As critics and hardcore soul fans around the world praised her latest album, 100 Days, 100 Nights, Sharon Jones was often crying alone in a hotel room.
Last year was personally rough for the New York-based singer, as 24 friends and family members died, including her brother, who passed away on New Year's Eve. All the while, Jones toured the globe with her backing band, the Dap-Kings. The music was her therapy.
"You gotta do what you gotta do," she says. "It was hard, but we have a band and folks need to get paid. That's life; people die. But I found peace out on the road singing to the people, singing through the tears."
Still, the mainstream attention couldn't have come at a better time, Jones says. It was long overdue. The artist, who tonight headlines Black Cat in Washington, has been singing semiprofessionally since the early '70s. To make ends meet over the years, the 51-year-old Georgia native did backup and session singing and worked a stint as a prison guard at Rikers Island in New York.
When she tried to land recording deals in the early days, "I was told I was too short, too dark-skinned, too fat," says Jones, who last week was performing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "But I didn't give up. I'm still short, dark, fat. I'm older. But God is good. It's my time now."
But it was a wafer-thin, beehive-wearing British soul sensation who helped bring Jones and her longtime backing band into the limelight. Amy Winehouse, last year's breakout vocalist, used the Dap-Kings on Back to Black, her platinum-selling American debut. The band's authentic-sounding revival of vintage Motown and brassy Stax-like soul bolstered Winehouse's critically lauded album. The dapper, tightly choreographed group also toured with Winehouse, whose erratic behavior and alleged drug use made her a tabloid darling for most of 2007.
"I didn't know who Amy Winehouse was 'til the Dap-Kings played with her," Jones says. "I read where she said I inspired her, which feels good. And I guess that's what got more people asking about me and my music. It's the same way Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight inspired me. "
The throwback sound that garnered Winehouse platinum sales and multiple Grammy nominations is more refined and organic on 100 Days, 100 Nights, Jones' third album released by the independent Daptone Records. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., the company records its music on vintage equipment with no digital tinkering whatsoever. In the iPod age, Daptone releases as many 45s and LPs as CDs. Jones joined the company in 1996 after meeting co-founder and Dap-King bassist Gabriel Roth at a recording session.
"What we're doing is real," Jones says. "That's the beauty of being on your own label. We can go in any direction we want to. But we never leave that raw funk and soul."
Unlike the current young crop of retro soul revivalists (Winehouse, Joss Stone and Ryan Shaw chief among them), Jones suffuses her music with an emotional believability that can only come from years of experience. There's nothing canned or mannered about her singing. Her full-bodied approach - fierce and sweaty or sensual and lilting - always serves the lyric well. And now, after more than 30 years of seasoning her craft, the artist is finally receiving the attention she deserves. There was a recent write-up in The New York Times and a small role as a juke-joint singer in The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington's latest flick.
But Jones says she still has much further to go.
"What we're doing is an independent thing, so we're not rich," she says with a throaty chuckle. "We work in a studio in the 'hood in Brooklyn, OK? People say, 'You've made it now.' I say I'll make it when I can move my mama out of the projects and into a house I built for her. I just want to be comfortable. It's about time."
See Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings at Black Cat, 1811 14th St N.W. in Washington, tonight at 9. Tickets are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.