones got her start singing in church, and by her teens, she was singing in talent shows and with local bands. But nothing she was involved with ever broke big, or even close to it.But I never stopped singing, said Jones, whose unrestrained manner of speaking has an almost comic appeal. I always said these words: God gave me a gift my voice, not my looks. So I knew it was going to happen. I had the faith. You gotta believe.Jones didnt fit the mold of a 21st-century pop singer, and there was no shortage of people around to remind her of that fact. People always told me I couldnt do it because I was too dark, too short, too fat, she said. But things were still going for me.One of those things was a 1996 call to sing backup at a studio session for Lee Fields. The soul singer was signed then to Desco Records, a small label dedicated to very old-school soul and funk; Fields himself was practically a ringer for James Brown. The two other women booked for the recording session never showed, and Jones did all the backing parts herself. She became part of the Desco house band, released a handful of singles under her own name, and began fronting a Desco-affiliated group, the Soul Providers. Desco went under in 2000, but Jones continued to roll, putting together a remarkably youthful band featuring several members of the Soul Providers. For the first time, Jones had her name out front, in Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.Success was hardly instant. Band members shuffled in and out; the debut CD, Dap Dippin with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings was hardly a commercial smash. Jones found herself, in her mid-40s, traveling with a bunch of guys some of them teenagers from gig to gig.Our first few years were so hard, says Jones. People have no idea, the traveling in the vans. Jones upbeat attitude, though, was infectious. Maybe one person would be down, but not the rest of us, so someone would pick us up.Jones belief in herself spread to become a faith in her cohorts. Once I started with the Dap-Kings, I knew, she said. I knew we was ready. There was nothing else but be ready to go forward with these guys. We knew what we had. We never stopped doing it, and thank god we didnt.Beginning with the early-2005 release of Naturally, momentum began to build. The album earned positive reviews, and the bands live shows earned them fans across the U.S. and in Europe. Last year came the release of 100 Days, 100 Nights, which drew almost universal acclaim. Jones herself earned a pair of credits for the Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters, playing a juke-joint singer onscreen, and adding several tunes, including a featured cover of Thats What My Baby Likes, to the soundtrack.Just as her faith in her talent was never shaken, neither was her love for a certain kind of music. The soul music played by Jones & the Dap-Kings is marked by spirituality, tightly arranged horns, smart-looking suits and dresses.The soul, even with the slow beginnings of the Dap-Kings, I stuck with that, she said. You stick with what you do. We wanted a certain sound, a sound we created.Even as Jones is singing about the difficulties of romance, with a raw, intense emotion, people have commented on the element of humor in her performances. Some of that comes from the retro feel of the show, even though she doesnt overtly play that up. Instead, the humor seems to stem from the sense of lightness that Jones has achieved with her late-in-life success.Certain things I do or say to the audience, and the way I dance, the way I shout theres a whole thing going on, my whole story, she said. When the fun goes, its time to stop. When people stop talking about it, its time to give it up.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings appear at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival, in the tent at Aspens Rio Grande Park, on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., followed by the Brian Setzer Orchestra at 9 p.m. The festival concludes Sunday with a free gospel show featuring Davell Crawford & the Davell Crawford Singers at noon; The Christian McBride Situation at 6:30 p.m.; and Los Lonely Boys at 9 p.m. Go to http://www.jazzaspen.org for a full schedule and ticket information.stewart@aspentimes.com


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