The 35-Year Plan for Soul Superstardom

Sharon Jones, Darondo, and other soul sensations hit it big after decades on the outskirts

Sharon Jones always knew she was put on this earth to sing soul music. But she soon realized she'd never be a star. "In the '80s, they told me I needed to bleach my skin," she recalls. "They told me I was too dark-skinned, too fat, too short. And once I passed twentysomething, I was too old."

Still, Jones, who was born in Augusta, Georgia, and now lives in Far Rockaway, sang where she could—her church choir, talent shows, wedding gigs. She picked up session work here and there and worked as a correction officer on Rikers Island. " 'God gave me a gift, and one day people are going to accept me for that gift'—that's what I put in my head," Jones recalls. "And it took another 20-something years to happen."

Now, at the age of 51, Jones has finally found her place: up onstage in a shimmery dress, singing her heart out. A tiny black woman with a mischievous sense of humor and a deep, expressive voice, Jones has toured the world with her band, the Dap-Kings, delivering their pure pre-Parliament funk to eager crowds of sweating, dancing fans. "I don't feel embarrassed because I can't dance like Beyoncé or what's-her-name, Shakira," Jones says, giggling and shimmying in her seat at Daptone Records, the Brooklyn soul label that has nurtured her career. "I'm just so glad I can sing something and get on that stage and jump around."

Ms. Sharon Jones, triumphant at long last
Dulce Pinzon
Ms. Sharon Jones, triumphant at long last

Jones has toured with Lou Reed, and appears in the upcoming Denzel Washington movie The Great Debaters. British soul ingénue Amy Winehouse borrowed the Dap-Kings to record her breakthrough, Back to Black. And in October, Daptone is releasing Sharon's third album, 100 Days, 100 Nights, a collection of gospel-tinged soul laments that she'll celebrate with a date at the Apollo Theater.

"I never saw myself going to Europe and Australia and all these places singing some funk, soul, and r&b," she says. "Not now, in this day and era. But I guess that's what's meant to be."

Jones is one of a motley assortment of aging funk and soul singers unexpectedly drawn back into musical careers they abandoned decades ago. These late bloomers owe their second wind to record collectors and "rare groove" enthusiasts obsessed with undiscovered musical gems of black American music from the late '60s and early '70s. Independently released, long forgotten 45s from that era—rescued from basements in Bed-Stuy and church sales in Detroit—can be worth hundreds on the Internet. Britain led the trend in the late '80s, and such DJs as Norman Jay and Gilles Peterson did much to popularize it, releasing compilations culled from their own massive collections. Crate-digger culture now has its own well-established specialty magazines and reissue labels.

It's a familiar story, but there's something magical about what's happened to this early funk—that a song like "Ham Hocks and Beans," recorded in 1971 by the little-known Chuck Womack and the Sweet Souls in Arizona, could reach out now, across decades and continents. Lately, collectors have started looking beyond the rare records to the now-older singers whose clear, young voices cry out from those sweet, tinny, soulful tracks. The search is on for those undiscovered talents of early funk, now computer programmers, real-estate brokers, and prison guards long over their dreams of stardom.

William Daron Pulliam, a colorful Oakland-–San Francisco Bay Area character known as Darondo, recorded three smooth falsetto songs in the early 1970s—"Legs," "Let My People Go," and "Didn't I" —that have since been heavily collected, and lately included on high-profile compilations. A local public-access TV star known for his white Rolls-Royce, fur coats, and glamorous lady-friends, Pulliam tantalized collectors with his persona and mythology as much as his blues-driven, brassy funk singles. He disappeared from the public eye in the late 1970s, adding to his mystique.

In 2005, Justin Torres, a music historian and record collector, tracked Pulliam down in a suburb of Sacramento after a five-year search. "It's really that 'Eureka!' kind of feeling," Torres said. "It's unearthing somebody who was lost for 30 years—to us, anyway."

For his part, Pulliam was bowled over by the news that people still listen to his records. He had spent the last three decades traveling, working as a physical therapist, buying and flipping real estate, getting married, having children. The music he made in his twenties was a distant memory. "To me, it was a hobby, something I just liked to do," Pulliam, 60, says now from his home in Elk Grove, California. "Justin was telling me how much the records were worth. It shook me up! It's like The Twilight Zone."

Torres put Pulliam in touch with Ubiquity, a Los Angeles–based record label that promptly released an LP, Let My People Go, remastered from an ancient demo reel that Pulliam dug up in his garage. Critics have compared the songs, despite their rough production values, to Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Now he's working on a new song, "Is It My Baby?", based on the DNA-paternity testing on Maury Povich's TV show. "It's going to be No. 1," Pulliam says. "Ain't no doubt about it."

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