By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Jones began singing in church when she was very young, picking up any instrument she could get her hands on. She went to Brooklyn College. Got a part in an Off-Broadway play, Sister Salvation. She wound up singing in a wedding band and, famously, picked up work as a corrections officer at Rikers Island. (One day while on lockdown for fear of a riot, prison staff erected bars around the booth Jones worked in, as a precaution. "The rumor was inmates were going to take a female hostage," she says. She resigned shortly after. That was 1990. "It was an omen," she says. "It wasn't meant for me.")
When smoky-voiced soul singer Lee Fields needed a trio of girls to sing backup, Jones' then-boyfriend told her she'd be perfect for the gig.
"I knew from the day I met Sharon, she was destined to be a star," says Fields.
Nearly two decades since Jones first took the stage with the Dap-Kings, playing tiny clubs then building upward, she has repeatedly validated Fields' first impression. Live, she's a ball of kinetic energy: a bopping spitfire with a silken voice unlike anything in modern music. She and Daptone are an anomaly in the music business — a financially viable and critically acclaimed independent label in an era when such a thing is at best implausible.
They're also an introduction to soul music for some, harbingers of a sound that once was but largely is no more.
"I never would have thought that I would be doing this for a living," muses a silver-soul-patched Sugarman, poking at a bowl of pho at a Vietnamese restaurant not far from Daptone's Brooklyn headquarters. "I remember thinking at some point along that, 'Wow, Sharon could be a star.' I'm the proudest that we've done it on our own terms."
"Our own terms" means Daptone is a completely homegrown, in-house operation whose members write, produce, record and release their own records. They started with a handful of 45 rpm singles (including ones by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) and now regularly release albums by other groups with close ties, like the Sugarman 3, Antibalas, Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band (who have been sampled by Jay Z).
It's an environment in which most groups take turns playing musical-contributing chairs on projects that only seem to knit the familial web tighter. It's a creative hothouse where musicians are able to pay the rent without having to resort to picking up gigs in a cover band.
"Sometimes the world actually works the way it's supposed to work. People who are actually incredibly musically talented, like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, catch on the way they should," says Richard Lewis, who, along with Michael Robinson, created Dig Deeper, a recurring Brooklyn event where long-lost or underappreciated soul and reggae performers get their due onstage, often performing for the first time in decades.
"The first time I ever saw Sharon was with Lee Fields at [now defunct] Wetlands," says Robinson. "They were just a knockout. How the hell did I not know about these guys? I'd listen to Sharon if she sang the phone book."
Much of the initial success of the Daptone label — and certainly what first got people interested and then fully onboard — was Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. That first handful of 45s has grown and grown. The band's 2010 album, I Learned the Hard Way, has sold more than 150,000 copies domestically and 200,000 copies in Europe, numbers most major labels would be happy about.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have gone from covering their favorite artists to sharing the stage and studio with luminaries such as Al Green, Prince and Lou Reed. In 2007 producer Mark Ronson recruited the Dap-Kings to lay the foundation for Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, an album that would quickly go platinum, garner an astounding quintet of Grammys and elevate the group into the top tier of hired musical guns.
"When we first started, we'd go to Europe and make, like, $50 a night. I'd come home, and I'd go to my church to ask the deacon to borrow money," Jones says. "Then at some point, I'd go away again on tour, come back and I didn't have to borrow money. You got to crawl before you can walk," she says with a nod more to her future than her past.
In seventeen-odd years, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have managed what remains seemingly unattainable for many musicians: top-to-bottom creative control. Cancer, however, can't be managed so easily.
The chemotherapy Jones underwent last year sapped her of most her strength and caused her ubiquitous box braids to fall out.
"They sent me to get a wig. I put that thing on and I looked like Dionne Warwick. I'm not wearing this wig! I always wear my hair natural. I'm not going to do the wig thing," she says.
While at Holken's home in October, Jones lifted her blouse to reveal the shiny, six-inch incision north of her navel from which surgeons removed her gall bladder, the head of her pancreas and about a foot and a half of diseased small intestine. "They had to rebuild a bile duct to my stomach and connect it," Jones explains.