Sharon Jones Is 'Nobody's Baby' Jones and her band The Dap-Kings have been recording and touring together since 2005. On their third album, 100 Days, 100 Nights, they sound better than ever. Jones recently took a break to dish on her band and a few of her high-profile collaborators.
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Sharon Jones Is 'Nobody's Baby'

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Sharon Jones Is 'Nobody's Baby'

Sharon Jones Is 'Nobody's Baby'

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TERRY GROSS, Host:

END OF SOUNDBITE

(SOUNDBITE OF "100 DAYS, 100 NIGHTS")

GROSS: How would you describe the sound you're going after?

JONES: More of a soul, Stax '68-'69 sound. Gabe?

GABRIEL ROTH: Yeah, I mean, for me I've always just tried to make records that sound like, you know, sound like the records I like. I never had to much of a very specific agenda that we were going to try to, you know, try to ape something or try to pass something off. We just wanted to make records that felt good to us and sounded good to us.

GROSS: Gabe, would you describe the instrumentation of the band and what you patterned it on?

ROTH: The instrumentation of the band is drums, bass, two guitar players, baritone and tenor saxophones, trumpet, percussion and Sharon singing. And then on the record there's, you know, some extra gravy. We have the Bushwick Philharmonic string section. We have, you know, pianos and organs and vibes and background singers and things like that. But as far as the touring act, it's the two guitars and the horns and drums and the bass.

GROSS: Is it hard to find good baritone players who aren't full-time jazz musicians now?

ROTH: Well, I'll tell you the thing about this band is that it's actually--it really is a band, and I think it's rare for a band to be this big and actually be a band. It's a bunch of guys that are really a part of it. We're not using side men. We're not changing people out every gig. You know, I mean, once in a while people have to sub out for something. But as far as baritone players, man, we have Ian Hendrickson Smith who is actually a very talented and accomplished jazz musician in his own right, both on tenor and alto and baritone. And he's put out a lot of records in his own name. But he's a real barker in the band. I think, for the horn players specifically--and it's a good point you brought up--horn players are used to coming from more of a kind of jazz, mercenary background. That just tends to be the culture around horn players as opposed to guitar players and stuff. But these are guys that really, really can feel the--feel the power and the energy of playing in a section and being part of a whole. And I think it's that way for the whole band. You really have guys that are not coming into it with ego, but are coming into it with, you know, with the idea of everybody, you know, playing a part together and achieving something that nobody can achieve individually. And I think that's something that's really refreshing, especially coming out of certain circumstances sometimes in jazz where people are more sidemen or just coming in to play solos and things like that.

GROSS: James Brown has obviously been a big influence on each of you. I'd like you to each talk about the influence of James Brown on you. Sharon, let's start with you.

JONES: Well, with me just, I guess being born in his hometown. And my parents, I found out later my mother knew him. They used to play together. My father knew him.

GROSS: Wait. Your mother used to play with James Brown?

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: Really?

JONES: And like in Augusta it was something like they used to--some kind of way they crossed paths as going somewhere, doing something, you know. Oh, yeah, you know.

GROSS: Wait, wait. Do you mean playing music with him or just like playing as kids?

JONES: And then the next was when I saw him last year, April in Italy, right before, you know, and he was a little weak. And I got to take the picture and I was trying to get word in to him, `Oh, Mr. Brown, you know, my name's Sharon Jones and we did that gig, you know, and'--he was like--looked me right in the eye and said, `God bless you daughter.' And that was it, you know.

GROSS: So what influence has James Brown had on you as a singer and just as a stage performer?

JONES: Well, basically with Daptone when I met them, it was like it sounds so much like it reminded me of James Brown and the JB's, that music. And then I knew where they was coming from with me singing. And I guess just doing the music, hearing the music and always around these guys, playing the JB's and the James Brown thing and I fit right in. I guess I was that female James Brown that they--the sound.

GROSS: Well, while we're talking about James Brown, you know, James Brown was often introduced on stage like in this great hyperbolic way. And you, I know, have done that on record. I don't know if you do that for all the shows. But why don't we play the introduction from the first Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album. And this will give a taste of what I mean. Here it comes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAP-KINGS ALBUM)

BINKY GRIPTITE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Daptone's super soul review. My name is Binky Griptite and we are the Dap-Kings.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GRIPTITE: END OF SOUNDBITE

GROSS: That's the introduction from the first Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album. God, can you guys do that for me like when I host FRESH AIR?

ROTH: You know, we...

GROSS: That would be so great to have that kind of introduction.

ROTH: We can't do that. But I tell you, you got to hire Binky Griptite.

JONES: Binky. You got to get Binky.

ROTH: Binky Griptite has been a very integral part of our whole operation for the last, you know, dozen years, you know. And he is not just--I mean, he's a great, great guitar player. But just as far as showmanship, he's kind of the guy that as an emcee kind of brings the show to another level as a live show, you know. And he's definitely inspired not just by James Brown but by Danny Ray, who always used to introduce James Brown.

GROSS: Does this help you really get in the mood to be on stage, hearing that?

JONES: Oh, yes it does. I mean, when I'm behind the stage and Binky out there, `magnetic'--I can't even say that, `magnetic je ne se qua.' Whatever

ROTH: Magnetic je ne.

JONES: Yeah. And I'm just back there. And he's just a screaming. And he's going, `Miss Sharon! Miss'--you know, and I get so hyped, you know, the blood start pumping. It feel like I'm getting ready to go on for a "Rocky" show, the ring, you know, get ready to get in the boxing ring.

ROTH: You know, the live show we do is real different from the records.

JONES: Oh, yeah, definitely.

ROTH: And we don't try to do the same thing in the studio as we do on stage and vice versa because it works differently. But as far as the live show, it is really influenced not just by James Brown, but by Stax and all the other kind of soul reviews that were going on in the late '60s, in the sense of showmanship in that and the excitement that you don't see in a lot of shows nowadays. And, you know, we kind of--we do a--you know, it's not formulaic, but it's very similar. We usually start with some instrumentals and maybe Binky will sing a few songs, and we kind of get the crowd going, and he'll talk to the crowd and get them. You now, so it would kind of build up the suspense. And then he gets into this huge intro. And that was, I mean, the one that you just heard, that was from, what, five, six years ago or something?

JONES: Yeah.

ROTH: Right? That was about seven years ago.

JONES: Yeah.

ROTH: So now it's a lot more hooked up. You know, the band is settled in and there's a lot of--there's a lot of fireworks in the show. You know, and Sharon is coming out and the band is blasting and we're cutting from one song to another. And so it that way it's exciting.

GROSS: ANNOUNCEMENTS

GROSS: Well, let's hear another song from the new Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album "100 Days, 100 Nights." And this is called "When the Other Foot Drops, Uncle." And, Gabe, you wrote this. Do you want to say a few words about the song?

ROTH: Yeah. It's actually funny because I didn't think it was that obscure, but people have thought this song was about some guy that's not treating Sharon right. But it's actually a little political. Uncle--"When the Other Foot Drops, Uncle" is about Uncle Sam. It's just kind of--it's just a song about all the lies and corruption kind of eventually catching up and, you know, the other shoe dropping. And, you know, obviously it's the Uncle Sam we're talking, you know, Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and all these things. And these guys finally going to get caught up in all these lies about everything, about weapons of mass destruction, oil money and the rest, I mean, but that's what the song is about. And I think if you listen to it in that light you hear the lyrics a little differently.

JONES: (Unintelligible)...

GROSS: Sharon, did you know that that was what it was about when you were singing it?

JONES: Not really. So that's why I was just going to say, `Get out of here.' My mouth is open, I'm looking at him like this, `Huh?'

ROTH: Yeah.

JONES: Because, I mean, people, they have asked me about this and I say, `Well, you know, it's about somebody is being slick and they're going to get caught up in what they're doing.' You know? Their lies and whatever they're doing, it's going to get caught up. So now it's good. So when I get interviewed with people I actually know what to say.

ROTH: Yeah, there's a line in that song about "your crafty little pencil"...

JONES: Pencil.

ROTH: ..."is running out of lead," and everybody thinks that's some kind of impotency thing.

JONES: It's just--yeah, yeah.

ROTH: They're saying because...

JONES: They say, `Hey, Sharon, what do you mean about the "little crafty little pencil"?' I'm like, you know, `That's really--Gabe wrote the song, you know.'

ROTH: Yeah. Anyway.

GROSS: Well, I have to say, that's what I thought it meant, "the crafty little pencil" thing.

ROTH: I know.

GROSS: And I thought--I was going to ask you, Gabe, like "Uncle"? I mean, like, this wasn't a relationship with her uncle, is it? So I was a little confused. OK.

ROTH: You know, that's actually why we stuck an "Uncle" on the end of the title.

JONES: Yeah.

ROTH: We kind of hung that on there at the end. It was like, `Well, here you go.'

GROSS: I thought this was some kind of like expression that only I didn't get.

ROTH: I tell you, it makes a lot more sense than "goo, goo ka choo," I guess, so.

GROSS: I'll give you that.

JONES: That's great.

GROSS: END OF SOUNDBITE

(SOUNDBITE OF "WHEN THE OTHER FOOT DROPS, UNCLE")

GROSS: And then, Gabe, I've got a few questions for you. And, Gabe, feel free to jump in if something like you want to add to what Sharon says here.

ROTH: OK.

GROSS: First of all, actually I've got a question for both of you, which is how did you find each other?

JONES: Ah, well, Gabe was looking. He was looking for three background singers to do some vocals for Lee Fields. And my ex used to play the saxophone with the...(unintelligible)...with the guys and they were, you know, Soul Providers.

ROTH: Mm-hmm.

JONES: And he was like, `Well, my lady sings.' They were like, `The lady can sing?' And I said, `Yeah, I can do all three parts.' So when I went in Gabe heard me, everything worked, everyone was happy.

ROTH: Mm-hmm. And then we ended up cutting two more songs that day with you singing lead.

JONES: Yes, right. "Switchblade" and...

ROTH: And "The Landlord," I believe.

JONES: "The Landlord," I believe, yeah.

GROSS: There's a great story I'd like you to tell, Gabe, about recording Sharon doing a track that was intended for a man. The track was called "Switchblade." Tell us the story.

ROTH: Well, originally Sharon just, like she said, she'd come into the studio to sing backgrounds and there were two tracks on this album that we wanted background vocals. One was the one for Lee Fields, which she nailed in a second at all three parts. It blew me away. All of a sudden--it's the first thing I ever did that sounded like a record to me. And then there's this other song called "Switchblade." And there was this guy, this kind of comedian friend we had that wanted to do this whole long kind of, you know, this whole long talking rap--well, when I say rap, I mean, you know, he's just talking about, `Oh, I just got out of prison. I'm going to cut you with my switchblade.' And then Sharon would come in with...

JONES: (Singing) Switchblade.

ROTH: Yeah. So she cut all those background vocals, you know, and she was having a gas. Anyway, while I was cutting the last track of backing vocals she just started talking smack, and we were rolling on the floor. It was much funnier than the guy who was going to do it. So I just rewound the tape real quick and just told her to go for it, and I ran the tape at a little bit higher speed so she could--because she was trying to do a lower voice anyway. So I just ran the tape a little bit fast for her, and she just went through the whole thing, `I'm going to slit you where the good Lord split you,' and all the--the whole thing. And she went off for about three or four minutes straight...

JONES: Talking.

ROTH: ...in just in one take. And that was, man, we had a gas. That was actually--it was strange. That was really the first lead vocal that we cut together, and it wasn't really a vocal. She was just talking smack. But, you know, it was something. It was kind of my first glimpse into the kind of personality and the kind of wit that--and the charisma that she had that, you know, enabled her to kind of create an entire show sometimes out of--you know, people just staring at her and she's just talking nonsense sometimes and people are having a blast. But--and then after that, you know, she sang "The Landlord," which is a song that I had written angrily. I was going through an eviction. It's typical New York stuff at the time, so she sang a song about my landlord. And, you know, after that we did a bunch of 45s and eventually an album, and another album and here we are.

GROSS: Well, "Switchblade" is really hard to find. It's out of print, but fortunately you have a copy for us to hear. So why don't we listen to it?

ROTH: Yeah. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SWITCHBLADE")

JONES: END OF SOUNDBITE

GROSS: So, Sharon, I know you spent some time as a prison guard at Riker's Island. Did you record this rap before or after you held that job?

JONES: After.

GROSS: So you had inspiration for this?

JONES: Oh, yeah, I was ready. I think maybe that's why when I went in it was so sharp, everything just came real fast. You know? And actually, I remember when I went in the studio they asked the question of, pretend, you know, some guy, you know, like, you know, a bad guy would cut you so fast with a razor, you know, back in the day, just talking smack like in the alley or something. And so that's when I went to the junkyard dog, tuck his tail under the rug when he see me coming. And it was all just like spurt, I mean, just the words just flew out. It was like I didn't even think of what I was saying, concentrating on, I just went with it.

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JONES: ANNOUNCEMENTS

GROSS: Before Jones was able to make a living as a singer, one of her jobs was serving as a prison guard at Riker's Island in New York. She told me how she got the job.

JONES: I took the test. I took a lot of tests at that time. I took the police test, you know, then...

GROSS: What was the test like? I mean, what you really need to do is be able to, you know, get people to respect you.

JONES: No, they...

GROSS: How do you pass a test on that?

JONES: Oh, they give you a psychological test, you know, the physical test you have to go through, the background check on you, you know. And it was great. I think I would have still been there but it just took me away from my singing, you know, the music. You know, it was like a career. And after being in there it was like an omen. My first week they stuck me outside and I pulled a groin muscle on the side, I fell. Then I came back and I was in a--that's so weird--a car accident. A truck hit me and I was out for another like nine months. And they forced me back to work. And at the same day I came to work I had a back brace and neck brace, you know, and I'm walking on--and fell on the curb so now I'm injured again...

GROSS: Oh, no.

JONES: ...but now it's--I'm telling you, it was an omen. It wasn't meant for me. I fell on the job. Now it's comp and I'm out again for another couple of months. And so when I finally came in they said, you know, the lawyer said, `Why don't you just resign? This way they won't fire you.' And so I resigned for medical reasons.

GROSS: Well, how many days did you actually work?

JONES: OK, I was at it at two years, from '88 to '90, maybe six, eight months.

GROSS: So when you were there, given how you kept injuring yourself and you weren't in the best physical shape, how were you able to convince the prisoners that you were strong enough and focused enough to do the job and keep them in line?

JONES: Let me tell you, it's the look in my eyes. You may have like 80 inmates to maybe three officers or two officers or two officers, so it was really weird. But you could not show fear. And that's one thing I didn't show, you know, and I got the respect from them right there and they knew that I didn't take stuff. I wasn't scared.

GROSS: Let's hear another track from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. And this song is called "Humble Me." And this is another song, Gabe, that you wrote. Do you want to say anything about writing or recording this track?

ROTH: Well, it's a very simple song. There wasn't much to write, it's just a couple of chords and some simple heartfelt words that Sharon could really get into. I mean, the thing that I learned about writing is that, you know, I've never been a genius or anything, but I learned how to kind of get out of the way of great musicians and great singers. So, you know, if you listen to this song, there's not much to the writing in it. But I think Sharon puts a lot of heart into it, you know.

JONES: It goes--actually I think that song, you, like, you was writing something about me, the inside of me. But I think, you know, by knowing me all these years, Gabe knew that how I am with the church. I'm always saying that, you know, I'm so thankful for what God gave me. So that's why I'm always saying, `If you see me like, I'm like I'm higher than everybody else, you know, bring me down. Let me know that I'm not.' If you see me up here wanting all these here fancy things, which he knows they don't never see me out here flashing and wanting stuff, but if you see me doing that--I want all these shoes that cost 2,000, 3,000--think about that man over there who don't even have a foot, it's cut off, you know, don't even have legs, you know. And then I'm also thankful, humble for when I'm on the road. People come out and pay to come and see me. And I get on that stage and I'm humble for them coming out to see me every night. And I'm so thankful for them, for God for having me be able to dance and jump and sing and keep my voice open. So that song is just about me thanking God and being humble for my blessings.

GROSS: All right. Here it is. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, "Humble Me" from their new CD "100 Days, 100 Nights."

(SOUNDBITE OF "HUMBLE ME")

JONES: END OF SOUNDBITE

GROSS: Gabe, now you write songs under the name Bosco Mann, and you perform under the name Bosco Mann. Where does that name come from and why did you feel that you needed to have a stage name?

ROTH: But, you know, in the long run it actually worked out well because, you know, when I'm on the road and somebody comes up to me and they say, `Hey, Bosco, it's good to see you again.' I know right away this is not somebody I'm real close to, so I can say, `Hey, it's good to see you too.' And I don't have to try to remember who they are.

GROSS: So how did you come up with the name?

ROTH: Well, the Bosco part of it actually my dad wanted to name me Hieronymus after Hieronymus Bosch and was going to call me Bosco for short. And my mom wouldn't let him do it, so eventually he named his dog Bosco. So that was for him. And the Mann part of it was one of the first two records we did there was a guitar player named Scott Mann that played on the record and, you know, he used his real name Scott Mann. I just thought it would be cool to have some brothers in the rhythm section so I said, `Yeah, I'll be his brother. I'll be Bosco Mann.' But, yeah I didn't really think that much of it, you know. It's always the things that you don't really think of as too much that end up--you end up explaining for years.

JONES: Follow you, right.

GROSS: Were there other names you used like on the fake satyr record?

ROTH: Yeah. "Bill Ravi Harris," I think, did the satyr record. There was a couple of others I tried, different things. And a lot of guys, you know, used different names for different things. But it was, you know, at the time it was real goofy. It wasn't, you know, we weren't really like a--we didn't see ourselves as a legitimate part of the recording industry. We were making these 45s and vinyl LPs, and we were selling them to people that are avid collectors of old records, you know. So it was a very strange scene to start with. It wasn't the same thing as trying to do a record these days, you know.

GROSS: ANNOUNCEMENTS

GROSS: One of the things that the Dap-Kings are known for is that, in your studio, you don't use digital recording technology. You use reel to reel tapes. You used to record on vinyl. But anyways you shy away from like the new digital technology. Why? Like what do you hear? What kind of sound can you get on analog that you feel you can't get on digital?

ROTH: And, I mean, there's definitely good sound out of a tape, you know, the sound of recording to tape has a certain compression and a certain warmth that's desirable. But I don't think that's a huge part of what we're doing. I think it has much more to do with the approach of the musicians and just the approach of recording just the, you know, the strategy of it.

GROSS: Well, now the Dap-Kings in your studio are at the point where people are taking their artists to your band and to your studio, most famously perhaps Amy Winehouse. You're on several tracks from her latest album to which her--are particularly popular. So I thought we would hear one of them. And let me ask you to talk about playing behind "You Know I'm No Good."

ROTH: Well, I think that Homer was definitely a huge part of that--Homer Steinweiss, our drummer. I think, his drums are right up front and the sound of his drums and the feel that he has is very unique, and I don't think anybody else could do that. So I think that helped a lot. Dave Guy, trumpet player, I wrote horn parts. You know, the band really sank into that arrangement, you know. And Mark Bronson, the producer, he's always real easy to work with and, you know, so Amy had all the songs done so we basically chartered out the chords and went in and kind of put the arrangement together and knocked it out.

GROSS: So you just added it to the pre-existing? I bet they sounded a lot different when you were done.

ROTH: No, well, she--we had a demo. We had a CD demo of I think it was mostly her with a guitar strumming through a chord and singing. And we built the arrangement from that. So we recorded from scratch, but, you know, she had the song written.

GROSS: I see.

ROTH: But, you know, we record--we put the arrangement together and recorded it and stuff with Mark in the studio.

GROSS: What I find interesting about this is that you're so into the sound like that kind of '60s soul sound, but the mix of this is so different because the drums are so far up front.

ROTH: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: And it's a very contemporary, kind of, you know, drum beat sound. So you've got this...

ROTH: Yeah, I didn't do any of that.

GROSS: ...kind of hip-hop sound up front and then the horns behind.

JONES: More hip-hop, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

ROTH: Well, the way it worked, it's worked with the productions. With a lot of the production we've done like that is they've come into our studio, Bronson would come into the studio. We would record the tracks, sometimes the horns, sometimes he would do the horns someplace else, and then he would take the tracks with him. You know, he would take the tape. He would dump it into a computer and do whatever he's going to do with them. But the Winehouse thing is a, you know, I think it's a great record. She's a very talented singer and songwriter. Bronson is a great producer. But it's not really our thing. It was like they come in and we spend a couple of afternoons, knock out some tracks for them and they take them with and do whatever they want with them. You know, so it's a different--we have a very different relationship with that. It's not really like our record. It's a, you know, little something on the side there, you know.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is Amy Winehouse with the Dap-Kings playing behind her, and here it comes.

(SOUNDBITE OF "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD")

AMY WINEHOUSE: END OF SOUNDBITE

GROSS: That's Amy Winehouse, "You Know I'm No Good," and behind her is the Dap-Kings. And my guests are Gabe Roth, he's the leader of the band. He writes most of the band's songs. He's a bass player. And Sharon Jones, who's the lead singer of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. But we just heard the Dap Kings behind Amy Winehouse. And you not only recorded the horns for Amy Winehouse, you went on tour with her. Was that a really different experience than going on tour with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings?

ROTH: Oh, yeah. It's a completely, completely different show. Amy, you know, to her credit, like I said, she's a great singer and she writes good songs. But basically you go out there and you play down for 30 or 40 minutes. You kind of play down the songs, and she kind of sings them and you're done. And, you know, the band always comes off the stage with the same feeling, like, `Hey, man, when do we get to play the gig?' Because with Sharon, man this band is, like, sweating. And, I mean, really guys are sweating entirely through a suit every night. We go out there and we're stomping and playing, and guys are playing to the edge of their ability and the edge of their endurance until the end of the night. And it goes on sometimes an hour and a half, two hours, two and a half hours, basically until Sharon is done with us. So it's a completely different thing.

GROSS: So one more question before we have to end. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing you on stage, only of listened to your recordings. So what do you look like, all of you, on stage? How do you dress? I mean, some of the soul reviews you're talking about like really loud clothes.

JONES: Well, I don't think it's loud. But you go up there, you tell her. Come on.

ROTH: Well, no. We keep it sharp. Everybody's got suits and ties and shined shoes and locked in step, man, the whole horn section has got some unbelievable steps. The band is always stepping together and playing together. And Sharon always looks unbelievable. She comes out and is usually a blur from the beginning of the show to the end. You've never seen something move so much. So, yeah, visually it's definitely an event, too.

GROSS: I guess those injuries from your prison guard days aren't holding you back?

JONES: No, they're not.

GROSS: OK.

ROTH: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, thanks to both of you for talking with us. It's really been fun. Thanks a lot.

JONES: Thank you.

ROTH: Thank you.

GROSS: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings' latest CD is called "100 Days, 100 Nights." Next month you can see Jones in the film "The Great Debaters" directed by Denzel Washington. She plays a juke joint singer in the 1930s. Here she is on the soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JONES: END OF SOUNDBITE

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

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