The 35-Year Plan for Soul Superstardom

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

Lee Fields, Sharon Jones's label mate, got a similar out-of-the-blue call from Desco Records, a precursor to Daptone, in 1996. Since then, the 57-year-old singer—a dead ringer for James Brown in appearance and style—has recorded several LPs and seven-inch singles for the two labels. He has toured the world with Daptone's Sugarman Three and Co. and launched a parallel career in European dance music, working with French DJ Martin Solveig.

This success didn't come quickly. Fields moved to New York from North Carolina as a teenager to be a part of the burgeoning late-'60s soul scene. He sang for a few months with Kool and the Gang, but left before the band's breakthrough. In the disco '80s, Fields had a chart hit with a song called "Stopwatch"; other than that, Fields says, "I would put a single out every time I could come up with enough money to go in the studio. I'd press maybe a few thousand and then move on to the next project." By the mid-'80s, Fields had lost his faith that he could support his growing family on music alone. "I came to the conclusion that I'm going to need something else," he says. "These folks that we called 'squares' back in the day, they had homes, they had a foundation. Maybe they had a point."

So Fields got a job driving a forklift at a machinery company and bought some real estate. He kept a foot in music, playing the South's blues circuit, but was relatively quiet until Desco came calling. Sipping a can of beer at his immaculate home in suburban New Jersey, he's got a theory as to why his music has resonated for so many decades. "I don't consider myself a great singer," he says. "But I do consider myself a person that's able to interpret feelings better than average. That's what I do—I convey feelings."

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

He's glad that those funky songs he recorded in his youth have lived on, but not surprised. "I ain't going to cut a record that's going to die," Fields says. "Because if you cut from your heart, how can a record die? That's an imprint from the soul."

His only regret, he adds with a grin, is that he didn't keep his early records. "If I had the originals, then I'd get rich."

There's nothing new in the international fascination with black American music. But why that particular moment? What is it about that early funk era, those sweet songs of yearning, defiance, and love, those sharp suits and natty little dance steps? "To me, there was a certain peak sometime in 1968, 1969," says Gabe Roth, the 33-year-old co-owner of Daptone Records and bandleader of the Dap-Kings. "It was kind of a summit, where the technology and theory and the talent perfectly met in some kind of pinnacle, which is this raw outpouring of emotion."

After that, in his view, it all went downhill. "Technology made it possible to make a technically cleaner record with less crackles," he continues, "or, when you talk about disco music, more precise rhythms by using drum machines. But all those advancements have not necessarily helped people express themselves."

If that momentary confluence of elements created this soul music 40 years ago, today another perfect storm of technology and musical trends has revived it. Hip-hop and sampling kept vinyl alive, while the Internet has changed the way music is disseminated and erased geographical barriers, so a little-known song from Minneapolis can become internationally desirable within its own tiny niche. Also, Roth adds, "some of it might be reactionary. Some of it might be people who are tired of hearing commercial radio, driven by these awful pop songs."

Roth, a curly-haired Californian, co-founded Desco Records in 1996 when he was an NYU student, and has been putting out fiercely authentic-sounding new-soul songs ever since. Jones first met him and the Desco crew in 1997, when she was hired to sing background tracks on a Lee Fields record. "My first impression was, 'What do these young little white boys know about funk music?' " she recalls. "But then when they started playing, I was like, 'Oh.'"

"It's not a throwback," Roth explains. "It's not like a bar band playing 'Play That Funky Music, White Boy.' There's no Afro wigs; there's no bell bottoms. It's just real people playing real music."

Daptone's recording methods seem eccentric: They use analog tape, edit with an X-Acto knife, and have a studio full of vintage equipment. But Roth maintains that by stripping away the digital technology, Daptone can produce a richer, more emotionally resonant sound. "A lot of pop records are made in computers with infinite numbers of tracks and overdubs and samples and synthesizers and drum machines and untalented people taking 30 or 40 whacks at something, which is later pieced together word by word or bar by bar," he says. "Our approach is a lot more live—we never say, 'Oh, we can fix that in the mix.'"

With Jones and Fields on board, Daptone's music is sometimes indistinguishable from the funk of 40 years ago. Roth has even passed off new records as old. When Desco started out, the idea of new bands playing old-style funk was a hard sell to the soul aficionados they were trying to reach. So the label's first album, The Revenge of Mr. Mopoji, was credited to "Mike Jackson and the Soul Providers" and purported to be a reissue of a soundtrack from an obscure 1970s kung-fu movie. The movie never existed. "Nobody would even listen to it if they thought it was new," Roth says. "I mean, I wouldn't have either. I can't really blame anybody. Our take on it was, 'Look, the music is real.' "

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