Ten years ago, Sharon Jones tried out for a spot as a backup vocalist in David Byrne's touring band. Before she even opened her mouth, Byrne's people rejected her—in her early 30s, Jones was already too old.
"And here it is, I'm 51 now and he wants me on his new album," says the Georgia-born, Brooklyn-raised singer, on her way to Manhattan to meet Byrne at his studio. "I'm going to finish the song and then I'm going to let him know. I can't wait to tell him that story."
The story is more telling than she realizes: 2007 has brought validation not just for Jones, but for vintage soul in general. "Vintage soul," in this case, refers to modern bands, fronted by female singers of a certain age, making old-school dance music with sweat and horns and carnal rhythms. Like Jones and the Dap-Kings, who just released their third album, 100 Days, 100 Nights. And like Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, the Helsinki-based outfit helmed by the 43-year-old Willis, whose Keep Reachin' Up came out in July on Seattle's Light in the Attic Records. This year, both groups found critical acclaim in the New York Times, Pitchfork, and NPR, boosting their already significant cult followings. David Byrne isn't the only one changing his mind about the value of longevity.
For better or worse, Amy Winehouse has a lot to do with it. At the beginning of 2007, before being convicted of first-degree trainwrecking in the court of popular opinion, the British vocalist made a huge impact with Back to Black. Winehouse blew her sultry, gale-force vocals over classic soul samples for a smart, hiphop-inflected update that eventually went platinum. The album proved the appeal that old soul holds for young audiences. And when it came time to take it to the stage, Winehouse's record label enlisted the Dap-Kings to be her backing band.
Around the same time, fellow Brit singer Joss Stone released her third, eponymous album, also destined for platinum status, as was Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics (a title, like Winehouse's, angling for retro cred), released in mid-'06. All three women owe a major debt to the groove-grinding bands and barrel-chested singers of the mid-'70s black music underground. Their music is richer, dustier, and more organic than the airy, polished sheen of most current soul and R&B. It's a turn of justice—long believed extinct in the world of pop music—that the masses are catching on to Jones and Willis. The pair is closer to the source of contemporary pop's classic soul infatuation than anyone but the originators.
"It's practically unheard of," says Light in the Attic co-owner Matt Sullivan. "I can't think of any other people Sharon's age that have had the newfound success after years and years of doing it." Jones and Willis are the antithesis of the sleazy starlets manufactured overnight out of adolescent male fantasies and tabloid-baiting crotch shots. If there's any shred of authenticity left in pop, they own it.
Along with their pedigree, the other major asset that Jones and Willis share is their backing bands—both are whip-tight and expertly studied, breezing second-naturedly through the time-tested idioms of hard funk, Southern R&B, psychedelic soul, disco, and big-band pop. The Soul Investigators, for example, are surely the swingingest band in Scandinavia. Willis's Finnish multi-instrumentalist husband Jimi Tenor leads and produces; the band sparkles with clean guitar tones, brisk horn and flute flourishes, churchy organ, and a thrumming rhythm section. Considering Light in the Attic's penchant for reissuing classic albums, it's easy to assume the music is decades old. Close listening reveals the subtle, dubby flourishes of modern production; the Soul Investigators are comfortable with soul music of any era, as long as it's got a groove. That timelessness makes Keep Reachin' Up the year's best soul album.
The Dap-Kings provide the James Brown grit to the Soul Investigators' Curtis Mayfield loftiness. Ferociously falling on the one—the first beat of the bar, the funk beat—they swing hard by directive: The band evolved alongside Desco Records, a Brooklyn-based label from the mid-'90s obsessed with re-creating vintage funk with modern musicians. Desco only released vinyl 7-inches by artists like Lee Fields (an old-school screamer in the James Brown mold), the Daktaris (the band that eventually morphed into Afrobeat phenoms Antibalas), and Sugarman Three (a boogaloo organ trio à la Jimmy Smith). Desco's owners recruited Sharon Jones to sing on a single in 1996; she was a corrections officer and freelance wedding singer at the time. The label folded in 2000 and was reborn a year later as Daptone, which still obsesses over funk music made yesterday that sounds 40 years old. The Dap-Kings are the label's house band and Jones is now a partner in Daptone Records. Thanks in part to Jones's music, the label is turning a profit for the first time.
Because of Jones and the Dap-Kings' ceaseless touring, they're recognized as the prevailing force in vintage funk around the world. They've developed a bigger following in Europe than America (Europe always gets on board the soul train before we do), but that's about to change now that Jones has a foot in Oprah Winfrey's door. Jones recorded several songs and performed a minor role in the upcoming The Great Debaters, a film about a 1930s black collegiate debate team starring Denzel Washington and produced by Winfrey's Harpo Films. It's only a matter of time before America's preeminent tastemaker brings Jones and the Dap- Kings onto her show.
"I'm just grateful," Jones says. "I think they deserve me now. I mean, earlier they didn't want me—I was told I was too dark-skinned, too short, too old, too fat. I'm still dark-skinned, I'm much older, I'm still pleasantly plump, I'm still short—I don't think I've grown. But it's just my time now, you know? That's how life goes."
Not always. But when miracles happen, they're always good for the soul.