Chiseled with a rugged, timeworn demeanor that shouts "don't gimme none of your lip," Sharon Jones' voice has enough character to exist in a Coen Brothers film. It's not one of those airbrushed beauties showcased on American Karaoke or the pop charts. Rather, it's a raw, primal force, unafraid to exclaim most anything.
Backed by the vacuum tightness of the Dap-Kings, Jones sounds more like a time traveler than a funk revivalist. You could swear she was there, singing soul and funk with the greats, and she sort of was: Jones sang with bands and backed other artists from the early '70s and into the '80s before shedding the soul goddess dream in favor of age-enforced pragmatism. Jones was a correctional officer on Rikers Island and had just turned 40 when Gabe Roth, the Dap-Kings' bassist and co-songwriter, and Philip Lehman, his partner in the Desco label, discovered her singing backup vocals for another soul survivor, Lee Fields. Much like spiritual kin Bettye LaVette, Jones draws upon a deep reservoir of struggle and doubt from which she forges the soul-shaking ache and frustration in her voice. She supplies a legitimacy that can't be faked because nobody handed her anything.
Of course, the style never really disappeared—the emergence of West Coast G-Funk with its raft of old samples has ensured that, along with the indefatigable road presence of George Clinton and his various offshoots. But when you consider the steady stream of neo-soul acts over the last two decades, you wonder where the disconnect is? Why aren't more people trying to make this music? Other than a handful of groups in the Dap-Kings' orbit—The Sugarman 3, Lee Fields, The Daktaris and to a lesser extent, The Budos Band and Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra—few have attempted to replicate that classic funk sound. And the sound is ostensibly lucrative: I Learned the Hard Way went to No. 15 on the Billboard charts and No. 2 on the Independent charts, and Jones has worked with Lou Reed and Michael Bublé.
Listening to D'Angelo, Maxwell or Babyface's cocoa butter R&B crooning about lovelorn disappointments and desires, it's sometimes difficult to curb your disbelief. Most of these loverman cover boys possess such silky style and devastating looks that they could have the panties of just about any woman in the club. I mean, if you'll have sex with R. Kelly... What exactly are these singers going on about, then?
When Jones confesses "I Learned the Hard Way" on the title track of her new album, or recounts scrapping for "Money" to pay the bills, there's a ground-level primacy that resonates with the music's gritty throb. It's a feeling that not only shifts your ass into overdrive but moves your head from side to side with an amen-producing sigh of recognition. In Jones, Roth and Lehman discovered a woman capable of reigniting the fiery passions first lit by James Brown—with the brother-to-sister, in-it-together essence of a sweaty revival.
Maybe the problem, then, is that in a youth-obsessed music world, there are precious few artists with the hard-earned experience to bring off funk with the bottom-of-your-gut conviction it requires. It's far easier to get yourself a shiny belt buckle, cowboy hat and boots, and pretend you're Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash. But if you accept that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you have to wonder why so many artists try to bite Hall & Oates rather than pay the Godfather his proper respect? All we can do is be thankful that at least Jones, now 50, and the Dap-Kings busy themselves with offerings we can't refuse. For the time being, they're one of a kind.