Winning The War: A Q&A With Sharon Jones

Videos by American Songwriter

All musicians have their war stories, but few have fought as hard to make it as Sharon Jones. Jones worked as a prison guard and an armored car guard, all the while singing in churches, studio sessions and wedding bands, waiting for her big break. She finally got it when she was nearly 50 thanks to a “young white girl who brought back retro soul.” That girl was Amy Winehouse, and the group that backed her was Jones’ band the Dap-Kings. Once people got turned on to the Dap-Kings sound, it was just a matter of time before they found Jones, whose style harks back to greats like Otis Redding and Tina Turner. We talked with Jones about her struggles, her influences and life with the Dap-Kings.

You went through a long time without success. Did you ever think about giving up?

I did. I kept singing the gospel and doing little studio stuff and singing in wedding bands. That kept me going. Why didn’t I give up? I didn’t give up because I knew God had given me a gift. He didn’t give that to me not to use it. I knew one day people were going to accept me for my voice not because of how I look. I know I’m dark skinned, not light skinned, and short and fat.

Why do you think your sound has finally caught on now?

All I know is I have talent and I’ve been at this talent all my life. The fact that no one accepted it or didn’t want it, I have no idea why.

People often compare your live performances to James Brown and Tina Turner. Did you grow up watching them?

I didn’t. I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I was there when color came to TV. They didn’t have too many stations then, so you didn’t get to watch much. The only time I got to see black actors and singers was on Ed Sullivan. I did see James Brown twice. Once was when I was younger; it was before I was 12 because that’s when my dad died and he was there. I was like ‘Look daddy, he’s floating.’ I thought he was floating across the floor. The next time I saw him was in 2006 when he played at a festival I was performing on.

You must have taken something from what you did see.

Not much. One night, they taped me performing. By then I had seen James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and an Ike & Tina Revue on DVD. I saw myself and I was like “Wow. I do stuff like they did onstage. I never knew that. Now I see why people compare me to them.” Even when I was singer with an Italian wedding band, we’d do Whitney Houston and Motown and I always went out and got people to get up and dance. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was just in me. I didn’t need to watch James or Tina. All that stuff is natural.

You don’t write your own songs, but you do make the songs the Dap-Kings write your own. How do you do that?

It’s not like they bring songs in. We just have rehearsals. The drummer will pick up a guitar and come up with a melody line or the bass player will get on drums. The one who came up with it may also come up with some lyrics. But no one comes in and says “Sharon, I want you to sing this like this.” No. If I don’t feel it, I won’t sing it. You can’t teach me how to sing soul.

How do you know when a song is finished?

Oh, you know. A lot of songs, we perform them onstage first. Then when we go into the studio, we have it down. Sometimes, they’ll say “Sharon, do what you feel.” The song “Tell Me You Love Me,” [saxophonist] Neal [Sugarman] wrote that, but he didn’t say the words “Tell me you love me/Tell me you care.” I just started singing that. The spoken word intro to “Window Shopping,” no one told me to sing that. It came from my heart. I made it up.

Do you ever reject the songs they write for you?

There was one song [drummer] Homer [Steinweiss] wrote, where I was like “What the hell does that mean? I’m not singing that.” Sometimes they give me a song, but by the time I’m finished singing it, I’ll change the words. I’ll be like “That don’t make no sense” or “I don’t talk like that, this is how I’d sing it.”

Even when other people bring me in for their records, if you don’t want me to sing soul, don’t call me. Don’t hire me to be a pop singer. People ask what in the world am I doing behind Lou Reed? I’m being soulful.

When I sang with David Byrne, I had to go in two times. The first time, I asked “How do you want me to sing that?” and I did it. A couple months later he said, “Can you do it over?” I told my manager if I’m going to go sing it the way I sang it before, I won’t do it. David said “Sing it how you want.” That time, it was more like me.

Some people will do anything to make it, but that ain’t me. I’m not going to start kissing anybody’s behind. If I can’t be me on a song, I don’t want to sing it.

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings’ latest album, I Learned The Hard Way, is available now on Daptones Records.

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