I almost saw Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at least 15 years ago at SXSW. I was staying with dear friends who by the end of the trip were happy to see our crew of San Francisco revelers GTFO of their house. We got it in for seven days straight. We checked out DJs (I saw King Britt turn a bunch of musically uneducated snowflake spring breakers into house junkies by re-starting his second set with an uber-vanilla Fleetwood Mac remix … I took notes), art galleries, free live shows, and nocturnal adventures that involved cheap Maker’s Mark and Shiner Boch. While a friend tried to convince the rest of us to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings in a very intimate venue, we passed in order to check out Andre “The Rhythm” Williams at the historic Continental Club. Williams was in his 80s—still crushing it, by the way. I figured I’d have ample opportunities to see the younger Sharon Jones.
In the following years, until her death in 2016 from cancer, Sharon Jones carried the flag for James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Tina Turner-type soul. Her sweat-drenched, blues-referencing, dime-dropping live show established this 40-something Black woman as the leader of the world-renowned Brooklyn imprint that would be called Daptone. She was so impressive, in fact, that even Prince took notice and booked the outfit to open for him on tour in 2011. Now that is an anointment.
Her group’s dart-accurate knack for constructing self-assured original arrangements with classic R&B structure fueled the surge of oldies DJ nites [shout out to the Bay’s DJ Primo] that popped up around the world in the 2000s. led by Jones, Daptone Records, put Black music from the ’60s back into the air in a way that made everybody have to get a taste. Amy Winehouse crossed the Atlantic and came to Daptone for that extra slap, that sound of authenticity—to the slight chagrin of Jones. Let’s not forget that Jones was told early on by a record producer that she was, “too fat, too black, too short and too old.”
Jones, who worked as a corrections officer at New York’s Rikers Island prison and as an armored car guard for the Wells Fargo corporation before fame found her, achieved success a little past the midlife mark. That “tell it like it is” persona, showmanship, and pure grit could have made her a perfect fit at Motown or Stax had she been born a decade earlier.
This all makes the Jones posthumous covers compilation Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Rendition Was In that much more of a treasure. These 12 songs are more than just random tunes that never made it to print. They were recorded at various stages, and for varying reasons all across her career. Some make immediate sense while others are wild headscratchers … that still bump. The collection illuminates just how much Jones and her band were particular, in-studio arrangers. Behind that shake, shout. and blow-‘em-away stage presence, you had composers weaned on the arrangements of Gamble and Huff, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Norman Whitfield, amongst others. Jones and the Dap-Kings could recontextualize, translate, and change up the vibe of any composition as per needed.
One of the album’s highlights is the group’s take on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which first appeared on 2004’s Naturally LP. Here, the canonic campfire flag-waver is taken back to the streets. Sharon and the Kings re-insert Guthrie’s more accusatory verses that have been lost over the years, and add attacking horn charts put our current political garbage fire on blast. I dare you to listen and not hear Miss Jones throwing two thousand percent shade at Orange 45.
She’s preaching from the grave.
It’s educational to hear “Little by Little,” “Inspiration Information,” “Here I Am Baby,” and “Take Me with U” reworked by the Brooklyn group—originally for tribute projects to Dusty Springfield, Shuggie Otis, The Marvelettes, and Prince, respectively. These tunes get new live versions and whole new energies—something not all tribute payers can execute. The “Inspiration Inspiration” cover, a fave tune, gets that gentle stroll down the street type of treatment. It’s as if it was recast in the form of a melancholy ballad from some optimistic Blacksploitation flick. Jones could downgrade into a sunny “not a care in the world” mode with the best of ‘em. Her version of “Take Me with U” is the first time a Prince song does in fact sound like a James Brown live soul revue number from the ‘60s.
The 4/4 classic “In the Bush” presents one of the few times we hear Jones light a match to the disco era—she could have done serious damage in the ’70s too. That track and “Rescue Me” were among the outtakes on the cutting room floor of The Wolf of Wall Street motion picture soundtrack, for which the band recorded several unused sides.
Man, at times it’s hard, real hard hearing her voice, realizing she’s gone. But we gotta take the lesson and victory to heart. Next time you think somebody is “too fat, too black, too short and too old,” hire ‘em.