Even Sharon Jones, now widely recognized as the Queen of Funk, spent the majority of her career performing as a wedding singer. It wasn't that she didn't try for more. It was that people in the music industry consistently turned her away. "I was too this and too that," she says from a tour van approaching Texas, speaking quickly for fear that Sprint might turn off her cell phone any minute. "I was too dark, then I was too short, too fat, too old and I'm older now than I was then."
Jones, who has one of the finest sets of pipes we've heard in ages, has been singing since 1949. And yet, as far as most of her fans are concerned, she's a new act.
That doesn't disappoint the unconventional diva. "I've been around," she says knowingly. "I guess that's why we're independent. When you got a gift, nobody can hold you down."
When she says we, she's talking about herself and her backing band, the Dap-Kings, the dapper men who follow her around, laying down beats, singing backup, and generally making things funky slathering that soul sound to make sure her audiences are ready when she arrives onstage. In fact the band usually plays for nearly a half-hour before Jones makes her grand entrance. During a recent show, guitar player Binky Griptite introduced her as "super soul sister ... 110 pounds of soul excitement ... a sister so bad she's badder than bad." Later she and the band exchanged high-voltage repartee, the diva yelling "Band!" and her Kings answering each time with "What?"
Together, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings create music straight out of the Seventies. On her 2005 album, Naturally, Jones performs an old-school soul duet, "Stranded in Your Love," featuring James Brown acolyte Lee Fields, who knocks on Jones's door after midnight, claims his car has been stolen, and says he needs to stay at her place. The begging and pleading recall Otis Redding's "Tramp." And listening to Jones's version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" should make any disaffected patriot weep. Whether denouncing the government, reluctantly cozying up with an old beau, or letting a good man down, Jones does more than just sing. She belts it from the diaphragm, and she ain't afraid to say Unh!
And she dances, often getting down on her knees several times in a show to demonstrate her version of the funky chicken. Her audiences composed of hip-hop kids, old-school soul fiends, and emo types get down too. Winning the hearts and feet of the young club-kid demographic has been a point of great pride for Jones and her Kings. Their online gallery, which includes photos from the current tour, features a photo of white kids in plaid who are made blurry by their movements. The caption: "Even the emo college kids were moving and grooving." Last year in Lawrence, Kansas a big college-rock town she boogied with a hot break dancer and was inspired to shout, while struggling to catch her breath, "You got some dancers out here in Lawrence!" Leave it to Sharon Jones to draw them out of hiding.
Rare-funk DJ Josh Powers opened for Jones at that show, and he testifies on her behalf. He confesses he's not much of a dancer, but says that when Jones came to town, he couldn't help moving. "It was packed," he recalls. "The entire floor was dancing. She's five-foot-two and a ton of dynamite."
Powers enjoyed the show and unwound with the band afterward. He had such a good time he tried to strike a deal for Dap-King Griptite, who hosts a funk and soul radio revue in New York City. "He does fake commercials," Powers says. "It's as if you were listening to a radio show you just happened to pick up in 1953." Powers, then at a Kansas-area radio station, tried unsuccessfully to convince the station's board to pick up Griptite's show. "They weren't into any of the programming ideas I thought would be really good for the station," he says, "like having a member of Sharon Jones's band do a show."
Well, that's disappointing. But even if a few industry folks in an office somewhere weren't into the idea just like a few industry folks in an office somewhere once thought Sharon Jones was too dark or too fat the crowds at her live shows make a solid argument that the suits have it all wrong.