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Humble Me

Sharon Jones sold out Austin, but she's nowhere near selling out.

By Thomas Fawcett, 1:06PM, Tue. Jan. 29, 2008

Sharon Jones at Antone's.
Sharon Jones at Antone's.
photo by Shelley Hiam

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings turned a sold-out Antone’s into a high-energy time warp Saturday. The crowd partied like it was 1969, largely because the Dap-Kings have mastered the art of authenticity. Much of the entertainment media (including this guilty writer) have played on a largely non-existent Sharon Jones vs. Amy Winehouse beef after the Dap-Kings helped create much of the old-school sound for Winehouse’s breakout Back to Black album. Like a worn out cassette tape, it’s a scenario that has played out over and over again throughout modern music history: A young white performer borrows the sound of a black artist to disproportionate acclaim and compensation.

If you need a primer on said scenario check Mos Def’s “Rock N Roll” or Gil Scott-Heron’s “Ain’t No New Thing.” As Scott-Heron ever so delicately says in the intro, “Chuck Berry was doing a very heavy rock ‘n’ roll thing … but white people couldn’t dig having their daughters go to no shows and cream over no black man wiggling on the stage so consequently they invented Elvis Presley.” You could call this an oversimplification but it would be hard to call it entirely inaccurate.

So is Amy Winehouse the Elvis Presley of the new millennium? Perhaps the Rolling Stones are a more apt parallel although she hasn’t sniffed enough sustained success to warrant either comparison. Yet Winehouse cleverly updated the soul formula on Back to Black. “Rehab” is a coy play on the stylings of 1960s girl groups, not an all-out imitation. Same goes for “Me and Mr. Jones,” where her crude cockney slanguage collides with the sweet soul aesthetic (although the opening, “You made me miss the Slick Rick show,” does bite Erykah Badu).

Some would argue the same charges could be leveled at the Dap-Kings themselves. As commercial blues has been dominated by older white performers, the emerging retro soul sound has a formula: pair a young (mostly) white band with an older black vocalist, preferably one with serious singing chops who never caught a break from the industry. Thus you have Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators, the Dynamites featuring Charles Walker, and so on.

When Winehouse was touring with the Dap-Kings it upset the formula and presented obvious contrasts between her and Jones – one young, skinny, and white, the other middle-aged, full-figured, and dark-skinned. But the retro soul scene doesn’t play by the same rules. Appearance is still of paramount importance but it hinges on the pretense of authenticity and no one has harnessed that like Daptone Records. It’s why the label presses as many 45s as CDs and its studio is full of “cutting edge” 1970s analog recording technology. It’s why the Dap-Kings step on stage donning dapper suits and have mastered the extended James Brown- style introduction of their lead singer.

And Sharon Jones is nothing if not genuine. In her own words, she’s been “shunned and knocked” all her life. She has long been dismissed by record executives as too dark, too short, and too fat. She’s paid her dues as a backup singer and a wedding singer. She resisted friends’ requests to enter the Apollo’s talent contest for fear of getting booed off stage. Then last year she conquered that very stage with a sold-out record release party for her band’s third album, 100 Days, 100 Nights. Through it all she aims to live by the words of her new record: “Humble me. Don’t let me forget who I am.”

So what does Jones think about Winehouse? “I would love to do something [with Winehouse], maybe a duet,” Jones said while taking a break from shooting an orange juice commercial. “Maybe she needs someone to put their arm around her instead of everyone talking about her and pointing at her while she’s down on the ground.”

And in what is as close to a jab as Jones can muster, she laughs mischievously and adds, “It’d have to be on our terms though; they’d have to come over and work with us. It’d have to be all us, everything would have to do be done right here.”

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