America's answer to Amy Winehouse may just be a former wedding singer whose résumé includes a lengthy stint as a prison guard. Atlanta-born Sharon Jones is a decade or two older than Winehouse, but the big-voiced African-American singer is doing her part to revive old-school soul music – and she's doing it without emulating Winehouse's tabloid-magnet antics.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are the biggest act for indie Daptone Records, an artist-run company modeled on the Stax label that produced much of the best soul music of the '60s. It is no coincidence that Winehouse tapped the Dap-Kings – an eight piece band decked out in suits and sunglasses – to play on her "Back to Black" album and US tour. "[They're] soul nerds to the core," cackles Jones in a recent phone interview.
Following a high-profile appearance as a singer in the Denzel Washington movie, "The Great Debaters," Jones and the constantly touring band have their hands on the wheel and hope to steer listeners to a new place on the musical spectrum that looks and sounds very much like the old one once dominated by Aretha and Otis.
"There's definitely more success in her future – maybe even a top 40 hit – but I think it'll be driven by the fans rather than major-label marketing," says Bryan Borzykowski, a contributing editor for UR Magazine, a new music publication.
During a recent tour date here at the campus of Florida State University, guitar player and MC Binky Griptite introduced Jones "as the brightest star in the Daptone universe" just before she began to power through the night like a supernova.
Menacing and seductive, she brought young men onto a tiny stage, flirted with them, and sent them away with a queenly wave of her hand. From time to time, Jones, who has obviously seen a James Brown show or two, kicked off her heels and did all the dancing for everybody.
That intensity comes through in "The Great Debaters." The film, which recounts the struggles of a black college debate team in Depression-era Texas, begins in a juke joint in full-tilt boogie mode. But it all looks like a movie until the camera pans past Jones, who is clearly in the grip of something other than the director's off-screen guidance. She swings her shoulders to the back beat, but her eyes dart wildly. The music has gotten way beyond itself; those eyes brim with surprise and even fear. Her mouth hangs open, and she pants like a leopard about to tear out your willing heart.
In person as well as on "The Great Debaters" soundtrack, Jones also tackles the spiritual side of soul, as she does on such songs as "Answer Me" from her latest album, "100 Days, 100 Nights," where she also plays a mean piano.
"It's all God's music to me," says Jones. "I've been going to the Baptist church since I was born. I tithe. How could what I do be wrong? I pray and read my Bible every day, and then I get on stage and sing."
Jones moved to New York as a youngster and now makes her home there. Following a rocky start in the music business, however, she worked at Rikers Island as a corrections officer. Asked whether that means "prison guard," Jones replies, "That's right, baby – with the keys and everything!" And before she began to record and tour with the Dap-Kings, she had a 16-year stint as a wedding singer.
"My band was an unusual wedding band because I was in it," Jones says of the otherwise all-white aggregation. "But I was the one who got Uncle Sid up out of his chair. I got Aunt Minnie up on stage and dancing with me."
As Dap-Kings bassist and band leader Gabe Roth says, "Sharon can reach anybody because she cut her teeth doing weddings. She was paid for making sure that everyone had a good time."
When asked if she liked to tour, Jones responds, "I love it. I get depressed when I stay home." Nevertheless, the singer's goal is to "just be comfortable. I'm not married. I'm past my childbearing years. I'm tired of renting. I want a house. I want the simple things in life."
Even so, she confides that she's glad she wasn't asked who designed her dress for December's red-carpet première of "The Great Debaters" in New York. "I would have had to say K-Mart, Wal-Mart – all those marts!"
Mr. Borzykowski, the music critic, points out that Jones is "different and genuine. Two things lacking in pretty much every huge album the majors release – so she'll do just fine on an indie."
Pop music's horizon is broader than ever; there's a place for a new sound, even if it happens to be an old one. Jones's mission is to make sure that sound is soulful.