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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

To Sharon Jones, It’s Not Retro

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You can call Sharon Jones the hardest-working woman in show business. You can call her a stage sensation. Just don’t call her “retro.”

Jones and her band the Dap-Kings make fine ’60s/’70s-rooted soul music, blending the sounds of Motown, Stax and Philly soul into an irresistible, timeless mix. For some that makes Jones retro.

“People keep saying that,” she says. “I’m telling you what I keep telling everyone. There’s nothing retro about Sharon Jones. I was born in 1956. If I was 20 years old, I might be retro. I’m a soul singer. That’s it. You don’t see me trying to be Beyoncé or someone like that. But I can go out and hang with them. I can throw some soul at them.”

And Jones does plenty of throwing down on her new album, I Learned the Hard Way, a solid follow-up to her superb 2007 album, 100 Days, 100 Nights.

Jones hooked up with her backing band, the Dap-Kings, more than a decade ago, but she’d been waiting even longer than that for her current breakthrough.

The Georgia-born Jones learned soul music growing up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, listening to the radio throughout the ’60s and early ’70s.

“We only had a couple radio stations; they were AM,” she says. “They played everything—Stax, Motown, The Beatles, Johnny Cash. They didn’t have all these soft rock, modern rock, house, all of that. For me, it all boils down to R&B, soul, gospel, jazz and blues. That’s all the categories you need, those and pop.”

After graduating from high school, Jones formed a funky party band called Inner Spectrum, but couldn’t get anything going in the disco and rap eras. To make ends meet, she even worked at New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail for more than a year.

By the early ’90s, Jones was singing dance music, but her heart was still in the soul she’d embraced 20 years earlier.

A musician boyfriend took her along to a session he was doing with The Soul Providers, a funk-soul band. She was supposed to be a background singer, but she made an impression on Gabriel Roth, the band’s young bassist.

The Soul Providers became the Dap-Kings. In 2000, Roth founded Daptone Records and began releasing classic soul albums, including four with Jones leading the band.

“I’m just so glad I made that decision to stay with Gabe,” Jones says. “Sometimes you just know. My ex took me there and introduced me to those guys. Everything in life plays a part. Even though he’s one of those men I may sing about, I did get something out of the deal. I can sing about him and smile.”

Jones has nothing but praise for the Dap-Kings, who she loaned to Amy Winehouse for her Grammy-winning Back to Black album and subsequent tour.

“If we wanted to go into the ’80s, we could,” she says. “But the main thing is analog and going for that late-’60s, ’70s sound. Why do you think Daptone’s records are lasting? We do what we do and don’t change.”

She says her albums work because the band is making records the way they should be made, with analog recording and the right frame of mind.

“We go in and we have fun,” Jones says. “We write music, stuff we like. We know our fans like what we do. That’s the attitude you should have. Why are you trying to outdo your damned self? Go out and make good music.”

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings return to Milwaukee for an 8 p.m. show Saturday, May 22, at the Pabst Theater.