Patience pays off for soul songstress Sharon Jones
Better late than never. That maxim rings especially true for Sharon Jones, a New York-based soul vocalist who didn't reach prominence until her fifth decade on the planet. A singer in church groups as a child, Jones dwelled on the margins of the music industry from the mid-1970s to the 1990s, fronting obscure funk outfits, cutting a few disco records, and performing in various wedding bands. Although no stranger to session work-she has contributed scores of uncredited vocals to blues songs and house tracks alike-the Georgia-born songstress struggled to break into the big time, her commanding vocal presence unwelcome in an industry infatuated with cooing divas.
In 1996, Jones answered a call for backup singers from Desco Records, a Big Apple label specializing in meticulous recreations of '70s-era funk. By the end of the audition, bandleader Gabriel "Bosco" Roth was convinced that he had found his newest muse. Jones, for her part, was not so sure.
"At the time I met him, Gabe was very young, like 22 or 23 years old," explains the singer, reached on vacation in South Carolina. "So I'm thinking, 'What do these young guys know about funk?' I was laughing at them, but when I got to know them a little bit more, I was amazed. They might have been young, but I could tell they were incredibly serious about what they were doing."
After Desco was dissolved in 2001, Roth set up his own Daptone label and its flagship act: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. On its 2002 debut, Dap-Dippin' With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the band unfurled the kind of loose-limbed funk tunes that obsessive crate diggers spend a lifetime hunting down. The best cut on that album was a cover of Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done for Me Lately", rendered by the group as a pitiless screed utterly unlike the helium-fuelled original.
On this year's Naturally, the singer and her mates tack back further in time, taking their cues from Motown legend Aretha Franklin. In Naturally's stylishly retro sound-world, Jones's fictional suitors are just as worthless as they've always been, but she sounds more profoundly wounded here, her voice imbued with the subtle resignation that only 50 years on the planet can endow.
When she's asked how her voice compares to this generation's cast of airbrushed R&B divas, the veteran is suitably candid.
"When I hear their stuff, it just makes me thankful that my voice is so strong that my producers don't have to use all that technical stuff on it," says Jones, who brings her band to the Commodore on Friday (July 1). "A lot of the young singers use these tricks because they can't sing in key or hold the note. I don't like all that stuff, but you can't blame these young people, because for the most part, their voices aren't all that strong. What I like about our records and our shows is that my voice is real, and I really think that's what people are after these days: that real sound."