As the voice behind one of the hottest record labels in Brooklyn, soul revivalist Sharon Jones has seen it all. Born in Georgia in 1956, she served as a corrections officer at Rikers Island prison for years, sneaking in talent shows and session work after hours. As such, Jones is one of a few select stars whose fame came late – she was in her 40s – but that doesn’t seem to bother the diva. After all, she got here the hard way, channeling the fighting spirit that lifted Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin from the church and the Chitlin’ Circuit to the bigger stages of Broadway. Her devotion to old-school soul icons like James Brown and Otis Redding is matched by her electric energy and tight arrangements.
After the jump, Jones explains about what Obama means for African American music, backs Etta James in her battle with Beyoncé, and runs rap’s bling fixation through the wringer.
Flavorwire: You’re not the “typical” star. What does it feel like to be an African-American, 50-something woman selling out venues across the country?
Sharon Jones: Well I’ve worked hard to get here. I think I’ve worked extra hard because I’m getting to a late age. Now, I’m starting to see the results from it. With all the singing and all the traveling, the nights up and the body hurting and the legs hurting and the voice coarse and trying to keep your head up and the smile up even when you’re hearing about bad things going on, you still have to get out there and pretend you’re feeling good and you’re happy. I think now, the work I’ve done is speaking for me.
FW: Thirty years ago, James Brown basically had to stop a race riot in Boston. Now, African-American artists like Stevie Wonder are singing at the inauguration of an African-American president. What role do you think music played in that shift?
SJ: I think it’s because President Obama is considered a black man, and he has all the black and soul around him. If you look back to the song by Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come,” you sing that song and everyone says, “Oh that song is about the President.” No, it is not about the President. The song is just about a black man and how race was back then and how he knew, one day, a change was gonna come, and he would be able to go the movies and not be afraid to go places and do things.
FW: Seems like he was right…
SJ: One more thing about the inauguration: Etta James is alive and Etta James did “At Last.” I feel that if Etta James is living and able to sing, she should’ve been singing “At Last” at that first dance for the President. Maybe she wasn’t able to do it, maybe that’s why they chose Beyoncé, or they chose Beyoncé because she did the movie, but they forgot about the one who did that song and that she’s alive. At least, they could have had her and Beyoncé share it. She’s been around and I guarantee she was sitting in her home, probably wishing she was there. She should have been offered to sing that song. Maybe they did, maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I feel.
FW: Anyone else that should have been there?
SJ: You know who else I missed who wasn’t there? Mavis Staples. She’s still around and I even e-mailed her and said, “I guess your father and Mr. King are probably shouting in heaven!” Those were my words I wrote to her because I knew her and her father when we were kids. They used to follow King and sing behind him at those meetings and rallies and they weren’t even there. Even now that I’ve been out 13 years with my band, and we’ve been bringing it back, seeing the young kids come up like Amy [Winehouse] and Duffy and all them. Yes, they all know that the old soul and stuff got them going where they are, but they also got going by listening to some of the stuff we’ve been doing and knowing that there are bands now that can do this. But none of them will say that.
FW: Is that a new phenomenon?
SJ: I was never that younger-type, staying on the scene. Once the ’80s came around, I was in my late 20s, early 30s. When I was younger, they told me that I didn’t have the looks. I was too dark skinned, too short, too fat, and then, once I was past 25, I was too old. Look at me now! I might be 50-something years old, but I’m very proud that God blessed me and that I’m still going. I’m not doing it on a big record label, no big company has me, I’m not getting paid millions! But we have this company, Daptone Records. I stayed with Daptone, and I helped build Daptone Records so it’s part of me too. This is my job and it’s my life. We’re sticking to what we’re doing and maybe one day we could be a Motown or a Stax.
FW: You guys are doing great work…
SJ: Oh yeah! We got some gospel coming. I just want to watch the label grow, because I’m not going to be able to be out here jumping around and singing like this all my life, but when I do sit down and retire, I still want something. I believe in this company, in Daptone, because that’s us, because I believe in the music and what we’re doing. We’re not imitating, that’s truly what we are… Hire a singer to sing it note-for-note for you, but when you hire me, Sharon Jones, you’re gonna get some soul.
FW: Do you see that soul in rap and other popular music today?
SJ: I don’t know. Everything is so phony and so programmed, you know? It’s programmed to make money so that’s what they do. They use 30-40 dancers on stage. I’m not going to down the music, but I just couldn’t let go of soul music to get into this stuff. Once the electronics and synthesizers come in and you take away the band, you take away the horns and the drums, you’re taking away soul. It’s just beat because half the time you don’t know what they’re singing. All you’re doing is listening to the beat. Back in the old days, you listened to soul and you heard the lyrics and wanted to sing along because it sounded so good.
FW: The beat and funk of soul hasn’t changed since the ’60s but a lot has. Do you think that type of music is still relevant today?
SJ: No, it’s old-school. Naomi Shelton is singing old stuff for us. We got bands behind her with the organ and drums and background singers with a little bass and guitar, but it’s not contemporary. Nowadays they take gospel samples in hip-hop stuff like, [raps] “You know that, you know that, Jesus, Jesus!” They got the kids praise dancing and jumping around dancing to stuff like that in the church, but I guess anything that gets the children interested in church and in God and in the Bible. Like I said, I’m not going to down it. I’m not saying that I would do it, but that’s how it is. Some people go a little too far, I think. I think you should think and carry yourself a certain way in church. Church is not a club, so I don’t think you should be “up in the club” snapping your fingers and carrying on and wearing baggy pants or short dresses, you know. You should have a little respect. I don’t want to hear synthesizers and drums so loud you can’t even hear the words. And the words they got coming out of their mouths, “Girls up in the, yap-a-dap yada yada, G’s up,” what is that?
FW: When we hear your music we don’t hear the church and the gospel coming through as much as the funk and dance.
SJ: The gospel stuff I sing is different than the contemporary stuff in the church is what I meant. But the gospel with me? Oh yeah, you hear that in my songs. Gospel, soul and blues, that’s all connected. Look at “Answer Me.” That’s a gospel song but I gave it a little more funk sound with the horns and the drums and congas because we did it with the Dap Kings, so that’s what gave it the soul flavor, but it’s still gospel.
FW: What do you say to the kids who hear a sample from old soul singers and they don’t know they’re hearing their own history?
SJ: The people back in those days were working so hard and singing from their heart. They weren’t recognized for what they did or paid enough for what they did, but they stayed sincere. To the young people nowadays: if you’re gonna do some music, watch your lyrics and watch what you’re saying and make it have some sense. You don’t need to be grabbing your crotch and singing about how much money you got and how much gold you got or how many women you got. It doesn’t have to be all about that, right? How about something good, something nice? Look at Michael Jackson who came out with a simple song, “A.B.C.,” you know, they were little kids! The little kids now come up with “yo, yo I got my bling, bling,” you know what I’m saying? Do your own thing; don’t try to follow someone else, but take something and make your own thing out of it.