The 35-Year Plan for Soul Superstardom
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 couldher 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."
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 erarescued from basements in Bed-Stuy and church sales in Detroitcan 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 funkthat 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 yearsto 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 Angelesbased 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."
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 singera dead ringer for James Brown in appearance and stylehas 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 doI convey feelings."
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 livewe 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.' "
But times have changed, and Daptone's new-old soul sound has become an easier sell, especially with the attention that Winehouse has brought the Dap-Kings and classic soul in general. Still, Roth takes his recent success with a pinch of salt. "We're doing the same shit we're always doing," he says. "If people are into it now, that's good. We can afford to do more of it. But it's the kind of music that always sounded good to me, so the question for me is: How come it took so long?"
For Jones, Pulliam, and Fields, this belated, Internet-driven niche stardom is very different from the fame they aspired to in their youth. It's a little confusing, Fields admits. "I can play in any city in the world and draw a crowd. But still, I walk the streets and I'm not famous . . . I didn't expect things to be like that. I thought either you are out there or you're not out there." Jones agrees. "We're not on TV, and they don't play us on major radio stations," she says. "I just thank God for all these computers and websites. And MySpace and your space and everybody's space."
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings play the Apollo Theater October 6, apollotheater.org
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