Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff
Gabe Roth Of The Dap-Kings Talks Sharon Jones Legacy & New Covers Album
There's a special power, a comforting feeling, in truly timeless music, in songs and rhythms that age like a fine wine and remain deeply meaningful as the years go by. Think of the gems from artists like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind & Fire and Prince, tracks that can be played at every wedding, birthday party and graduation and never get old. At Daptone Records in Brooklyn, N.Y., launched by musicians Gabe Roth and Neal Sugarman in 2002, creating authentic, soulful, timeless music runs through everything they do and release.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings are one of the label's acts that truly embodied this ethos. Jones' powerhouse, rich vocals and ecstatic, inviting stage presence paired with the funky instrumentation of the full band—the all-stars musicians of Daptone, including Roth on bass and Sugarman on tenor saxaphone—was an energic force of pure soul and heart. Sadly, their leading lady died in November 2016 from pancreatic cancer at age 60.
Their final studio album, Soul of a Woman, was recorded with her but released in November 2017. Now, on Oct. 23, the world was gifted a treasure trove of gems from the archive of the GRAMMY-nominated band in the form of 13 lively covers on Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Rendition Was In).
We spoke to Roth—who was also the primary songwriter and producer of the group—ahead of the release of the new covers album to learn more about compiling the project, the stories behind the sessions, Jones' legacy and the not-so-secret magic of Daptone.
Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Rendition Was In) comes out soon. What does it mean to you and the band to share this collection of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings music with the world?
It's nice to be able to keep putting out music. We recorded a lot of stuff over the years, and a lot of it didn't come out or was never really widely released. We did songs for commercials and movies and different things, and outtakes from albums and stuff. So it's cool to be able to keep putting stuff out, and hopefully introduce some new people to Sharon and all her music and to the band.
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@sharonjones & the Dap-King’s new collection of covers will be available on LP as an exclusive RSD Black Friday release. The LP features a tranluscent blue with black splatter color vinyl. Also available digitally October 23rd. Listen to the new single, "Little by Little” via link in bio. Throughout their career, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings remained in high demand both publicly and privately to recreate and often re-imagine songs by other artists. More often than not, these covers were recorded by request – commissioned for placement in movies, television programs, tribute albums, or for samples. This album compiles some of their most popular as well as never-before-heard renditions. #RSDBF #sharonjones #daptonerecords #daptone #sjdk
What was it like working on the album, digging through the archives and putting it all together?
You know, it's bittersweet. It's hard. Obviously, I miss Sharon a lot. She was my sister. And hearing her voice sometimes tears me up a little bit. But is also pretty cool to kind of revisit all those things, particularly because these sessions, we went for all these covers, and they came from so many different places. Some of them went back really far into the beginning of her career, stuff we recorded in 2000, and some of them were more recent, shorter before she passed. And so it was kind of cool to revisit all those old sessions, and go through a bunch of stuff.
It was a little bit of a hard process picking out what to put on there because there's actually a lot of covers and stuff that we didn't put on there. But between the band and everybody at the label—and everybody kind of fought it out—I think we got it down to a really nice collection of songs. It was a little bit bittersweet but it was fun too.
And it was a lot of research trying to find the old tapes for some of this stuff, stuff that I remembered recording, but nobody remembered where the tapes were or what it was called. There was a little bit of just excavation on it.
I really like the range of genres and decades that the music came from. There's Stevie Wonder, there's disco, there's folk. It is really cool to hear all those different sounds with the sort of soulful flavor that Sharon and the band give to it.
Yeah. It was fun to try to—putting it together, it gives a sense of that. I mean, the band's mostly done originals, particularly on the albums and stuff. We haven't done many covers. But something about when you do a cover tune, in some ways, it kind of lays bare the sound of Sharon and the band because it takes all the composition and arrangement out of it, and says, "Okay. Well, this is how these people make music." If you take a song you already know, this is what it sounds like coming through these people, in this room. That's cool in some ways. It kind of distills the sound of the band in a particular way.
And I think particularly when you start looking at, well, here's a Stevie Wonder song ["Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours"]. Here's a Prince song ["Take Me With U"]. Here's a Dusty Springfield song ["Little by Little"], and you kind of span the genres, like you said, I think that it even more clearly illustrates what the sound of the band is. Because as unique as all these different things sound, there's this common feeling that runs throughout it. Regardless of what song it is that the band was playing, there's a common sound. And so it's kind of cool to bring that into focus a little bit.
Gabe Roth in the studio | Photo: Bryan Ponce
That's so true. Do you have a favorite memory—it can be more than one—from recording any of these covers?
Oh man. There's a lot of stuff on there that I really enjoyed. Even the earliest one on there is "What Have You Done for Me Lately?," which I think was one of a couple that was on the album. And that was for the first album I did with Sharon, and we'd done 45s and stuff before that. It was actually my sister's idea to try to cover a Janet Jackson tune to get something from the late '80s and put our sound on it.
So that was pretty fun, that one in particular, because I remember trying to rearrange it. And then I think for the press release for that record, when that 45 came out, we did a fake newspaper article about how Sharon was suing Janet Jackson for stealing her song, which of course wasn't true. It was just a cover of a Janet Jackson song, but we tried to fool people into thinking this was the original version. We had a lot of fun with that. And Sharon really dug into it over the years. That was a good one.
That's the other thing, most of these were done on commission. Meaning, somebody came to us and said, "Hey, we need a version of the Dap-Kings playing this particular song," either for a TV commercial or a movie, or for a sample for a rap, or whatever it was. For a compilation, a tribute record, or something. There are all these different reasons over the years that people would come to us and say, "Hey, can you do a cover of this song for us?"
And it puts you in a different mind space than when you're working on your own records, your own music. I mean, you're doing something for somebody else. And there's something in some ways—I don't want to say you take it less seriously—it's always kind of casual and loose. There's always a more laid-back approach. I think you hear it, even on [Musique's 1978 disco track] "In the Bush" or something like that. We never would've thought to cover a tune like that. That was for the soundtrack to The Wolf of Wall Street.
They didn't end up using it, but they asked us to record it. We ended up being the wedding band in one scene in that movie. They had us record all these songs and they only ended up using "Goldfinger" and one other one, "Baby Got Back," which is a really weird one. But we recorded a lot of stuff for it and "In the Bush" was something we recorded relatively quickly, and didn't really overthink it, we just had fun with it. I think that's why we tried to do a cover that was a little more lighthearted for this one too.
And even though I'm real proud of them, they came out great, at the time we weren't really thinking of them as an album or something that was even—a lot of them we were assuming would be anonymous.
And it's interesting because I think some of the tunes on there, for example, like a Stevie Wonder cover or the Gladys Knight cover ["Giving Up"] on it, those were tunes that people asked us to do, basically replays. Meaning, they couldn't afford the original master so they figured they'd pay the publishing, and then we would play the tune the same way. That happens often for commercials and sometimes for other things, where somebody wants the music, but they can't afford the Motown license, or something. So those are types of things we'd done over the years, kind of anonymously for commercials or something like that. The publishers still get their money, but basically we were trying to recreate the masters.
And those were interesting because they were really learning experiences for us, not just as musicians, but as far as arrangement, recording and everything. Listening to a Motown tune or something like that, and really trying to get your head inside how they put this together, exactly what every instrument's doing and how they sound, and trying to recreate that, those are kind of fun.
And then there's other tunes that are the opposite of that, like the Prince cover. That was something that we tried to deconstruct as much as possible, to the point it was barely recognizable. We were like, "Okay, we really want to do our own thing with this," and see how much the composition would tolerate as far as being taken apart before it is completely unrecognizable.
So some of those things, we really were much more creative as far as rearranging them, and doing our own take on them. And the album has a nice blend of stuff that was very kind of rote replays of us trying to make it exactly sound like Motown or something, and other things that are very much reimagined. And then other things that are kind of in the middle, like a casual cover of a tune. So it was pretty fun to put together.
That's really interesting and something I never really thought about, the composition of cover songs for ads or whatnot. I guess I assumed you could buy the sheet music, but obviously you're not just playing it on the piano, it's with the band. So, how do you approach it? Especially with a song like "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," that's so well known. How do you get to the "recipe" of what makes it sound like the original?
I mean, the sheet music wouldn't help you that much, unless somebody had really chartered out every instrument or something. You just listen. You get in the studio, and you put it on, everybody listens to exactly what's happening. "Oh, there's two drum sets, one's on the left, one's on the right. One's playing these fills. One's playing this rhythm. Then there's the tambourine, and this is the rhythm. There is a piano. Piano is kind of buried. It's dark, it's down there, it's playing this chord, but playing that inversion."
Just getting the details of every part of it, the horns, and every layer of your arrangement, with every guitar. And particularly with the Motown stuff, it tends to be very layered. It's not three or four people. It tends to be a lot of musicians playing a lot of different things. And the way it's mixed, it's kind of subtle. Not everything is upfront. There's some things kind of buried in the mix. And it's fun, particularly when it's a tune like that, that's not just iconic, but a tune that you've known and loved and listened to your whole life, because you think you know it. But then when you get in and try to pull it back layer by layer, and really figure out exactly what's going on in all the instruments and how the arrangement comes together, you realize all these cool things that are going on that you never really noticed. You might've kind of felt them, but you never really noticed some piano or second drum set, or third guitar part, or whatever it is, these things in the background.
So it's a little bit painstaking, but it's really fun. And for me, at least, and I think for everybody it's kind of educational to hear these great pieces of music that you think you know, but you go back into them and it's like an academic exercise. Like, you may read Shakespeare, but then you go to a literature class and they go into it and say, "Look what he did here. This is iambic pentameter. And this is a sonnet, and a couplet." Just figuring out the language, and the patterns, and the intricacies of why something works, that was really interesting. And I think stuff like that has really contributed to the sound of the band.
I mean, even things that we didn't record, particularly at the beginning of our career, the Dap-Kings and Sharon, we always used to do covers and stuff in our live shows. We'd be on the road in the van listening to the same mixtapes together, and there'd be some song we'd all be real turned on by. And then we'd work it out in soundcheck, and play it as part of the show. I think doing that is really important. Right now, I think people shy away from covers because they feel like there's some kind of lesser integrity or something to playing a cover than to be playing originals all the time. But the thing about playing a cover tune is, there's great music that came before us, and it's pretty narcissistic to think there's nothing worth playing that you didn't write.
When you dig into that music, particularly music that you love and that influences you, and you play it, you feel it differently than when you just listen to it. Your muscles start going through the emotions of those musicians you love. And you take it into your subconscious, into your bloodstream. People are always talking about their influences, but when you actually play that music, it becomes part of you in a deeper way. So I think covers are really important for every band. I mean, not as much that people need to hear them play it, but it's just good for the musicianship, and the sound of a group to be able to kind of throw out those things, and play them, the exercise of it.
I'm always drawn to covers because I feel like, in most cases, it brings new life or a new imagining to a song. And it's cool when, especially if we're talking about younger people, a cover could bring them to the original artist.
Sure. I mean, it can be an arrow in both directions. It can be people who don't know who Sharon Jones is, but are avid Stevie Wonder fans. They may hear that tune, and find out about Sharon and all of a sudden discover a whole new universe of music. But even more so, it could be Sharon Jones fans that maybe never got that deep into Gladys Knight or something like that. They hear that like, "Man, that tune is amazing." And they go check out the original, like, "Oh, that's even better." Then they check out even more stuff. So yeah, it's a really good way to kind of bridge worlds of music, and for people to check out more stuff, find music that they love.
And for the album, did each song have to get okayed by the artist or their estate? Or how does recording covers work, generally?
Well, there's a statutory rate when you perform somebody's composition. And so whoever wrote the song gets paid a certain amount of money when it gets recorded and reproduced. If you start changing it, like Al Yankovic or somebody does, you really start changing the composition, then you have to go to them and get permission and work it out with them because it becomes a derivative work. That's a little complicated. But if you're doing a straight cover, like pretty much everything on this record, and you're respecting the lyrics and the melodies of the original, you don't really need permission. You just have to pay them the publishing side of the income. It's their income, whoever wrote the song. Not the artist [unless they wrote it] to be clear, though, because it's not their performance.
I think the biggest thing that people tend to not understand, and it leads to a lot of confusion—there's two different copyrights to any record. There's the copyright to the recording itself, that performance, that piece of tape that has that performance on it, by that artist, those musicians, that singer. And then there's the composition. And they're two totally different copyrights. For example, "This Land is Your Land" was written by Woody Guthrie, he owns that composition. It doesn't matter who performs it. He owns it. If you want to use it and make money off it, you have to pay, the publishing money has to go to him. However, whoever performs it and records it, they own the master copyright, the recording copyright, to that version. So our cover of his tune, then it's our master and his publishing.
It's like when the Beatles did "Twist and Shout," the Beatles or Capitol Records or whoever's in charge, owns the master rights to that, but the publishing is owned but the Isley Brothers. It's always going to be owned by the Isley Brothers. So it's interesting. And there's, there's a lot deeper stuff as far as the way it works with radio income and public income, and how it's different in America. In America, when your song is put on the radio, the artist gets zero.
I know, it's crazy. Shifting gears a bit, what does Sharon's legacy mean to you?
She wasn't just a great singer, but an unbelievable performer. She was really like a superhero. Her live show, and how she was on stage, and her energy, and soulfulness, and the way she connected with the audience and stuff? Man, I don't think there'll ever be another like her. That's, to me, one of the most important things, as far as my responsibility to try to not let that be forgotten, to let her stay in the mind of everybody long after I'm gone.
Personally for me, she's probably the closest person in my life I ever lost. And she was a sister to me, and she basically helped build my whole adult life and my career. And even the way I feed my kids today, I know it's all basically on the back of her, and the way that she hit the stage, that everything came out of that. All the success the band had, and all the success Daptone Records had, and everything else. And my ability to make money as a producer and a songwriter and everything else, it all came out of her sweating on stage.
I miss her a lot. I'm very grateful to her, and I do everything I can to try to let people know about who she was. As years go by, and the people who were at her shows get older, and the younger people aren't familiar with her, and there's new scenes popping up, and she becomes a little bit less and less connected to the present, I feel it's important, particularly with records like this, to remind people who the queen was, and make sure she doesn't get forgotten. It's important to keep her music fresh in everybody's ears not just because she deserves it, but because I think people deserve it. They deserve to hear her voice.
"I feel it's important, particularly with records like this, to remind people who the queen was, and make sure she doesn't get forgotten. It's important to keep her music fresh in everybody's ears not just because she deserves it, but because I think people deserve it. They deserve to hear her voice."
I love that. And can you give me a little bit of the origin story of forming Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Daptone Records? How did everything sort of start?
Well in the '90s, I had a different record label, Desco Records. At Desco, we had brought Lee Fields in to do some records. And we brought Sharon in too. At the time was going out with Joe Hornback, the saxophone player, who I used to play with in our band at the time, the Soul Providers. He brought her in to sing background. And we hit it off, and she started singing bits and 45s for Desco. And then when Desco shut its doors around the turn of the millennium, we kept working together. We kept doing shows and recording together. We worked on an album, and we ended up putting a band together that was kind of all the all-stars at Desco. Homer Steinweiss, Leon Michels, Neal Sugarman and Binky Griptite, all the guys that were the best musicians coming out of that old stable became her backing band, became the Dap-Kings. And I think one of the first gigs we had, we went to Barcelona for a month to do a residency.
That's really when it crystallized. We were playing the same club every night, five nights a week, and staying in apartments, getting fed and taken care of. I think that's when the band really kind of gelled and became a sound. And then from then on out, we were off to the races. We got in the back of a van, and rolled around the U.S., and Canada, and England, and Europe, and just kept touring little by little. And it really became—some people came and left the band—a real, real tight family of people. Really it always felt like brothers and sisters. It was a really tight group, and still is, a lot of the band, to this day.
So we just got rolling, man. And there were some big moments. We had some records that did well and sold a couple of hundred thousand copies, and we hit some TV shows. And the band ended up backing Amy Winehouse [on Black To Black]. And I think to a lot of people from the outside, they would say like, "Oh, that is when you guys really exploded." But, from my perspective, the band never really had that kind of overnight anything. It felt very gradual. We would go play a club in Detroit. We'd set up on top of the pool tables in a little bar and play for 30 people. We've played shows that had less people in the audience than the stage.
But then when we'd go back, people told their friends and it was 80 people. Then it was a couple of hundred, then it was 800. There was a thousand, to the point where there's a lot of cities all over the world we were playing with 1000 or 2000 people, sometimes more. Sometimes 3000 people, outside of festivals which were always huge crowds. But it was real gradual. And they were all places that we went to over and over again. Little towns in France and stuff, that we'd go play and start out in somebody's basement or at some restaurant or something. And the next time we'd play a club, and the next time play a theater, next time headline a festival.
So it was a lot of hard work, but the thing about it is I think it was always tied, like I said, back to Sharon hitting the stage with this energy, and this rhythm, and the band being the baddest band in the land. Everybody linking up, those shows were just fire, man. The energy was so high and it was just a really unique experience. And I think once people saw a show, they told their sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and cousins and boyfriends and neighbors, and the next time we come back, there'd always be two, three times as many people. And those people would tell their friends.
I think it was very personal for the fans. I think it was something that we always had a very direct relationship with the fans. And a lot of that, again, was Sharon being on stage. The way that she approached the show is coming out of [singing in] church, and even coming out of playing weddings where she didn't see herself as some magical artist that was above everyone, looking down and blessing people with her music from the stage. She was very much an equal. Everybody in the room, her, and the band, and the audience was all part of the energy. We'd get worked up together and sweat it out together. I think people really connected with that.
That was how that band grew, always out of that. And even though we had some very good people helping us, publicists and booking agents and everything else, it really always came down to what she could do with that band on stage. Like I said, it built everything.
Daptone Records is loved for its classic funky sound and the soulful essence that all of your artists embody. What do you think the Daptones "secret" is? And then what do you look for when you sign artists?
Well, it's not very much of a secret because it's a particular group of people, you know what I mean? It's those musicians. It's Homer Steinweiss, it's Dave Guy. Joe Crispiano. It's people that have a certain sound, and have not just a common love for music and for the kind of music they want to make, but the philosophy. The philosophy in the studio, this kind of no bulls**t approach to music—the feeling is the only thing that's important. And it's not important what you think somebody is going to buy, or how fast you can play, or to show off as a musician how clever you are. It's about the feeling, and whatever you can do individually to help collectively make the thing feel better, that's the most important thing. That's what makes it soulful music, regardless of the genre.
And I think that unique group of people, including Charles Bradley, and Naomi Shelton, Cliff Driver, and The Frightnrs and Victor Axelrod, there's a lot of people, but all the people in the roster, there's a reason they stuck around. And the reason they gel together and made so much music together is that we all had something in common in the way we approached music, and the way we put heart and sweat into it, and took the ego out of it.
And I think that's kind of the sound. And not getting distracted by anything else, not getting distracted by what did they do at Motown, or is this a vintage microphone, or whatever that stuff is, all distractions. Or how clever is this thing I wrote? Or how impressive is this? Or how much do you think they'll play this on the radio? Those are all distractions. We just try to concentrate on how does the music feel. That's the driving force.
Like I said, I don't think there's any secret to it. That and really hard work. And being honest, like no bullshit. I think that's a big part of it, too. In the studio, most of the stuff we record, we go back into the control room and we say, "Nah, that's whack. You're playing too slow. I'm playing too... This could be better. That part feels dumb. That bridge is corny." A lot of that. A lot of hate coming back. But it's really, that's what you need to do.
I've been in sessions, particularly out in L.A., where somebody hired me, and you go in and play a take and everybody goes in the control room and starts immediately slapping each other on the back. Kissing each other asses, "Man, that was magic. Oh, man, so beautiful." And I'm thinking, "Man, you guys are full of s**t." At Daptone, that's not how we make music. We're very, very honest about it. We're not going to let the emperor's new clothes s**t slide by, where everyone tells each other it sounds good. If it doesn't feel good, somebody will open their mouth.
And it's not just the musicians. Nydia Davila at the label, whose run marketing and everything else for over a decade, she's the same way. I'll make some record and I'm proud as hell of it. I think we killed it. I'll be like, "What do you think?" And she'd just be, "Meh. Not great." And honestly, that's what makes the stuff good. It's not just what you do. It's what you don't do. All the chords you don't play, all the songs you don't put out. And being kind of hard on yourself, and working hard, demanding more of yourself, and doing stuff over and over and over again until you got it the way you want it.
Man, you listen to these old outtakes, and you hear, on some marvelous track or something, somebody say, "Okay, take 58." Nowadays, people get to take four or five and they start saying, "Oh, if we don't get it by now, we're never going to get it." And I'm thinking like, "You're all lazy, man. You've got to put some work into it." Anyways, I think hard work and feeling, there's no substitute for that stuff.