In an industry that rewards greed and egocentrism, tenor saxophonist Neal Sugarman has made a career out of selflessness. On record and onstage, Sugarman plays only what is needed: a big, percussive horn blast here, a raw R&B riff there. And career-wise, he has done much the same: in 2001, when both he and singer Sharon Jones were at a loss for a label, he co-founded Daptone Records, now a leading light of contemporary soul. When Sharon and the Dap-Kings found themselves down a horn man shortly afterward, Sugarman shelved a promising career as a bandleader to become what he calls an “ultra-sideman.” But last summer, after a decade spent backing up Jones and other assorted blues people, Sugarman started getting the itch to call the shots again, and he reconvened the Sugarman 3, an instrumental soul group that released three well-received albums between 1998 and 2002. What the World Needs Now, the 3’s first album since 2002’s Pure Cane Sugar, is out this month on Daptone. Its title, borrowed from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition of the same name, is a perfect reflection of Sugarman’s ethos: the people of Earth didn’t want more from the Sugarman 3—they needed it.
But Sugarman wasn’t always serving up music on a global scale. In the early ’80s, Sugarman’s high school punk band Boys Life was a big hit around Boston, and the young saxophonist—then on alto—found himself working with Cars drummer David Robinson, and opening for the Jam. Though Boys Life never broke, Sugarman’s first taste of musical honey left a lasting impression.
“When I talk even now about a scene, and being involved in a record label that works around a profile or a scene, that was what that whole thing was about,” says Sugarman of his time in Boys Life. “That whole punk, DIY thing, which is still a big part of what I do and who I am. I don’t think a lot of kids, especially jazz musicians, have that opportunity. You know, we were out playing gigs—in front of girls. That was fun. And I did that for a long time.”
After high school, Sugarman enrolled at Boston’s Berklee College of Music on a scholarship, an opportunity that allowed him time to practice without the impediment of having to hold down a job. While his fellow students traveled the spaceways of concept and abstraction, Sugarman stayed down-home.
“I knew that I wanted to continue doing music,” explains Sugarman of his decision to attend Berklee. “That’s why I started practicing a whole bunch. And developing more technique and learning how to play jazz music. At that point, a lot of my peers were getting real deep into John Coltrane and more contemporary jazz. I always kinda stuck with Stanley Turrentine, Gene Ammons, and bluesy organ players, even back then. I’ve always had an aptitude for more soulful players.”
Massachusetts had its perks—summer jazz gigs on Cape Cod weren’t too shabby—but Sugarman was bound for New York. An initial stint in the Big Apple proved frustrating, though, and Sugarman retreated to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Ironically, it was during his year in the Big Easy that he realized he wasn’t meant for the bebop business.
“I was in New York kinda struggling,” admits Sugarman. “Trying to play jazz gigs. Going to jam sessions, gettin’ real depressed about how good everyone else sounded. How I couldn’t really play bebop as good as everyone else. But I still was practicing and digging it. I went down [to New Orleans] because a friend of mine, this great piano player, Victor Atkins, said, ‘I’m going on the road. You can come live in my house. You’d love it down here.’ And I did. But a lot of the gigs that I was getting down there, which I wasn’t getting in New York, were R&B gigs. Like, playing with singers. I was doing a lot of stuff like… just covers, you know? You go down to Bourbon Street and you get paid by the set. Like, twelve bucks a set. And you just play a bunch of Otis Redding songs and Wilson Pickett songs and Aretha Franklin songs. And it’s kinda like, each singer has their own niche singer that they copy. ‘Oh that guy, you gotta know the Otis Redding shit, ’cause this guy does Otis Redding.’ Or, ‘If you’re gonna go and play with that band, they’re doing more Wilson Pickett kinda stuff.’ Although I’ve always loved that music, I hadn’t really played it in that context before. And I’ve always liked playing blues more than anything else. I was heading in that direction anyway, but it kinda solidified it for me. I came back to New York with this new confidence. I learned a lot down there in the short time [I was there]. It’s a very rhythmic place, and super-soulful. I started getting a little reputation down there. It’s smaller, so you can kind of meet more people easier. So I had a little reputation as being the bluesy, soulful-sounding tenor player instead of, like, the modern jazz player. So when I came back [to New York], I had a slightly different self-image of myself. Which was good, you know? I had a little more confidence.”
Upon his return to New York in 1996, Sugarman set his sights on branching out into soul music while still keeping one foot in jazz waters. He took a weekly Sunday afternoon gig at the Parkside Lounge on East Houston Street, and started bringing in a trio of drums, organ, and sax, a preferred instrumentation of soul-jazz pioneers like saxophonist Lou Donaldson and organist Jack McDuff. When Sugarman heard that longtime McDuff drummer Rudy Albin was around, he quickly recruited him for the Parkside residency.
“The way [Albin] plays is real energetic, real strong,” says Sugarman. “Real old school, like, clickin’ the hi-hat real hard on two and four. He doesn’t play a lot of fills, he just lays it down. I don’t wanna sound like an old man, but for what it’s worth, it’s always been that same scenario for me with a lot of guys that you call. They get bored quick, it sounds to me. They just start playing a whole bunch of stuff, and they don’t wanna play blues. Rudy was definitely… yeah, he was on the same tip. He just wanted to groove.”
But Albin was a rarity in New York at the time, according to Sugarman, who was looking for patience and discipline, not flash and showmanship.
“That’s a New York thing,” says Sugarman on musicians wanting to show off once they reach The City. “People move to New York, and they wanna be special. Even if they’re a sideman in a band, they’re looking for their opportunity to bust out and play some shit that’s gonna impress someone else, and not necessarily be good for the music. I think that was something that Gabe and I really, immediately connected on. And one of the things I think the Dap-Kings do so well. You have a group of fantastic musicians and they all don’t get bored just playing, like, ‘Blah-don, blat. Bah-di-dah. Blah-don, blat.'”
Then, with the additions of organist Adam Scone and guitarist Coleman Mellett (the latter died in a plane crash in 2009), the Sugarman 3 was complete. (Despite the name, the band was only a trio for a short time early on.) Besides the Parkside, the band frequented Windows on the World, a restaurant in the World Trade Center, and Spy Bar, a club in SoHo. At Spy Bar, the Sugarman 3 played as a part of “Soul Kitchen,” a regular party thrown by DJ Frankie Iglesias. One night, Iglesias recommended that Sugarman reach out to Desco Records, a recently formed label headed by bassist Gabe Roth and drummer Phillip Lehman. After an initial phone call, Sugarman played a demo for Lehman and Roth, and it was settled: the Sugarman 3 would be the newest member of the Desco family.
“At that time, they had made a couple of cool records, so people were definitely noticing who they were,” recalls Sugarman about the early days of Desco. “Phillip had a great reputation, ’cause he had this compilation label called Pure, which were doing great comps at the time. It felt perfect, because that’s what I really was missing from a lot of record labels, and that’s one of the inspirations for Daptone. It’s just kind of like: create a record label that had a scene attached to it. A real niche-oriented label. ‘Cause we could’ve ended up on some other label and it just maybe wouldn’t have had the same impact, because it wouldn’t have been the same attention to detail and kind of connection to a scene of people who are into that kind of music.”
In 1998, Desco released Sugar’s Boogaloo, the down-and-dirty debut from the Sugarman 3. Full of chunky organ, propulsive drums, gutbucket sax, and sharp guitar chanks, it was difficult to tell whether the record was from ’98 or ’68. Adding to the confusion was the album’s cover, which depicted a modelesque woman in a mod, pinstriped pantsuit. It was vintage Blue Note, something Donaldson or organist Jimmy McGriff would’ve used.
“The record cover came off so good, when we finally released the record, Desco was still small enough that people didn’t know what it was,” remembers Sugarman. “If it was a new record, or an old record. And that was another good way for the band to get a jumpstart on things, because if people knew it was a few young white guys from New York, they may have overlooked it. But no one really knew where it had come from, and they all respected Phillip because of his reissues. There were a lot of people who were trying to figure out what exactly that record was about. If it was new, old, something that no one had heard of. But then finally, when people realized [what was going on], they had already made the decision they liked it. So all of a sudden, I was getting a lot of calls from promoters in Europe, like the U.K. and France. I think our very first gig outside the city was in Bari, Italy, for a festival. And in the U.K. at the time, it was a really great scene. It was still the tail end of that acid jazz scene. So we were going over there and playing, like, really fun parties. You know, with DJs. So that’s how the whole thing got kickstarted.”
But the good times couldn’t last forever. In 2000, after the release of the Sugarman 3’s second album, Soul Donkey, Desco closed its doors. The failure of the business aside, this posed two distinct problems: Sugarman had begun work on the 3’s third album, Pure Cane Sugar, and Roth had finished Dap-Dippin’, the debut album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
“We were mixing the [third] Sugarman 3 record and basically looking for a label for both records that we thought would give us that same support we were able to get from Desco,” recalls Sugarman. “When I say support, it has nothing to do with, like, financial… extra-special retail marketing. [laughs] It was really about a profile, or a scene, or being involved on a record label with other artists that we liked their records. That’s really what it was about for us.”
Sick of searching for the perfect label, Roth and Sugarman started Daptone Records in 2001, and put out both Pure Cane Sugar and Dap-Dippin’ in 2002. After a big tour in support of Pure Cane, Sugarman returned home to an offer: the tenor saxophone seat in the Dap-Kings. Weary of frontmanning, Sugarman joined together with the band. But running Daptone while concurrently touring and recording with Sharon Jones meant there would be little time left for the Sugarman 3.
“I was ready for a slight change,” explains Sugarman. “Not that I didn’t love the Sugarman 3 or like those records, but I had made that kind of funk record [Pure Cane Sugar] that I wanted, which was a departure from the soul-jazz stuff. The Dap-Kings were the best band doing that kind of music, so it was real fun for me to change from being this bandleader/soloist to being, like, ultra-sideman in a super-great horn section. I really loved it. I still do. I still get on the bandstand with that group and feel lucky, and love the music we’re doing.”
Being a Dap-King also meant working on other people’s records. Between 2005 and 2010, Sugarman was in the studio often, usually as a member of that era’s Dap-King horn section: trumpeter Dave Guy, baritone saxophonist Ian Hendrickson-Smith, and Sugarman on tenor. The trio appears on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Mark Ronson’s Version, Nas’s untitled album from 2008, and Michael Bublé’s Crazy Love. But Sugarman’s favorite session from that period is Al Green’s Lay It Down.
“I’m real proud of that stuff,” says Sugarman. “Like, working with a horn section that actually gets called to come in and sound good. It’s not like you get on the session and it’s the first time you’re meeting the trumpet player that you’re supposed to vibe with. The fact is, me, Dave Guy, and Ian Hendrickson-Smith were playing like a hundred gigs a year and then getting called to go into the studio to cut records, like Mark Ronson’s. That was a good idea for them, I think. To call us. That’s one section that has a real vibe. Obviously, we don’t play pretty—we’re into playing raw, simple arrangements. So that was cool. [Lay It Down producer] Questlove made a good call. And obviously, those Hi records that Al Green made are huge, really important records for me. We actually tried to come up with that vibe, which is what they wanted. And to hear [Green] in the headphones while we’re playing—it’s pretty incredible. And then actually meeting him. Of all that session work that we did, for all those people over that period of time, that was the best one.”
It was also around this time that Sugarman got the call to record with Booker T. and the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper, a longtime hero. Despite the saxophonist’s protests, Cropper had only one Dap-King in mind.
“Although I kept on saying, ‘Why don’t we come down with the horn section? Why don’t we come down with the section?,’ they were like, ‘No. We just want you,'” says Sugarman with a laugh. “So I did my best! It was cool because they were doing a tribute to the ‘5’ Royales, which is a whole bunch of cool music. Yeah, meeting Steve and talking to him. He’s real open to talk about the old days, and Otis Redding and all that stuff. And coincidentally, Gabe ended up working on that last Booker T. record as an engineer. It’s amazing to think that all these people that you’ve been checking out their records for years, we have a connection to somehow.”
Best of all, one can hear that connectedness on What the World Needs Now, the deepest, funkiest statement yet from the Sugarman 3. When Sugarman first jumped on the scene with Sugar’s Boogaloo in 1998, the green saxophonist was merely following the lead of his soul-jazz forebears. Fourteen years and any number of gigs and sessions later, he’s a leader in his own right, having learned directly from folks like Green, Cropper, and Jones. And being a leader means you can change up the formula: for the first time on a Sugarman 3 album, the band includes a bassist. Taking the weight off of Scone is none other than head Dap-King Gabe Roth.
“The one thing I wanted to do to change it up a little bit was add bass,” explains Sugarman. “It’s a slightly different sound to separate it from the other records. And Scone… he’s such a badass organ player. He’s always playing these incredible bass lines and crazy solos. So I was like, ‘Man, do you mind not being the bass player?’ And he was cool with it. ‘Cause in the past, he would’ve probably said, ‘No, I wanna play bass.’ And he plays some crazy stuff on this record that I don’t think he necessarily would’ve played with him playing organ bass. He may have, you know? But I think there’s a great flavor that’s coming up from the bass on this record.”
Sugarman was also able to leash up his control freak tendencies this time around. Instead of coming into the session with a set of preconceptions, Sugarman let the music be what it wanted to be.
“On the third record, Pure Cane, I was trying to put the band in a certain bag,” says Sugarman. “I think it worked, but I was like, ‘I wanna make this funk record. So, not so jazzy. Don’t play like this, don’t play like that. Play like this, play that.’ [What the World Needs Now] was always just, like, ‘Here’s the tunes, let’s just jam.’ I wasn’t trying to fight anything. I was just trying to have fun. So it was really just trying to find the right material that this band is gonna sound really great playing. Better than, ‘This is a band that’s gonna play a certain style of music.’ The arrangements were real open. We let it breathe really good. And it sounds loose and playful in some ways.”
That sense of whimsy is especially evident on “Witches Boogaloo,” which Sugarman describes as an old school “party track.” On “Witches,” Sugarman brought in a small audience to audibly joke and mess around while the band recorded.
“I think we have [a party track] on almost every one of the records,” says Sugarman. “You get everyone in the house down. Whoever was around. It’s always weird, because you get everyone behind the microphone and no one does anything. They just kinda clap and are too afraid to howl and hoot. But Starr Duncan, who is one of the backup singers for Sharon, took care of that for us. She was not shy. In fact, we didn’t know what [the song] would’ve been called, but Starr had that crazy laugh at the beginning of the song, so we were like, ‘Sounds like witches boogaloo to me.'”
But not all was spontaneous. Sugarman had had his ear on a particular unrecorded Budos Band song for some time, waiting for the right moment to put his stamp on it.
“There’s that song ‘Got to Get Back to My Baby,’ which is actually a song that the Budos were playing in their set,” says Sugarman. “And they stopped playing it. They didn’t like it ’cause they thought it was too pretty. And I always remembered them playing it. I even tried to get them to cut it on a 45 for the label. For some reason, they didn’t like that song… I think it worked so perfect for the Sugarman 3.”
But as always, Sugarman and company are indebted to the original architects of soul, too, like J.J. Jackson. Jackson’s 1966 hit “But It’s Alright” is covered on What the World Needs Now, but in a way that’s in the tradition of Sugarman’s heroes.
“I love that song,” says Sugarman of “But It’s Alright.” “I’m real into studio groups. Like the Fame Gang. And the M.G.’s. Like, not Booker T. and the M.G.’s as this great group, but the fact that they were playing behind Otis Redding. And the Fame Gang were this band that played behind everyone: Aretha Franklin to Etta James to Candi Staton. And they had this instrumental record and they were covering ‘Can I Change My Mind.’ It’s almost like copping the same vibe as the original but adding something a little quirky about it. That particular song, that was definitely what I was thinking. Like, ‘Let’s try to cut this real close to the original, with the same kind of intention, but let the organ take the melody.’ It’s just fun to play.”
Beyond all else, though, it’s the journey that matters to Sugarman. A record is simply that—a document of the music-making experience. Getting the album done—that’s where the magic happens.
“Every record is a different process,” says Sugarman. “And I love making records. And I love the process.”