In the last decade, America has a made a habit out of importing soul music from England: think of Duffy, Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Sam Smith. These singers have enjoyed immense success repackaging motifs from late ’60s, early ’70s black pop — when studios like Motown and Stax were at their critical and commercial peaks.
This practice of importing soul is grounded in tradition. England has a knack for hearing American music and then sending it back to us in slightly altered form. And white versions of black music — whether jazz, blues, soul, disco, or rap — have always been a commercially successful proposition.
But why doesn’t America embrace its own soul singers? Take Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, who have been releasing music for more than a decade on the New York label Daptone. They never get played on the radio and rarely earn the accolades showered on their overseas counterparts. But if you like Adele’s “Rumour Has It” or Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” you’ll find plenty to appreciate on any Daptone record. Billboard is exclusively premiering a new song from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings today. “Little Boys with Shiny Toys” balances force and precision, featuring powerful vocals from Jones, a crisp beat, and a driving horn section.
The Dap-Kings recently earned their first Grammy nomination — Give The People What They Want, their fifth full-length, is in the running for best R&B album. Jones tells Billboard she had almost given up on the thought of ever getting recognized by the Grammys. “The guys were always pushing to see if we got nominated,” she says of past years. “This year it was like, ‘Eh, who cares?’ And we get it. My manager didn’t even know!”
Faithful representations of vintage soul and funk are in high demand, and it’s tough sitting by year after year and watching other people get praised for the style that Jones & co. have been employing for so long. The Dap-Kings even helped other artists achieve success — most famously Winehouse and her producer Mark Ronson. “They recorded six of the songs [for Back To Black]… right there in Daptone,” Jones remembers. Winehouse and Ronson earned worldwide recognition for that album, which has sold close to 3 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music.
But the Dap-Kings didn’t get the bump they hoped for from the collaboration. “How many years ago was that?” Jones asks. “We’re just getting acknowledged in 2015, and we’ve been out here since ’96, ’95…[Daptone] had no idea what was going on with [Winehouse]. If they did, they would have handled that business a little differently.” (Gabriel Roth, who co-founded the Daptone label, won a Grammy as recording engineer on Back To Black. He has yet to be awarded for his production work on the label he helped start.)
Jones proposes a few theories that might explain why her group has been neglected. “Even right now, we’re [nominated] for R&B!” she exclaims. “Why is there not a category for soul? That’s my goal. Put me in the right category.”
The best R&B album category serves as a catch-all for music by (mostly) black singers: Jones’ competition this year includes Toni Braxton and Babyface, who sold millions of albums throughout the ’90s; Bernhoft, a Norwegian with an album indebted to smooth white pop of the late ’70s; and the Robert Glasper Experiment, a group that mixes elements of jazz, rap, and soul. (Albums by black singers with a more current bend — i.e., things that you might hear on the radio — are nominated in the urban contemporary category, even though, in the case of Pharrell‘s G I R L, “contemporary” sounds like 1977.)
The other factor that limits Jones’ exposure has to do with money and reach: she’s committed to Daptone, an independent label. This gives her artistic freedom at the price of name recognition. Still, she scoffs at the idea of a major label. “A major label’s gonna do what?” she asks. “I sing one or two songs, they give me a few million dollars which they’re gonna want back, and then the next thing you know, the next record don’t sell, and then they’re kicking me to the curb. With us, this is our label, this is our project.”
So why did her project get recognized this year? Jones thinks part of it has to do with her personal story. In May 2013, a doctor diagnosed her with bile duct cancer, which eventually turned out to be pancreatic cancer. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy.
Most people would take plenty of time to recover from that, but not Jones. There was just one moment when she doubted her ability to come back. “I had no energy,” she remembers, “and energy is what I have — that’s my whole stage, that’s my whole performance. And not to have that… I might as well give up.” Of course, she didn’t — less than two weeks after finishing chemo, Jones played live on The Tonight Show. Give The People What They Want came out on Jan. 14, 2014, and Jones spent much of the year touring the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
“I inspired [people] with that fight,” Jones suggests. “I don’t look at that as bad,” she adds. “As long as our music’s being heard.”
Her mission remains clear: “We doing history here!” she says. “There are no soul singers out there right now — or there are singers, but they’re not being recognized. And if we’re going to bring people to realize what’s out here, then we’re making history.”