SUCCESS IN PROGRESS
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 —