Since the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown came out in 2002, house bands have started to get a fraction of their proper respect. The trusty all-night workers who manned legendary studios like those at the Motown, Stax and Hi Records labels are the leading characters in the secret history of rock 'n' roll. It's their ace riffage that creates the signature sound that built legacies. Booker T. and the MGs, whose membership at points included Isaac Hayes and Donald 'Duck" Dunn of Blues Brothers fame, made their bread-and-butter at the iconic Memphis Stax label. In New Orleans, go-to sidemen like Earl Palmer, now a legend in his own right, were once strictly behind-the-scenes. Their sounds were famous, but outside the business, their names were not. In recent years, the trend of sidemen stepping gingerly into the spotlight has been burgeoning. Indie rock star Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) enlisted a band of first-call Memphis session men to give her gorgeously soulful 2006 album The Greatest the genuine '60s sound they'd provided on tracks for Al Green and Isaac Hayes, and instead of just signing their checks for studio time, she made their presence a major promotional aspect of the album. Now, as if they've emerged straight from the way-back machine, the Dap-Kings " a band more likely to have been teething in the '60s than recording " are stepping, if somewhat consciously in their snappy suits, into the role of a go-to house soul band. Most notably, the band gave the popular retro-R&B trainwreck Amy Winehouse her sexy, deep soul sound on the 2007 hit Back to Black, laying down the thrilling, vintage horn sounds that had pop-culture pundits lauding her as a soul savior. Most of the band members played in the house band (then called the Soul Providers) for Desco, a New York-based boutique label that, in its four years of existence in the late '90s, put out a stellar catalog of soul and deep funk releases that included Dap-Kings vocalist Sharon Jones' first singles.
The fiftyish Jones, whose honeyed, ripe belting is as authentic as soul gets, is a relatively late bloomer in the music biz. Born in 1956 in Augusta, Ga., Jones sang in church as a child and, in her free time, fervently studied the vocal style and unhinged dancing of her fellow Augustan James Brown. Throughout her life, Jones did session work sporadically while holding down hardcore day gigs as a prison guard at New York's Rikers Island and as an armored-car guard for Wells Fargo.
It was one of those session gigs for Desco that jumpstarted her career, though according to her own press materials, Jones was 'skeptical of the 21-year-old Jewish kid behind the glass" at the Desco studio who thought she had the stuff of a soul queen.
After Desco folded, Jones took off. With a reorganized version of the Soul Providers " now the Dap-Kings " she cut a hurried debut, Dap-Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, to generate funds during a 2001 summer residency with the band in Spain. It was also the inaugural release for the Daptone label, which was formed post facto by members of the Dap-Kings and Desco's former engineer. Gaining momentum with their genuine-but-not-nostalgic groove, Jones and the Dap-Kings, sidekicks extraordinaire for years, managed to groove their way up to the front with enthusiastic notices from both the soul and blues scene and the pop press. The years 2005 and 2006 were a one-two punch with the excellent Naturally and the subsequent, Billboard-charting 100 Days, 100 Nights, released this month. This year, Jones even made her big-screen debut as a singer in Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters, to which she also contributed songs.
In the mold of bands like Booker T. and the MGs (with whom Jones sang in Brooklyn last summer), the session work has hardly slowed since the Dap-Kings began making a name as a headliner. Besides the high-profile Amy Winehouse gig, the band and Jones have recorded with top artists and producers like Kanye West, Public Enemy's Hank Shocklee and Lou Reed. Stop by and offer some well-deserved applause for the band behind the curtain.
- Kim Nguyen
- Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings met in the studio and are now headlining their own shows in the new soul revival.