Who needs three women when you have one Sharon Jones?
Producers at the now-defunct Brooklyn label Desco Records found themselves asking the same question in 1996 when Jones, a former corrections officer and Wells Fargo armored-car guard, arrived in their studios to record backing vocals for soul legend Lee Fields.
“They wanted three girls for the part,” Jones explains, “but I said, ‘Why use three girls when I can take on all three parts?'”
When the other two singers booked to sing backup on the album didn't show up for work, Jones lived up to her assertion by laying down vocals for all three vocal parts. Suddenly, the Augusta, Ga., native's music career was launched—some 20 years later than most women in music get their first big break.
“That was almost 12 years ago,” Jones recalls. “I was already 40 years old at the time!”
Jones tried to break into the music business in her early 20s but was turned down, primarily, she says, because of an undercurrent of racism running through the industry.
“They were telling me, because of my dark skin, I didn't have the look they wanted,” the 51-year-old Jones says. “You know, they told me I was too dark, too short, too fat. All of that bottled up in me. But I knew God gave me a gift and that one day people would accept me for that.”
These days, people are more than accepting Jones—they're celebrating her. In recent years, critics have lauded her band, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, with glowing reviews, comparing Jones to Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight or referring to her as the “female James Brown.” Members of the European press have even crowned Jones the
“Queen of Funk,” a title that she relishes.
“I love all those comparisons to the classics,” she laughs. “I definitely hear the ‘Aretha' thing with our new album”—the soul-infused 100 Days, 100 Nights, recently released on Brooklyn's Daptone Records—“and some of the songs remind me of that Tina Turner flavor.”
But Jones scoffs at critics who say her band's music is merely an imitation of a particular genre of artists.
“You won't hear a song we've done and say, ‘Oh, they ripped that off of so-and-so,'” she says. “You'll probably hear something that reminds you of it, but we're not trying to rip off anything. We're just trying to play what we feel and what we hear. To us, the good music was the music they wrote in the '60s and early-'70s. That's how we try to keep our sound.”
That sound has garnered attention from several artists, many of whom have asked Jones to collaborate with them, including Rufus Wainwright and They Might Be Giants. But one of the most memorable collaborations for Jones was her work with Lou Reed.
At the end of 2006, Reed asked Jones and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) to perform with him and a full children's choir in a stage production of Reed's album Berlin for four days in New York City and three days in Sydney, Australia. Jones says Reed didn't initially give her a lot of creative freedom until the tour arrived in Australia, where Reed asked Jones to sing “Sweet Jane” with him.
“At first, he was like, ‘I sing it like this,' and he would sing the melody to me,” Jones says. “But I was thinking to myself, ‘If I have to sing this song the way you're singing it, I'm not going to do it.' So he told me, ‘Sharon, you take this one the way you want to do it. Sing this song the way you feel.'”
Jones took that opportunity to show Reed and the Australian audience what she was capable of as a performer.
“I got up there that night and I went into this Tina Turner thing and I was jumping around,” she says proudly. “By the end of it, I looked over at Lou, and he literally had tears in his eyes.”
Since that performance, Jones' life has been an emotional roller-coaster. This year alone, she's experienced the deaths of “22 close friends and family members,” including her brother. She also starred in the upcoming feature film The Great Debaters with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker and contributed a song to the movie's soundtrack.
Jones says each of these experiences has provided her with a level of energy on stage that many people might find surprising, especially given her age.
“That energy I have, it comes from me focusing everything that comes into my life, whether positive or negative,” she explains. “I have to make a show out of it. I have to channel it.
“It's been a long year,” she continues, “but I feel like I'm ready to come back. I'm ready to hit the road. I'm going to get on stage and let it all out.”
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings play at 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, at Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave. in Solana Beach. 858-481-8140. www.daptonerecords.com.