How Daptone Records Is Healing After Two Years of Profound Loss: 'We're Going to Go On'

Gabriel Roth
Jacob Blickenstaff

Gabriel Roth

Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth is honoring the legacies of its departed stars while forging a path ahead

Nearly twenty years ago, a bunch of unknown musicians got together in a sketchy part of Brooklyn and built a studio that started a legacy. As bassist/songwriter Gabriel Roth recalls, “Sharon [Jones] did the electricity. The Budos Band helped knock down walls, and Charles Bradley did a lot of the mud work on the drywall and taught me how to balance radiators so they don’t clank or bang.”

What the musicians created with that studio forged a sound and an aesthetic that became the hallmark of Daptone Records, an analog-driven label that made stars out of the stalwart soul singers Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley as well as the lauded Afrobeat group Antibalas, the Afro-soul Budos Band and the crack session team, The Dap-Kings, who famously backed Amy Winehouse on her Back To Black album.

Yet, in just the last two years, the pillars of that house have been shaken nearly to the ground. Between November of 2016 and September of 2017, both Jones, 60, and Bradley, 68, died of cancer. Around the same time, the leader of one of Daptone’s most promising new bands, Dan Klein of the rock steady group The Frightnrs, succumbed to ALS at just 33. “On a personal level, I have no words for that kind of loss,” Roth says, speaking from his current home in Riverside, Calif. “We were creating great legacies and releasing beautiful records. To have so much of it disappear so quickly, that’s a different kind of devastation.”

It isn’t one, however, that Roth will let defeat either him or the label. “We’re going to go on,” he says. “We’re not trying to replace any of the people we lost, because that would be impossible. We’re just trying to keep putting out good music.”

At the same time, they’re burnishing the legacy they’ve already established. This week, the label reissued Black Velvet, the final album from Bradley, who died fourteen months ago from stomach cancer. Two weeks later will mark the second anniversary of Jones’ passing from pancreatic cancer. Remarkably, the label’s procession of Job-like loses haven’t ended with those deaths. Currently, Daptone is in serious danger of losing the studio it built, known as the Daptone House of Soul, due to what Roth says are the landlord’s tax issues. “We’ve been getting foreclosure notices,” he explains. “It would be very hard to lose that place. It’s very sentimental. But you can’t say we didn’t get a lot out of it.”

They started to do so back in the early aughts, a time when, Roth recalls, the neighborhood where the studio is located – Bushwick – was rough. “There were multiple times that I woke up in the morning and there were cops all over the street with little numbered things to show where all the gun shots landed the night before,” he says.

The mettle of the Daptone crew was tested right from the start. When their distributor revealed that a $30,000 royalty check was coming their way, they signed a lease in the two-family home in Bushwick and started preparing to hire contractors for a total overhaul. Soon, however, the distributor announced that he was out of business -- and that no money would be forthcoming. As a result, the musicians had to max out their credit cards and give themselves a crash course in construction so they could do all the work themselves. “From the beginning this label was willed into existence, against all odds,” Roth says.

It helped that Roth, and his co-leader at the imprint, Neal Sugarman of Sugarman 3, had great faith in their first potential star, Jones. “She had a certain gravity that pulled you in,” Roth says. “She had been singing gospel all her life, so she had great pipes. It’s a different thing when you get on stage with somebody like that.”

At the same time, the singer could be “really mercurial,” he says. “She would be the life of the party, and then she could just turn on you. I would get pissed at stuff she would pull onstage. If she was having trouble with the monitors, she’d spend the whole show yelling at the sound man.”

But their relationship went deep. “We depended on each other,” he says. “I obviously depended on her talent, and she looked to me for a lot of the architecture that enabled her to do what she did -- as far as arranging and keeping the band together. Her job was just to sing and put her heart out there.”

At one point, there was some tension with Jones when the band went off to back Amy Winehouse. But, ultimately, there was no contest as to where their loyalties lied. “No offense to her, but hitting the stage with Amy Winehouse, nobody ever broke a sweat,” Roth says. “It was just a gig.”

Either way, the connection with Winehouse’s hit album boosted the profile of Jones and the band -- and the singer knew it. “Sharon would come out onstage and say, ‘Yeah, Amy Winehouse, I lent her my band, but we’ve been doing this since she was in diapers,’” Roth recalls with a laugh.

Jones also had her own side gigs, working with Lou Reed, David Byrne and others. But Roth stresses her unshakable loyalty to the band. “Even in a radio drop, I’d never hear her say, ‘This is Sharon Jones.’ It was always, ‘This is Sharon Jones from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.’”

Their mutual loyalty passed an even stricter test during Jones’ illness, when she received an invitation to play the White House and meet the Obamas -- a dream of hers. Because they were booked into a small space in the building, Jones was told she could only bring five members of her big band. She said either the whole band would come or no one would. “We told her, ‘Don’t be crazy! If you don’t go to the White House because of us, we couldn’t live with that,’” Roth recalls. “But she dug in her heels.”

Remarkably, the White House relented. Unfortunately, when the appointed day approached, Jones was too sick to make the trip. Still, she insisted that the band go on their own. “It was so bittersweet,” Roth says. “She had wanted to go so badly.”

The band’s devotion to Jones lasted until the end: They were all with her when she died. In her final days, in hospice and having suffered from two strokes, Jones was not able to communicate. But when one of the musicians pulled out a guitar and started playing one of her favorite songs, “His Eyes Are On The Sparrow,” she began to moan, then moan in tune, then, gradually, hum melodies and, eventually, even form words. “Musically, she was there, even when she couldn’t speak,” Roth says. “It was so deep in her.”

Tensions had already been high at Dap-Tone. Several months before her passing, Dan Klein died seven months after his diagnosis. Roth didn’t know Klein nearly as well as Jones, but he got to know his parents, and he admired Klein’s dark humor and stark candor about his illness. “If you can look it in the eye and laugh about it and cry about it, it’s better,” Roth says. “I really admire the way he handled himself during that period.”

Sadly, Klein died just before his band’s debut, Nothing More To Say, appeared that September. By contrast, the posthumous album from Charles Bradley doesn’t feature new material but instead collects the best of the soul singer’s unreleased tracks. It takes its title from his early stage name, Black Velvet. “It’s a good way to bookend his work, to give him the superhero status he always wanted,” Roth says.

Despite all the deaths, Roth says he never felt that the label would end: “I wasn’t a question of ‘will it survive?’ It was more about ‘what do we want to do now?’”

The answer? Put out more music than ever. Last year, the label expanded its reach by recording an album featuring great Cuban players, cut in Havana. “I don’t think there have ever been bands that play like those Cuban bands play, with that rhythm, and that phrasing,” Roth says. “Even with the best big bands here, from Count Basie and Duke Ellington, I don’t know if they played as well as the Cuban bands of the ‘40s and ‘50s.”

For 2019, the label has plans for a full slate of releases, including works from both its biggest bands and lots of new signings. The Dap-Kings have also continued to play gigs, some of them backing Jon Baptiste of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Without Jones, however, things will never be the same. “The peaks that we rode with Sharon are gone,” he says. “You never feel the sweat like you did with her.”

At the same time, Roth finds it “greedy” when people say Jones “had so much more to give.”

“She gave us ten albums and sang for everybody who would listen, night after night,” he says. “It’s only fair to be grateful for what we got.”

Roth has a similar attitude about what he and the label have been through. “I look at this way,” he says. “We got to go on an amazing roller coaster ride. To me, it’s more appropriate to be giddy for the excitement that we got to go on that ride rather than to cry that it’s over.”