Sharon Jones was immediately memorable. At the time, about twenty years ago, Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Mann), the co-founder of the famed label, Daptone Records, needed three backup singers for a recording session. This was before Daptone Records existed. His saxophone player, Joe, recommended his then-girlfriend. She could bring two friends with her, Joe said. Roth agreed but, the next day, only Jones showed up.
“Why pay three when you can pay me?” she intoned. From that moment, Roth was hooked on her “irrepressible” energy. In many ways, he dedicated his life to being the tide that lifted her musical boat. And that effort continues today, despite Jones’ passing in 2016, with the forthcoming release of the new covers collection, Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Rendition Was In. The LP is set for release digitally on October 23rd and on vinyl November 29th.
“She had an energy and an intensity that I’ve never seen in any other person my whole life,” Roth says. “Right from the first session – I don’t think you could ever describe Sharon as shy. But she got stronger and stronger and more and more capable as a singer and performer. That spark of who she was well before I met her stayed with her until her last days.”
Jones, who released her first record as Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings at 40-years old, worked both as a corrections officer at Rikers Island in New York and an armed security guard for a bank before she got that break singing backup in 1996 (for a Lee Fields record). Five years after that session, Jones found herself in Barcelona with the Dap Kings for a month-long residency in 2001 to work on new music. Roth, who now played bass in the band he co-founded (“I think a bass player should usually be felt and not heard,” he says), remembers that the group solidified in that time togehter.
“We weren’t much of a band at that time,” Roth says. “We’d only played a couple of gigs. But over that residency, that’s when the Dap Kings gelled and became a unit. Then we just got stronger. The crowds got bigger and the show got better.”
The Daptone Records universe is responsible for some of the most indelible music in recent American history. The Dap Kings were the backing band for Amy Winehouse on her stunning record, Back to Black. Additionally, the label helped to discover and make famous the gravely voiced soul singer, Charles Bradley. Not to mention the countless songs recorded by Jones. Thinking about the history of the many fruitful collaborations, Roth admits it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.
“I feel mostly just fortunate to be able to work with these people,” he says. “With Sharon, it’s obviously bitter-sweet to think about her. I miss her a lot. I miss her everyday – standing behind her while she brought music to levels I know I’ll never see again.”
The collective’s new offering is a hit – or, it’s a collection of hits. The 13-track album, which includes well-known songs like “Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” and “This Land Is Your Land,” presents songs in several modes. At times the cuts are done in the style of the original, beat-for-classic-beat. Other occasions, however, the recognizable track is presented in a completely new way, as with the Prince song, “Take Me With U,” which might require a few listens before fans remember the original version. But each of the songs bring to life that classic Dap Kings rhythms, horn infusions and Jones’ light-up-a-room exuberance.
“It was hard to choose that track list,” Roth says. “For one reason or another, we’ve recorded about 30-40 covers, so we had a stockpile. But the hardest part was the horse-trading that went on to get the sequence together. For us, it’s never about quantity, it’s always about quality.”
Roth, who says he grew up with music all around, was born and raised in Riverdale, California. He moved to New York City when he was 17-years-old. It was there he fell into making records. Roth, who had ambitions to be a math teacher, founded one label and, when that folded around 2000, he co-founded Daptone Records (“Music found me,” he says). For the records he made, he’d engineer or play or promote – it didn’t matter. It was all about the sound and the philosophy. Make the music he and his family of cohorts wanted to make. At the time, he was tired of over-active songs. He wanted to hear the dum-dum-dum soul songs, reminiscent of Motown and other classics.
“It was just an attitude in the studio, an attitude towards making records,” Roth says. “In some ways, it’s a very punk rock attitude, making the records we wanted to make. We weren’t chasing anything anybody else was doing.”
Over the years, along with working with an incredible stable of musicians, Daptone Records became well known for recording with analog means, not digital. That, Roth says, is because if artists record digitally, there is often a more ephemeral nature to the work. It doesn’t feel as tactile, lasting. It’s not necessarily a sonic issue, more of a process one, he notes. That decision, however, has helped differentiate the music the label releases. It’s thick, feeling, in some way, like the classic, yellowed wallpaper on your favorite relative’s living room. But, as Roth says, that sense is hard to pinpoint. Talking about music, as they say, is like dancing about architecture.
“The more you talk about it, the further you’re getting from the truth of it,” Roth says. “I love the way it feels. That’s always what I try to stay focused on. When it feels good, you’re doing it right. And when you’re doing it right, it feels good.”
Check out our full album review, here.