Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse have so little in common on the surface that even the phrase “tenuous ties” is probably a bit of a stretch.
Sure, they’re both soulful singers. But the former spent much of the past 30 years on the fringes of the music industry, attempting — with little initial success — to make her mark first as a disco/soul diva, then as a session singer, all while moonlighting as both a prison guard on New York’s Rikers Island and a wedding singer. The latter has been in the business for a much shorter time, has a tremendous beehive, and is currently the object of frenzied media speculation (see “Amy Winehouse Cancels More Shows Due To ‘Health Issues,’ Denies Serious Drug Problems” ).
Yet thanks to a seriously funky group of Brooklynites and a British DJ with a passion for retro revisionism, Jones and Winehouse are now w-a-a-y closer than you’d ever imagine.
See, Jones began working with Bosco Mann (a.k.a. Gabriel Roth) and Neal Sugarman from the Dap-Kings, the house band for Daptone Records, back in the mid-’90s. In 2001, she cut a 45 with the group, which worked out so well that the following year, they all decided to work on a full-length, Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. The crackling, decidedly soulful debut earned Jones and the Kings a modicum of fame amongst NYC vinylphiles and jazzheads — one of whom included DJ and current producer-du-jour Mark Ronson, who has also seen success recently with Lily Allen’s LP (see “Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, More Do Their Versions Of Songs For DJ Mark Ronson” ).
“I just couldn’t believe that these guys in Brooklyn were getting this sound,” Ronson told MTV News. “It sounded like the records I loved.”
Ronson felt he had to work with Jones and company, a desire solidified by a handful of Dap-King singles — all released as 45s, in keeping with Daptone’s retro ways — and 2005′s Naturally. So when he began working with a British soul singer named Amy Winehouse, he hired the Kings to play on her sophomore album, Back to Black — but left Jones at home. And once again, it looked like she’d come up just short of the spotlight.
“[Industry executives] always told me I didn’t have the look, you know?” Jones sighed. “They told me I was too dark-skinned, too short, you know, too fat. And then once I got past 25, they told me I was too old. So when I was left out of [Winehouse's album], I thought, ‘That’s OK.’ But it was good — wasn’t weird, it was great. The Dap-Kings were doing some stuff; it’s great that there’s demand for them. But I was still thinking, ‘Get your own band!’ ”
That feeling was only amplified when Winehouse actually scooped up the Dap-Kings to be her backing group on her debut U.S. tour. But then, something pretty amazing happened: Back to Black became a smash on both sides of the Atlantic, and its success — coupled with Ronson’s constant big-upping of Jones and the Kings — suddenly meant that a whole lot of people were interested in finding out more about the group. Kanye West sampled them, and their Daptone Studio — with its creaky reel-to-reel machines — has become the destination for retro-leaning-yet-forward-thinking musicians.
On top of all that, Jones also happens to have a new record waiting in the wings, the fabulously funky 100 Days 100 Nights (due October 2). And though she’s now this close to earning the recognition she’s been working towards for, Jones finds all the newfound attention to be a bit annoying, honestly.
“I think that the record label should be heard and recognized more because of what we’re doing, and people are saying, ‘People are starting to bring this retro stuff back,’ ” she said. “But we’ve been here for 12 years. We started something and now there’s other people doing it. But they get major people behind it and it’s been seen and now [people think] they started it. Nah: We started it.”
The Dap-Kings were handpicked by Ronson to serve as the house band at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards on September 9 (see “Lil Wayne, Nelly Furtado, Common, Gym Class Heroes Added To VMA Lineup” ), and Jones is currently working on the Denzel Washington-directed “The Great Debaters,” where she plays — you guessed it — a soul singer. And the whole group will celebrate the release of 100 Days with a raucous release party at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, on October 6. Then it’s off to Europe for a string of shows. And Jones is setting her sights even higher … after all, she’s been developing her plan for world domination since the ’70s.
“I gotta work Oprah over on this one,” she laughed (Winfrey is actually a producer of “The Great Debaters”). “I’m going to be like ‘You gotta hear my band! You gotta!’ I’ve already been trying. I just saw [Oprah's pal] Gayle at the airport and I was like, ‘G-g-g-g-g,’ and I tried reaching into my bag for a CD but it was too late. Ah, next time.”