At first glance, the two black doors folding into a backstage corner of Harlem’s Apollo Theater are a mess of marker — a two-pane graffiti tableau bearing a constellation of white and silver scrawlings hastily etched over a hurried paint job. Upon closer inspection, the doodles weren’t left by anonymous vandals, but pop-culture heavyweights: Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift, and Paul McCartney, to name just a few. The autographs spill over the doorframe onto the wall flanking a staircase that leads up to the dressing rooms. On that wall — just above the signature of actor Chadwick Boseman, who played James Brown in this year’s biopic, Get On Up — is a note in curly script with the slightly faded touch of a silver pen running out of ink: “Love ya! Sharon Jones.”
Until now, Jones’s signature was the clearest mark that a Daptone Records artist had left on the Apollo, but that’s all about to change. The New York–based, independent, soul-championing label has long done the venue’s legacy proud by sending artists to its stage to headline sold-out record-release shows and deliver career-defining performances. But on December 4, 5, and 6, Jones, Charles Bradley, Antibalas, and the rest of the rhythmically rambunctious acts from the Daptone roster will bring their Super Soul Revue to the Apollo. Fresh off a successful European tour this summer, the Daptone crew will join an elite group of musicians who’ve had the privilege of recording a live album at the storied theater.
The gravity of entering such exclusive company — James Brown, B.B. King, and just a handful of others have recorded live at the theater — isn’t lost on Gabriel Roth, Daptone’s co-founder and the producer, bandleader, and bassist of Jones’s backing band, the Dap-Kings. The first of Brown’s Live at the Apollo albums, recorded in 1963, is an oft-cited inspiration for nearly every artist affiliated with Daptone. The Godfather of Soul’s incomparable stage prowess and the imperfect, unhinged quality of the recording itself have informed Roth’s cultivation of the label’s talent and the live shows those artists present, from the Dap-Kings’ uniform side-stepping to the untethered wails put forth by the label’s distinctive voices.
“His approach to a show is unbelievable,” says Roth of Brown’s Live at the Apollo. “How tight his band is, how they turn corners, the dynamics, the way the show would drop from a heart-wrenching, wide-open ballad straight into some really insane cold sweat of a tempo — that’s the most inspirational thing to me.”
Roth laments what he refers to as the “lost art” of showmanship, which he says is a result of more musicians focusing on conveying their intellect rather than the raw energy of a performance.
“It’s a sense that artists are above you and deeper than you intellectually, and you’re just supposed to be looking up at them from the audience thinking, ‘I wish I understood how much he hurt,’ ” he says. “What inspires me is the people who make everyone in the audience feel like they’re a part of the party, and Sharon and Charles and Duke Amayo from Antibalas bring that to another level.”
Though the euphoric moments in the brassy, sassy sets of the Super Soul Revue’s artists are transcendent on both the stage and their records, the Apollo dates come at the close of an exhausting and tumultuous two years. Triumphs and tragedies have danced a mercurial waltz, with personal hurdles striding alongside professional success for the artists and the label at large. Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June of 2013, a devastating blow that forced the delayed drop date of Give the People What They Want, her first album in four years and one she and the Dap-Kings had been gearing to release later that summer. She initially wasn’t sure she’d survive the record, but a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade performance, a cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, and immediate, extensive touring following the January 2014 release of the album proved otherwise. To close this period of mortal uncertainty with a three-night headlining run at the Apollo is the cherry on top of a brutal, beautiful year.
“It’s a climax and a pinnacle in her career,” says Roth of Jones’s return to the Apollo. “You look at the context of the illness she’s battled and being on the road this year, and not only is she still going, she’s significantly stronger than she’s ever been. She hits the stage, and the moment she gets there? She’s a fire-breathing dragon.”
Plenty of new material was left on the table in various stages of completion when Jones’s diagnosis shook her and the Dap-Kings to the core. Some of these tunes that didn’t make the cut for Give the People What They Want could resurface on their forthcoming record, which is currently in the planning stages. Give the People What They Want was written and recorded long before Jones got sick, and the cancer changed the context of nearly every track. The razor edge of “Retreat!” may as well call out the disease attacking her body, rather than a man who’s been careless with her heart. “Get Up and Get Out” is less of an upbeat dismissal and more an empowering mantra that Jones looks forward to every night.
“It’s almost like I’m in church,” she says of “Get Up and Get Out.” “I use a little shtick, a little comedy to keep it from being so serious. I’ll try to imitate Tina Turner. It’s almost like I’m preaching. It’s almost like I’m telling a testimony in church, and I get to do that onstage.”
Charles Bradley offers up a more confessional quality in the soul of every stanza. While 2014 was Jones’s year, 2013 belonged to Bradley. The world fell hard for the 64-year-old singer known for his embroidered jumpsuits and kinetic stage performances, which often see him dash off into the audience to hug the fans in the first few rows. Before Bradley started working with Roth and his collaborator and bandleader Tom Brenneck on his first single, 2002’s “Take It as It Come (Parts 1 and 2),” he was donning a wig and doing a spot-on James Brown set every Sunday night at a rotation of bars in Bed-Stuy. Brenneck, a former member of Antibalas and the Dap-Kings as well as fellow Daptone acts the Budos Band and the Menahan Street Band, would write music for Bradley and take down his lyrics as he sang them. Bradley had an elementary reading level at the time, and getting the words down on paper as they wrote their way toward Bradley’s first full-length, 2011’s No Time for Dreaming, required Brenneck’s guidance. The howls and choreography from Bradley’s Brown interpretation remained intact during his live shows, with the Menahan Street Band providing direct support. After Bradley’s debut record, the adopted affectations started to give way to his own sentiments, and the lyrics he worked on with Brenneck started to take shape outside the shadow of his idol. Ballads and pleas for affection abounded, but chapters from Bradley’s life — which drew inspiration from horrific events, namely the brutal murder of his brother — started to play out one line at a time. With last year’s Victim of Love, Bradley’s sophomore release, audience members would not only embrace Bradley, but thank him for his compassion and candor.
He’s proud of that most of all. “I’m moving on to the next level, but I feel like everybody already knows a lot of my hurts and pains,” he says. Bradley has spent the majority of his time on the road since
See also: Charles Bradley: The Unstoppable, Untoppable Victim of Love
Victim of Love, but his world was recently thrown into a tailspin when his mother passed away and various problems arose with members of his family. “I’m still growing into society and in my own wisdom and knowledge. You put a scar on, the scar heals. I’m learning how to grow away from my hurts while remembering the scars, and to keep growing and creating music. I love everybody, but I want to do some crazy music, too.”
Bradley and Brenneck are currently working on what will be their third album together. Bradley is hoping for a spring release, but Brenneck says the fall of 2015 might be more realistic. Meanwhile, Bradley is still belting his voice hoarse and handing his heart to the audience every night.
“The highlight of the show is Charles speaking from his heart and giving a speech,” says Brenneck. “We gotta play a short set, and I feel like the way to go with it is to capture his speech at the Apollo, which will be some seven-minute breakdown of a ballad. You want to hear Charles’s tear-driven speech about the different colors of roses and all that.”
For Brenneck, the appeal of doing the Super Soul Revue at the Apollo lies largely in the unpredictable nature of the evening, when all 50-odd musicians are sitting in on each other’s sets. He’ll be especially busy at the Apollo. Like Roth, he has his hands in multiple Daptone projects: Bradley, the Menahan Street Band, the Budos Band. Brenneck says the real thrill in making the live recording is having the chance to capture the true essence of the artists’ sound in ways that aren’t always possible on their studio albums.
“In the studio we have complete control over it — we can have it sound as clean or as trashy as we want — but live, it’s a whole different beast,” he says of the process. “The songs are played differently. The tempos and energy are different.
I’m really most excited about a Budos live recording. I don’t want to just do a live version of a song everybody loves. At least with Budos, I want to do cover songs and medleys and just some cool live shit that we’d never put on a record.”
Brenneck is a perfect example of the typical Daptone musician: a guy who won’t be able to sit still at the Super Soul Revue, given his constant contributions to multiple sets. The structure of the evening isn’t rigid, in that the players from Antibalas can sidle up alongside the Budos Band or the Dap-Kings at any moment, and vice versa — and that’s the dynamic Daptone has made its calling card.
“When you see someone from Antibalas sitting in the horn section for the Dap-Kings, it’s not the same thing as when you see some dude from another band sitting in as a guest,” says Roth. “It’s not unfriendly competition or one-upmanship or anything, but it puts a lot of fire under your ass, to go out there and really bring it. It’s a family affair. It’s a bunch of cousins sitting around the table, really. We have a common musical philosophy and strategy. It’s really an amazing vibe to be able to share the stage with everybody like that.”
Though recording a live performance over three nights at one of the country’s most renowned venues would normally be an impossible — and expensive, given the theater’s union status — undertaking, Roth says the Apollo worked generously with Daptone not only to secure the Super Soul Revue, but also to make the live album a reality. The theater is excited for Daptone to join the ranks of Brown, King, Robert Palmer, and Hall & Oates in that exclusive Live at the Apollo club — as excited, possibly, as Roth and his artists are. They’re the current gatekeepers of soul, and the Gospel according to Sharon Jones or the tears of Charles Bradley bridge that gap between the vintage sounds of yesteryear and the heartaches and pains of today.
“Soul music is not dead,” says Jones. “Aretha can’t get up and do a show like she used to do. Mr. Brown ain’t even here anymore. Tina Turner can’t get out there and run around — she can do shows, but she’s retired. I just want people to hear our music. Soul music is still here, and we still have soul singers.”
And while Brown’s influence is tangible, true, and hanging on every word that passes across the lips of Bradley, Jones, Amayo, and the rest of the family Daptone, they’re ready to sign their names to the soulful legacy that begins with a walk through the back door, up those stairs and past those doors tattooed with greatness.
See also: Sharon Jones Rebounds After Cancer