To this day, Sharon Jones still lives with her mother. That might seem weird, considering she’s 53—and the public face of Brooklyn soul-funk label Daptone Records, home to her backing crew, the Dap-Kings, New York’s go-to house band for funky good times. Together, they’ve cut four albums of boogaloo-infused soul, where archetypal r&b is the template for the exuberance in Jones. She’s played with everyone from Lou Reed to Rufus Wainwright to Michael Bublé to Phish. But after all of that, after the shows in Europe, Australia, and Mexico, she returns to her mom’s place in a Queens housing project.
This happened in 2000, following a bad relationship. “I don’t call his name because I just don’t want to call his name,” Jones says of her former fiancé. “But it’s all for the better. I wouldn’t be able to keep an apartment and travel and do what I do. And I wasn’t seeing jack-crap in 2000. There was nothing, so thank God I was living with my mother.” No shame here: The soul singer’s mother raised her and five other kids, cousins included, while working low-wage housecleaning and assembly-line jobs, a fate that Jones herself once seemed resigned to.
Onstage with the Dap-Kings, though, it’s clear she was born for performance: She conveys genuine heartbreak, gives history lessons on dances like the Funky Chicken, and hauls ribald guys onstage to serenade/dance with/be jovially groped by. Her five-foot frame gyrates in a spasm of ripples and shakes. She makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room, even if you’re surrounded by thousands of others.
It’s a rare gift she honed early. Around her early twenties, Jones worked in an Off-Off Broadway play. “There was one scene, where my mama was crying, and I had to get on my knees,” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘Please don’t take my mama.’ And the tears—I was like, ‘Oh, I’m crying for real.’ And everybody was like. ‘Oh, my God, she’s really crying.’ “
Her theater career fizzled, though her musical education was just beginning. During the ’80s and early ’90s, she worked a dazzling variety of jobs: Macy’s retail employee, dental assistant, Rikers prison guard, security guard near Red Hook, where she’d shoot rats with pellet guns to entertain herself. But on weekends, she found gigs as a wedding singer, as part of a band called “Good ‘n’ Plenty.” Schlock potential aside, you undoubtedly need charisma to entertain an 80-year-old grandma and a five-year-old flower girl simultaneously. “Back in the late ’70s and ’80s, no one wanted a female wedding singer,” she recalls. “I was one of the first blacks to sing in an Italian wedding band. I started the trend. Right after that, when we started making money, bands started hiring black singers. I swear to you. And what they didn’t learn me, I already knew. “
But back to that bad relationship, which did yield another positive: The dude was a horn player and an early cohort of what would become the Daptone Records family. Back in 1996, there was Desco Records, a funk-meets-Afrobeat label founded by Gabriel Roth and Phillip Lehman; Jones sang backup on an early 45, by a then-underground James Brown–type named Lee Fields. After Desco dissolved due to business disagreements, Roth started Daptone with future Dap-Kings saxophonist Neal Sugarman; skyrocketing rents forced them out of their original studio space on Grand Street in Williamsburg, and after a brief stay at Sugarman’s apartment on Havermeyer Street (where the first two Daptone releases were mixed), they found their current residence, a town house of sorts in Bushwick, residing on a rather barren street next door to a fix-a-flat.
During a recent visit, one floor is weighed down with vinyl copies of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ latest, I Learned the Hard Way, stacked in numerous piles around three desks; down a short hall, there’s a kitchen mostly commandeered to hold shipping materials. But the real magic happens on the three-part ground floor: a recording room packed with mixing boards and loads of analog equipment, a small wooden box soundproofed for vocals, and another small alcove currently housing an old piano and not much else. This last room is where the band crams together and works out new material, surrounded by all manner of eccentric esoterica—for example, old tire rubber stuffed with discarded clothes from Sunset Park textile factories gets a second life as soundproofing material of sorts.
“When we got into this place, it was really DIY,” Sugarman says. “We bought a bunch of drywall and wood, and we tore down walls to build the studio.” Everyone chipped in, including Jones, who got down on her hands and knees to wire the electrical sockets. Naturally, the 2005 sequel to her Daptone debut, 2002’s Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, was the first of her records to emerge from here, but it was 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights that put her and the Dap-Kings on the national and international map, suggesting a career for the label and its star attraction alike that didn’t merely mine the nostalgia vein of Aretha, Otis, Smokey, JB, and Maceo. “We proved that what we’re doing has a place in modern times,” Sugarman says. “We were never thinking about whether that sound is old. We know what we’re going for, and it’s focused. The songwriting and lyrical content relates to Sharon, and it was always frustrating to hear, ‘Are you retro?’ We’re romantics.”
Like a modern-day Motown, Roth and the Dap-Kings compose all of Jones’s music and lyrics collectively. “We’re like a family—we know what’s going on in each other’s minds,” Roth says. “We just try to make a record that we want to listen to.” On I Learned the Hard Way, they continue riffing on timeless themes of the unfortunate: the slow grind of recession ode “Money,” the “Love me or leave me” organ balladry of “Window Shopping,” the unrequited love of “The Game Gets Old” and “If You Call.” All posit Jones as a scrappy, resourceful heroine who evokes an earlier era but fits just fine into 2010. “They write the songs for me, but I feel those songs,” she says. “I bring them to life. But I can tell you this: I’ve only been there 14 years or so, but the last five or six years, I just started seeing the changes, financially. I just got a bank account and credit card.” And yes, naturally, her mom is proud.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings play the Apollo Theater on April 30 and May 1