Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week - Robert B. Ker

On “I Learned the Hard Way,” the ti­tle cut of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ fourth and most re­cent al­bum, the Dap-Kings ex­e­cute an gym­nas­tics rou­tine of old-soul themes and time sig­na­tures. Over the top of their trade­mark funky shuf­fle, Jones sings the blues. She tells a story of a woman who sus­pects her man is cheat­ing, punc­tu­at­ing the crisp drums and play­ing off the horns and backup singers. “When I an­swered your phone, I heard a gasp and a … click,” she sings, ef­fort­lessly con­vey­ing a sense of drama and mak­ing it sound as if this is the first “my man done me wrong” song ever recorded.

This kind of skill is not some­thing you pos­sess the first time you step be­hind a mi­cro­phone. Jones brings a life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence to the stage and record­ing stu­dio — ex­pe­ri­ence in sing­ing of dif­fi­cult times and em­body­ing the value of per­se­ver­ance her­self.

The phrase “I Learned the Hard Way” could just as eas­ily ap­ply to Jones’ life: born in 1956, she didn’t be­gin to ex­pe­ri­ence suc­cess in the mu­sic in­dus­try un­til hook­ing up with the Dap-Kings early in the 2000s, when she was north of 45 years old. Since that ini­tial recog­ni­tion, she and her band have built their au­di­ence in large part through a scorcher of a live show, which they bring to the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Mon­day, Sept. 27.

Jones spoke to Pasatiempo of her at­tempts to break into the in­dus­try in the 1980s and ’ 90s. “I tried it. But you know, it’s like, be­ing told you didn’t have the look. There was a record I was sup­posed to do … and the guy lit­er­ally told me I didn’t have the look. He told me I was too black; he told me to go get some bleach and go bleach my skin, that I was too black, too fat, too short, and once I passed 45, I was too old. At those times, I just thought about how my voice was a gift, that God had given me a gift, and I said, ‘One day peo­ple will re­spect me for my voice, not the way I look.’”

It is dif­fi­cult now to imag­ine Jones emerg­ing in those decades — and not just for im­age-re­lated rea­sons. She seems too steeped in a clas­sic ap­proach to soul mu­sic to have found a home on shelves next to the likes of En Vogue and Destiny’s Child. Born in Au­gusta, Ge­or­gia — the same home­town as James Brown — Jones par­tic­i­pated in her church’s choir from a young age. When she was a child, her fam­ily moved to New York City, where she later went through her mu­sic-in­dus­try strug­gles while work­ing as a prison guard at Riker’s Is­land and as an ar­mored truck guard for Wells Fargo bank.

She got her break when a record la­bel was look­ing for backup singers for soul singer Lee Fields. “[They were] pick­ing up all these singers, and they thought these peo­ple were re­tired and not sing­ing any­more, and along comes me, who’s never been out there — not re­tired, just start­ing out at 40,” she said. “They wanted three girls, and I said, ‘Why pay three when I can do all three parts of the har­mony?’ And I went in and that’s how I got the job. It was Desco Records, and we be­came Daptone Records, and I’ve been with them ever since. We started some­thing.”

The Brook­lyn-based la­bel — home to other retro-minded acts such as The Bu­dos Band, The Su­gar­man 3, and The Me­na­han Street Band —

Sharon Jones

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