On a recently aired rerun of Law & Order, a young detective tells Lt. Anita Van Buren, played by the great S. Epatha Merkerson, of plans to pursue a case in a manner that was "old-school."
Van Buren replies with an almost motherly wariness. "Old-school? You mean, you're going to do it right."
Sharon Jones let out a hearty laugh when the scene was conveyed to her. She marvels when terms like "old-school" or "retro" are tossed about to describe the soul sounds that she creates with her celebrated band, the Dap-Kings.
In a way, though, such descriptions are unavoidable. Jones' music has the vocal clarity, orchestral precision and regal emotive finesse that recalls soul and R&B music as it existed in the late '60s and early '70s. But such a sound is anything but a museum piece to Jones, born in Georgia and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.. She is simply piloting today with the Dap-Kings the same soul inspirations that she has known all her life.
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"I know it seems strange, but I'm not retro," Jones said. "I'm 54 years old. I'm a soul singer. I was born in '56. In '66, when I was 10, soul music was way out there. James Brown and everyone were out there jamming with these great soul songs. So I've got all of that in me.
"I watched the artists on The Ed Sullivan Show. And I grew up on AM radio, so I listened to everything — country music, rock, soul, R&B. Everybody listened to everything. So we knew this stuff. That's who we are.
"Now, the guys in the band are very young. When I met them, the drummer was, like, 16. They were going around collecting these old 45s and albums. That was their thing. But they also happened to be musicians who really loved the sound of the music they were collecting. For them, it was like, 'Wow, this is what they did in those days! They were so cool!' So here are these guys playing just like they played back in the day. And here I am singing like that. And you know why? Because I am from 'back in the day.'"
Like so many of the great soul music stylists, Jones can trace her career to the gospel songs she sang in church as a youth. But she was just as aware of the growing influence of James Brown and other landmark artists.
"I learned so much just watching all these artists like Aretha (Franklin), James Brown and Otis Redding. I learned from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, too. They got their stuff from over here. As a little girl, I sang this stuff and danced around to this music. Now I'm singing it. I'm not singing no pop or hip-hop. I'm sticking to what is in my range and up my alley, and that's soul."
She started singing with soul and funk groups in the '70s and regularly worked in studios as a backup vocalist, but it took a while for Jones' own career to materialize.
"Coming up over the years, people kept telling me, especially in the late '70s and early '80s, that I didn't have the look. I would go into the studios and they would just turn me down. So I stuck to my gospel singing because that was so close to R&B."
That led to a seemingly radical career shift, from would-be singing star to work as a corrections officer at New York's Rikers Island jail complex, and later as an armored-car guard for Wells Fargo. It was a time that almost hopelessly removed Jones from the art of making music. But it kept her well in tune with real life.
"It helped me a lot just in being able to relate to people," Jones said. "In corrections, I learned never to show fear. People always ask me to compare that work to my music. I really can't. But they are both parts of life. I just always wanted to help people, to be there for someone. If I couldn't help them through music, then maybe I could through some other job."
Enter a Brooklyn soul music enterprise that eventually became Daptone Records, fronted by music entrepreneur Gabriel "Bosco Mann" Roth and saxophonist Neil Sugarman. The two also formed the nucleus of an orchestral-style soul band called the Dap-Kings. Daptone's first release teamed the ensemble with Jones. The title of the 2001 recording said it all: Dap Dippin' With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
As fan bases began to develop among indie-pop audiences, Jones and the Dap-Kings also enjoyed separate successes after the release of their breakthrough third album, 2007's 100 Days, 100 Nights. Jones wound up with soundtrack work and an acting role — in the Denzel Washington-Forest Whitaker film The Great Debaters — and The Dap-Kings gave a serious soul boost to the career of British pop-soul train wreck Amy Winehouse.
Now, with an extraordinary fourth album, I Learned the Hard Way, Jones and the Dap-Kings have cemented their stature as new-generation soul voices. It might seem old-school on the surface, with songs including The Game Gets Old, She Ain't a Child No More and the album's majestic title tune. But the music boasts a clarity and immediacy that are anything but retro.
"Soul music ain't something you can count off every few measures as you go," Jones said. "Oh, no. You've got to feel it. It all comes from the heart. And that's what you hear when we're onstage — that presence, that happiness, that spirit. You're feeling what we're feeling."