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Sharon Jones doesn't sugarcoat her words. "I've been to six funerals [recently]. I've sang at four," she says. The 51-year-old soul singer has seen tough times lately, from her brother's death and mother's stroke to the loss of many close friends, but she's as resilient a survivor as you're likely to find. "Out of all the bad things, I think the good things still outweigh them."
The good things come after decades of fighting her way through the music industry, all the while being told that she was too dark, too fat, or too old to make it, or that it just wasn't her time.
Well, now, finally, is Sharon Jones' time. Her voice can be heard everywhere, from TV shows and commercials to Denzel Washington's upcoming The Great Debaters. In the past year, she's toured Australia with Lou Reed, sung with Booker T. and the MGs, and laid down tracks for a new Al Green album produced by the Roots' ?uestlove, who gushed to Jones about what a big fan he is.
Her band the Dap-Kings, meanwhile, backed Amy Winehouse on tour and contributed to Winehouse's breakthrough Back to Black and her producer Mark Ronson's Version. That has brought a lot of new fans to the sterling group of funk-soul pros that the founders of Daptone Records assembled around Jones. "I don't look at it bad," she says of the Winehouse association. "It's great for me and the Dap-Kings."
Such high-profile moonlighting is timed well with the release of 100 Days, 100 Nights, their third album together. It may be a slow-burner compared to the blustery R&B of 2002's Dap Dippin' and 2005's Naturally, but Jones' rich, defiant voice rings out as loud and clear as ever over backing that's more timeless than retro.
The album's mellowness could be due to a more settled, conventional recording process. "The first one was done in the basement. They built a little studio. We had just put that together. I literally helped put in the sockets," recalls Jones. "I think we were still running wires when we recorded Naturally."
Songwriting on 100 Days was also more of a group effort. Several members of the Dap-Kings contributed, in addition to Bosco Mann (born Gabriel Roth), who wrote much of the first two albums and co-runs Daptone. The only song not penned by someone in the Dap-Kings was the closing "Answer Me," a horn-punched climax that summons Jones' lifelong love of gospel.
"It is gospel," she confirms. "That song is something I sang with my choir in 1980, when it came out. I finally learned to play it on piano. I taught myself." Jones still goes to church when she's home and plays organ and sings for the congregation, just as she did as a kid. "The first time I sang in church, I enjoyed that feeling of people looking. That was it for me. And I knew it was a gift God gave me."
Jones has made amazing use of that gift, but she's no superstar. Her beat-up '88 Honda gave up on her recently, and all she wants in the world is to get her mother out of the projects in Queens. Performing, though, has helped her through life's harder moments.
She recalls getting news of her brother's death just before hitting the stage on New Year's Eve. When it seemed impossible to go on, "those tears just seemed to literally evaporate off my face" when she heard the roar of the crowd. The tour continued as scheduled, about which Jones says there was never any doubt. "How can I go home? I got, like, 17 people out here who need to get paid."
Rigorous touring is yet another thing for which Jones and the Dap-Kings have become famous, along with volcanic performances and that indelible old-school sensibility. But don't call Jones a nostalgia act.
"Maybe it's coming back for others, but I've lived through Motown and segregation and Stax and Otis [Redding] dying," she asserts. "I've lived this part of history, and now I'm singing it. And I'm not pretending anything. I'm not pretending to be anything but Sharon Jones."
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.galaxytheatre.com. Sun., 7 p.m. $15.