Apollo may have been the sun god, but the Harlem theater that bears his name is a temple of funk. Take the latest revival meeting: Sharon Jones is backed by her natty band--eight men strong and fully endorsing their singer's abilities ("She's a love maker; she's all right," they chant in unison. "She's outta sight!"). But no one is happier to be here than she is. "Apollo!" she shouts to her sold-out crowd. "I made it! ... Lemme take off my heels and let me dance!" Her tasseled dress shimmies as she gets-up-offa-that-thang and no fewer than three gentlemen hop up from the crowd over the course of the evening to shake it with her. Her debut on that surprisingly small stage is capped by a brow-wetting medley of the Godfather of Soul's biggest hits: "Try Me," "Papa's Got a Brand New Band," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." But for one hot October moment at least (may James Brown's soul rest in eternally funky peace) this is a woman's world. This is Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings's world.
It's a world that feels simultaneously familiar and excitingly fresh. Imagine your favorite sounds from 40 years ago; maybe they were recorded at Stax or Motown, maybe by a group of Muscle Shoals session musicians. For whatever reason, a batch of their hip-huggingest music fell into some time capsule and wasn't unearthed until today. It's all here: boom-bap drums, chicka-chick guitars, simmering organ, farting horns and gutbucket vocals ("The lies that you've been spinnin' up are running out of thread," Jones sings to a wayward lover. "And your crafty little pencil is running out of lead"). This is no "neo-soul;" this is the real deal. "Those records from the '60s, and early '70s especially, have a liveness to them, a sincerity and rawness," says Dap Kings bass player and bandleader Gabe (Bosco Mann) Roth. "That's a very high ideal for us."
To that end, he started his own label, Daptone, and uses mostly analog equipment--training, for example, no more than two microphones on the drums where most technicians today would put a mic on every snare, cymbal, kick and high-hat, only to remix the resulting cacophony later. You've heard the result even if you may not have heard of the Dap Kings. They're the backing band on six songs from Amy Winehouse's breakthrough album, "Back to Black," including the two best ("Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good"). The Dap Kings were the house band for MTV's Video Music Awards; they contributed to an official remix of Bob Dylan's "Most Likely You Will Go Your Way (& I'll Go Mine)" and have been sampled by Kanye West.
Born, like James Brown, in Augusta, Ga., Jones's first taste of the stage came as an angel in a Sunday school performance of "Silent Night." But it was the Godfather who hooked her. Her dad took her to see Brown when she was a little girl; Jones, 51, stood in the front row, eyes level with the stage. "All I remember is saying, 'Look! He's floating," she says. She moved to Brooklyn, working with a succession of disco and funk bands. She stalled in her quest for stardom because, she says, promoters would tell her she was too stocky, didn't have the right look. "They said I was too dark," she says. She did an ill-fated stint as a Riker's Island prison guard (she pulled a muscle on the job and was injured in a car accident). By the early 1990s, when she met the boys who would ultimately comprise the Dap Kings, she was a wedding singer earning $500 a night. But she believed in the band enough to accept $75 or $100 to gig with them instead.
A decade later, the Dap Kings are not the only a band that sounds like they could have been working a generation ago--there's Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, California's Breakestra, Poets of Rhythm and Spanky Wilson & the Quantic Soul Orchestra among others. But the Dap Kings are the most skilled and the first to have cut three albums. "This retro soul gives people something familiar," says Oliver Wang, a Cal State Long Beach professor who has written about the Dap Kings on his popular Web site, Soul-Sides.com, and elsewhere. "It offers a sanctuary for people who just don't like contemporary R&B and hip-hop." It's perhaps true that the Dap Kings wouldn't be enjoying as much notoriety right now were it not for the success of Amy Winehouse. But it galls them that some journalists have tried to fabricate a beef, casting Jones as the archetypal black singer and Winehouse as the British bombshell who swiped her sound. "They'd ask me, 'How does it feel to have a skinny little white girl steal your band'," marvels Jones. "What would I have angry to say about Amy?"
Not much, considering that Jones and her band have just embarked on a European tour and will be heard on not one but two forthcoming Denzel Washington soundtracks (he's a fan). And the performances remind us of a time when soul singers were backed by real bands and didn't lip-sync their way through their bigger gigs. "The band is really cookin'," says John (Jabo) Starks, who, as James Brown's drummer on "Sex Machine," ought to know "And she's a monster. The girl is so good it'll scare you." For now the music has retained an edge of in-the-know cool, but the scales may tip with the sort of, ahem, mainstream media coverage the band has been getting. And deservedly so: these are familiar sounds to some of us, yes, but the expertise and care that go into crafting them are enough to drive a neophyte to pick up an Otis or Aretha record and an old soul fan to eagerly anticipate the next Sharon Jones disc. And who can argue with anyone who can shimmy barefoot and even float across the Apollo stage?