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The Hard Way

Sharon Jones, the Queen of Funk




Sharon Jones has just finished up a long lunch at J's Oyster in Portland, Maine. She orders another glass of wine and settles into an enticing, detailed description of the lobster soup, corn, shrimp with marinara and baked oysters that made up her meal.

"I feel bad telling you about all this, because it's so good," Jones tells me on the phone, with a laugh. Born in Augusta, Ga.—the same hometown of James Brown, whose fevered dance theatrics have most certainly influenced Jones' own stage show—the singer's passion for the good things in life runs deep, from food and a study of the Spanish language to her infectious live performances.

"We don't have all the smoke and dancers coming out to keep people occupied," says Jones. "so I get on that stage with the Dap-Kings and we groove off the audience, and I just feel."

Listening to the Dap-Kings, Jones' backing band, is like being privy to a rare soul back catalogue; known for an authentic old-school R&B sound, they rock original songs that could've come straight out of the Stax Records vault. Jones describes performing this music that lies so close to her heart as "a gift."

"When I walk on that stage, people don't understand you don't have to be high on drugs or drunk, it's just that natural high," she says.

It's been a long road for a singer who didn't experience success until she hit her early 40s. Jones worked both as a wedding singer and a corrections officer at Rikers Island before meeting Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Mann), founder of the Dap-Kings, in 1996. Roth asked Jones to sing on a series of 45s, and soon, she was permanently fronting the band.

"The Dap-Kings are no joke," Jones says with admiration. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings released their first album, Dap-Dippin' in 2002, going on to release four more records since. They've performed at festivals across the States, played a sold-out stand at the Apollo Theater, and seen their horn-laden cover of "This Land Is Your Land" featured in the opening credits of the George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air. Last January, Prince asked them to open one of his Madison Square Garden shows, an experience that Jones, who's been called the "Queen of Funk," describes as surreal.

"He said that he saw me on Austin City Limits and that I 'took him to church,'" says Jones, "and that's how we got the gig."

Jones has moved from the stage to the camera in recent years. She tells me that she spent the previous day filming scenes for a film called Queen City, starring Vivica A. Fox, and in 2007, she landed a small role as a juke-singer in The Great Debaters, alongside Denzel Washington. But while growing recognition has opened up opportunities for the Brooklyn-raised singer, her heart still lies in the rich, soulful funk music that the Dap Kings have mastered.

At 55, is Sharon Jones ready to slow down? No way, she says.

"A lot of people still don't know about me," Jones says. "So I still have a few more years to go."

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform Thursday, Nov. 17 at the Uptown Theatre. 1350 Third St., Napa. $35. 8pm. 707.259.0123.

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