Music » Music Lead

Big Apple Prison Funk

Forget Beyoncé and Mary J -- Sharon Jones is the real first lady of R&B.


Sharon Jones gets the asses shakin'. - PHOTO BY WALTER NOVAK
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the super soul sister internationally known as the Queen of Funk -- STING! -- she who brings the womanly touch to the Dap-Kings -- STING! -- she who gets in the groove and makes your whole body move -- STING! -- Sharon Jones!

Although not a direct quote, that's basically how Dap-Kings guitarist and MC Binky Griptite leads Jones to the stage. But before she became the retro-funk band's female James Brown, Jones inhabited a darker kind of funk: Rikers Island in New York, where Jones served as one of the prison's first female guards in the late '80s.

"Those men would sit in there and watch me, watch the other women, and they'd watch the other men," Jones remembers, as she fries ham and eggs for breakfast in her home in Queens, New York. "You got 80 pair of eyes on you, you know. And here you are, sitting there with three officers trying to contain 80 men.

"One night I told them to lock up, and they wouldn't lock up." And so Jones sang them into their cells and off to dreamland with . . . "Greatest Love of All." Beat that, Whitney Houston.

Born in James Brown's hometown of Augusta, Georgia, in 1956, Jones grew up in the golden era of late-'60s funk and soul, singing along to the radio as it played one Motown and Stax hit after another. After her parents divorced, she eventually relocated to New York, where she tried to make it as a singer. In the '70s and '80s, Jones performed in wedding bands, sang and played organ at Queens' Universal Church of God, and did studio work; there's bound to be some classic disco with her voice in the background, but Jones has no idea what records to look for.

Jones dreamed of becoming one of the leading ladies of funk and soul. But it was because of cover girls like Houston and the funkless state of what was -- and still is -- mainstream R&B that Jones had to get a job at Rikers. Rooted in gospel and exuding a down-home feel, she doesn't unload the unnatural wails of a Mariah Carey and looks nothing like pinup girl Beyoncé.

"I was told I was too dark-skinned, too short -- you know -- didn't have the look," says Jones, who stands around five feet tall, sometimes wearing her hair in braids or just a natural 'fro. "Once I got past 30, then they told me I was too old," she adds. "Then I hit 40, and here these guys picked me up, and my life started, really, at 40."

That's when, in 1996, she did some backup singing for fellow New Yorkers the Dap-Kings, and the multiracial outfit fell fast in love with Jones. Attempting to capture the classic funk sound, bassist, songwriter, and leader Bosco Mann had been looking for a male singer comparable to James Brown, but gave up when the group found a female James Brown, with the moves of early Tina Turner and the vocal power of Aretha Franklin. "Next thing I know, I was in London, opening up for Maceo Parker," Jones says.

While Europe immediately fell for Jones and the Dap-Kings' genuine American funk, the States were slow to embrace the group. After constant touring, though, she and the band appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien in 2005, and now they pack clubs full of sweaty youngsters. What's more, the industry that once shut her out has now come knocking: She appears on Baby Loves Jazz, Verve's new disc for kids, and Lou Reed -- "You've heard of Lou Reed?" she inquires -- recently asked her to sing in a choir for his latest concert project: Berlin, a live-show adaptation of Reed's 1973 album.

It probably won't be funky, so there's no chance Reed will steal her away from the Dap-Kings, she says, laughing. But Jones has got the funk.

Compare Janet Jackson's original to the Dap-Kings' "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" appearing on their debut, 2002's Dap-Dippin' With . . . The band bounces, jabs, and lands blows, while Jones' voice weaves and slides around 'em like a panther. Jackson's, by comparison, sounds flat-out brittle: a chrome-covered model singing with a robot band.

They give the same treatment to Woody Guthrie's patriotic, populist folk tune "This Land Is Your Land," but transform it into a slow strut, sounding like a late-'60s soul band subtly responding to a racist government and an unjust war.

"This Land" appears on Naturally, the Dap-Kings' latest disc, but it also appeared on the flipside to "Taxes," the group's 2004, election-year single, which was issued as a red, white, and blue-colored 45. In that, Jones the gospel preacher shouts at the White House: "You know, Bush? You gonna keep on doin' what you're doin', but guess what? You think about what'd happen if every American was to say, 'We ain't gonna pay no more taxes?'"

This leads us to the question: What is real funk and soul? Jones hears it constantly. "I tell them all the time," she says. "To me, it's just what I feel from the inside. Your soul comes from the inside. It's not about a color. It's not about 'Oh, black people got a lot of soul.' No, look at my band, look around you. I mean, the bass player, Bosco Mann, who wrote most of the songs for the first two albums, is a really young Jewish boy.

"Look around me," she continues, transforming into that gospel preacher heard on the "Taxes" single. "When they ask me what I do, I tell them funk, soul, and R&B. It's a combination, to me, of them all, because they all just come from one another. And it all comes through what you feel from the inside."

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