There are serendipitous moments in life when particular people meet, when certain ideas come together, and when legendary stories are born… and in those moments, everything changes. When Sharon Jones met The Dap-Kings, it was like that.
“Why pay three when you can pay me?”
That’s the first thing Sharon Jones ever said to Gabriel Roth, founding member and bass player of what is now Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. That was back in 1996, when Sharon came in to do a session with the band. They needed three background singers, but Sharon showed up solo. She knew she could do the three-part harmony by herself and save them a couple of bucks along the way. They’ve been playing together ever since.
There are eleven members in the band, and each person has their own superpower. You can call them a justice league of music. Each musician is in place to better service the greater sound. “It’s like all the top superheroes join forces to fight the evil forces of music. That’s how we come together,” says Gabriel. You can tell by how the band interacts with one other. They’re just comfortable. They talk over each other, jibe and flow—just like a real family. Everyone in the band has known each other for years, which has allowed their relationship to change and grow. With this kind of friendship, Gabriel says, “there’s something you can get to musically that you’re not able to with strangers,” as was evident in our experience with the band while recording their cover of “Midnight Rider.”
That sweet spot is when the group is so in tune with each other that they’re working together as a singular voice. “There’s a difference between five great singers and five people who’ve been singing together since they were four years old,” Gabriel says.
Soul hasn’t been considered popular music for quite some time, so Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings were considered underground at first. They played a lot of colleges, but thanks to a few DJ’s who liked playing their tracks in clubs, the band started gaining some traction.
“Sampled music put vintage sounds back on the radio in its own way, but when we started working, we were presenting that sound live, in real time,” says Binky Griptite, the band’s guitarist and announcer.
The way Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings achieve their sound isn’t the sort of thing that can be broken down into a formula. “From the inside, it’s just a bunch of people getting together and playing the music that feels good,” says Gabe. Sharon actually saw soul music turn into pop. And the band is familiar with the recording industry’s recent attempts to replicate a sound that came from soul music at its best. But for them, it’s not about the tactics and tricks, it’s about real, authentic music being created by real, authentic people.
“No matter how much money they throw at it, they can’t get it to feel right,” adds Gabriel. “Then, they’ll come to us and we’ll do it in our little house in Bushwick in a stripped-down studio with eight tracks. Everybody is sitting there smoking, cussing, playing the wrong notes—but we’ll give them something beautiful, something so real.”
When the band plays live shows, that authenticity creates an energy that feeds back and forth from the band to their audience. And the source of that energy is undeniably Sharon Jones, the band’s main vocalist. To revisit that superhero analogy, Sharon has been given the title of The Connector by her bandmates and that’s due to her incredible knack for making everyone in the audience feel special… magical, even. And when Sharon starts to improvise—well, that’s when the fun really begins. “I mean, it’s such a blessing. She just takes any circumstance or challenge—like she’ll be out there in the rain going 100 miles an hour, and we’re all right there with her,” says percussionist Fernando Velez.
“Gabe always has eyes on me, like ‘What’s she going to do next?’” adds Sharon. “By being together so many years, you know, we can feed off each other. Like, I could turn to them and do something I never did before and they’ll just be right there at it.”
“At her age, you think she’d be slowing down, but she’s stronger than she’s ever been. I mean, she’ll wear the band out, but we’ll follow her wherever she goes,” says Gabe.
He doesn’t mean this figuratively. The band actually follows Sharon’s body language to understand the mood of the melody and where they can take it. “We watch how she moves, and if she’s not feeling it, she’ll point to her feet and show us where she wants it,” says Gabe. “When we all connect on that level, that’s a magic moment.” This is where Sharon’s superpower as The Connector comes in handy. It’s the ability to take the stage in front of a crowd of 5,000 people, and every single one of them feels like Sharon is singing directly to them. This ability to unite a room in a shared emotion comes from Sharon’s days as a wedding singer. “She actually used to jump off the stage and get in the audience, but she’s so short, we told her she couldn’t do it anymore,” says Gabe.
The best part of this connection is when the energy travels from the band to the audience. “We open ourselves onstage in such a way that the magic comes out,” says Cochemea Gastelum, baritone saxophone player. “You can actually see the expression on people’s faces, that this was that moment they needed in their lives.”
“So, you’ve got to know the audience and you’ve got to learn how to read them. You know? You’ll know when they’re enjoying it,” adds Sharon.
This accessibility is what keeps the audience moving right alongside the band. It’s almost like they’re in a trance. But that isn’t the only thing that gets the band going.
“The other barometer of a great show is sweat,” adds Binky. “That’s a good sign. We want to be working for it, and we want an audience that’s engaged and sweaty with us.”
In every show, there’s that moment where it all comes together, when everyone gets going and everybody is in sync with the band’s energy.
“There’s that moment when we’re on stage, sometimes we’ve been playing for 15 minutes, sometimes we’ve been playing for an hour, but there’s a moment when you stop thinking about what’s going on and you become passively observing,” says Gabe.
Sharon and The Dap-Kings follow their heart, and when they get there, that’s the moment when the business disappears and the artistry reaches the height of perfection. “People measure their success with the wrong currencies, you know? I try to measure mine as a different kind of reward,” says Gabe. “It’s these moments of ecstasy, of abandon and dancing.”
And that freedom comes from not being hindered by anxiety over being accepted as a ”success.” The key is to not get distracted by the way other people are doing things, to really be in tune with the present moment and to know everything is right where it should be. And when the band is able to share those moments—to truly connect with their people, that’s the ticket.
We had the pleasure of working with Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings on their interpretation of “Midnight Rider” as part of our efforts to capture the feeling of exhilaration for the new Lincoln MKZ. For more information, please visit us here.