Soul of a Woman

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Reels of tape are constantly crossing the graffitied threshold of the House of Soul, a Bushwick rowhouse that has been home to Daptone Records’ studio since 2003. Daptone’s co-owner, producer, and bandleader of the Dap-Kings, Gabriel Roth, has his own studio close to his home in Riverside, California. His trips back to Brooklyn are frequent, as are his carry-on-inspired conversations at JFK and LAX. “The TSA guys never quite understand what I’m carrying. They always think it’s movie film or something,” he says. “We’re always splicing songs from one reel to another and putting them on a plane.”

Tape is expensive, and every Daptone project is recorded on it, which means the engineers are economical with what they use: They keep what they need and ditch what they don’t, laying new material over the outtakes of old sessions and carting the reels from coast to coast until the album is done. When Roth was mixing and mastering Soul of a Woman, the final, full-length album from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, he estimated that the tapes crossed the country four or five times. One cartridge held an exception to the rule.

“At the very end of the album, on ‘Call on God,’ there’s a little laugh,” he says. “I always cut that stuff and fade it out. People always think that’s studio magic, but it can be really overdone, to always leave that stuff in — it always sounds cute.” He pauses. “I didn’t have the heart to cut that last laugh. I just wanted to keep it there forever.”

“Call on God” is a Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings rarity, a song Jones wrote herself, long before she met Roth and became the front woman of an outfit that did right by its forebears and set a new standard for 21st-century soul. Initially recorded in a session for 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights but shelved for an intended gospel album, “Call on God” is a spiritual and stylized tribute to Jones’s beginnings.

Born in Augusta, Georgia, but raised in Brooklyn, Jones grew up singing in church choirs and worshipping Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace. When she died on November 18, 2016, after a year of fighting pancreatic cancer — which returned two years after she had beaten cancer for the first time — members of Brooklyn’s Universal Church of God choir returned to the borough to attend her memorial services. The original recording of “Call on God” didn’t have background vocals, so Roth coordinated with the church’s pastor and arranged for the choir members to come by the House of Soul and sing on Soul of a Woman’s sendoff.

“I think she would’ve been really, really happy about that, that we were able to have her old friends on the record with her,” he says.

Roth’s dedication to the small details of “Call on God” is a distillation of the Herculean effort he, the Dap-Kings, and the Daptone family at large, put into Soul of a Woman. It’s a testament to the two decades they spent together and immortal proof of Jones’s raw, ecstatic performances. It is also the Dap-Kings’ most collaborative effort to date, with several players penning songs instead of Roth holding the majority of the writing reins. As a result, it’s their most eclectic but personal album. Soul of a Woman is an homage to a singer written by the musicians who loved her most for the musician who loved them most. And it grew out of a paralyzing challenge: How would the band move forward and continue to shape her legacy without her?

Though the precise timeline is hazy due to grueling production and road schedules, the shape of Soul of a Woman stretched over the last four years and saw a number of difficult, tragic turns at the House of Soul. By 2013, Jones and the Dap-Kings had four studio albums under their belt, a cameo in the Wolf of Wall Street, and mainstream adoration that came with Back to Black — Amy Winehouse’s 2006 career-defining opus that leaned heavily on Mark Ronson’s production, with them as her backing band — and never really waned.

In the midst of recording their fifth LP, Give the People What They Want, Jones was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer, and the album’s release was pushed back so that she could treat it, beat it, and heal. Miss Sharon Jones!, Barbara Kopple’s 2015 documentary, explored the blurred line between Jones’s personal and professional lives as she recovered and entered remission. When she kicked the effects of chemotherapy, she celebrated with the 2014 release of the album and subsequent tour. Kopple’s cameras caught her, anxious and worried, in the dress rehearsal before her comeback show.

“Things just haven’t been working for me like I wanted it,” she gripes, the Dap-Kings vamping on “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” in the background. “I really wanted to get my strength back in my legs. I want to move. I want to have energy. I want to dance. But I have to have that confidence in myself, and I have no confidence right now, because I don’t know if I’m going to have the energy. So, tonight is my first night out to get back out, and hopefully be able to find myself — find not the old Sharon, but another Sharon.”

The performance was as exhilarating as it was exhausting, and Miss Sharon Jones! shows how delicate the balance was between the two. In one frame, she’s shaking backstage while waiting for Binky Griptite, the lead guitarist and MC of the Dap-Kings, to introduce her; in a blink, she’s ditching her chair and her nerves and heading straight for the front row while waving to the balcony, all with Give the People What They Want’s measures keeping her afloat.

That album’s lead single, “Retreat!,” was a warning initially aimed at sketchy men stupid enough to underestimate her, but by the time it was released, the context of the song — and the album on the whole — had shifted to her current condition. “When we did ‘Retreat,’ the guys were writing it and I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be fun. I can see now how I’m going to tell this guy off,’” she told me in the days leading up to Give the People What They Want’s release. “Now, instead of telling a guy to step back, I’m telling my cancer and my sickness to retreat. I’m back, I’m better, I’m walking in the world and back to give the people what they want.”

By the close of 2014, Jones and the Dap-Kings had collected their first Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album. Her feet barely touched the ground when Daptone threw a three-night celebration at Harlem’s Apollo Theater moments after she received news of the nomination. Miss Sharon Jones! premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival the following September, but the audience took their seats after a standing ovation only to sink back into them, stunned, when Jones told the room that her cancer had returned.

“The movie wasn’t done because I got cancer; that movie is about part of my life, and cancer is going to be with me for the rest of my life,” she said months after the TIFF premiere. “Do I lie down? Do I give up my career in music, in singing, because of chemo? Or do I go out and live my life? I know people who got cured of cancer and they die of a heart attack or get hit by a motorcycle. The thing with the cancer and the movie — it’s back, but it never left. To me, life is about how well you take it.”

Preparation was well under way for Give the People What They Want’s follow-up, but the initial blueprint — to navigate dark, dramatic arrangements with orchestral flourishes, instead of her typically upbeat fare — was abandoned when the cancer attacked her pancreas. Churning riptides of minor chords and excruciating tension took shape in the form of songs like “Girl You’ve Got to Forgive Him” and “These Tears (No Longer for You).” Jones howls with desperation, and the Dap-Kings sound four times the size of the ten-man outfit they are — but these brooding compositions had more to do with sharpening the musical acumen of the band, and when Roth and the rest of the band realized that, they prioritized bottling up the lightning of Jones’s live show while they still could.

This had always been a hurdle, but this time it was a nearly insurmountable one. “We know the difference between the fancy songs we like writing and arranging, and the ones she liked doing live,” says Roth. “In the studio, it was always such a challenge to get Sharon to commit to the level she did live, emotionally. On this record, I think she was able to get through that. I don’t know if it was her own awareness of her own mortality, or the understanding that her words would be out there forever and touching people.”

“She would basically save all of her energy for the show, and a recording session would take away her energy for the show,” says Griptite. “Sharon would always deliver, but it takes a bit of work to get it out of her, because she would rather be onstage than in a room by herself. She’s about the experience and the sharing, being onstage with the band, and seeing the smiles and the reactions of the people. When you’re just in a box repeating the same verses over and over again, it’s a very different kind of energy.”

The moody orchestrations were then flanked by the kinds of robust, R&B grooves tailor-made for the Dap-Kings set list. “We were all trying to give Sharon stuff, as opposed to our original idea, which wasn’t necessarily Sharon’s sweet spot,” says saxophonist Neal Sugarman, who co-founded Daptone with Roth and leads the horn section of the Dap-Kings. “Although the record concept was really cool and heavy, we needed to get back to, ‘What can we give her that she can really sink her teeth into?’”

Griptite brought the slow-burning, rueful “Pass Me By” to the table, as well as “Matter of Time,” a waltz of a civil-rights anthem that speaks of strength in the struggle, while assuring peace and unity aren’t out of reach. “It’s always timely, unfortunately, because those problems are never going to be solved,” Griptite says, when asked about whether or not this is a political anthem for the Trump era, which began in Jones’s final moments. (Following her death, Roth told the Los Angeles Times that Jones blamed her final strokes on the 2016 presidential election.) “I’m somewhere between a pessimist and a realist,” Griptite continues. “I see how great the world could be, but I also see that it’s never going to happen, because people are making too much money off the problems.” Both “Come and Be a Winner,” from guitarist Joe Crispiano, and “When I Saw Your Face,” by trumpeter Dave Guy, channel the meticulous grace of What’s Going On–era Marvin Gaye. All conjure images of Jones making a beeline for her microphone in a fit of flying fringe, gleeful mischief, and calculated charm — even the slower, sadder material.

But “Rumors,” written by percussionists Homer Steinweiss and Fernando Velez, is the standout smash of Soul of a Woman. Jones harmonizes with herself on the verses, a one-woman girl group playfully teasing her lover about his bad reputation. It’s a delight with medicinal properties. “I loop it like crazy to the point where I’m like, let me give it a rest,” says backup singer Saundra Williams, who sang with Jones alongside Starr Duncan-Lowe back in the Good ’N Plenty wedding band days before the Dap-Kings. “We had not heard a lot of the songs before we went in to record them, because there was so much going on. We needed an uplifting thing.” Roth agrees, but for him, “Rumors” is more than a dose of positivity: It’s informed by the Dap-Kings’ early days, a nod to their roots informed by their earliest long drives on tour.

“Even working on the record, every time I got to touch that song, I was just relieved, because it’s so joyful and buoyant,” he says. “It turned out to be something so necessary on that record and in these times in general. We were going for a ‘Pata Pata’ kind of vibe, a South African thing. Before [tour] buses, we were in vans for years, sharing and listening to music together. At one point we got really into South African music, this old Soweto jazz music. There’s this sound to those records — the way they play those major chords, it’s just happiness. We were trying to tap into that. It was real fun to play. It’s for people to enjoy and not think about.”

“Rumors” condenses so much of what Soul of a Woman achieves, in four minutes or less — but so does “Call on God,” “Girl You’ve Got to Forgive Him,” and the rest, as each track is a capsule reflecting one facet of Jones’s life with the Dap-Kings. By shelving their own preferences, focusing on her love for the stage, keeping her close in the studio, and amplifying her voice as one of a reliable narrator with difficult stories to tell, the Dap-Kings were able to pay tribute to Jones before they lost her. As a result, Soul of a Woman is charged with all the intensity one would expect from a woman confronting her own mortality at a young age with her friends by her side.

“When you’re facing your demise, or your time is limited on this earth — I have no idea what I would be feeling inside,” says Williams. “When I hear Sharon sing, I feel like she knew. She had that in the back of her mind, in her heart, worrying about her family, the band, herself, the fear of death, questioning your religious beliefs. When I hear her singing, there’s a purpose and there’s a determination in it to really sing every word like it was the last time. This record is honest and unaffected in that she sang every time she went into the studio from the place where she was. I think she sounds so good, considering it all. I hear the differences in her voice, but there was something in that urgency and a purpose in her voice. She was singing from her pure purpose at the end.”

Where the Dap-Kings will take Soul of a Woman from here is yet to be determined. They’re still trying to sort how they’ll proceed with live performances, or if they’ll play Soul of a Woman cuts at all. “The idea of another singer, it’s hard,” says Sugarman. “We’re not totally opposed to it, but it’d have to be a very special circumstance, or a very special singer, or we’d have to find some way to do it that we feel good about, because almost anything is just going to feel a very empty tribute for us. It’s just a certain high being onstage with Sharon. But we’re still musicians, and we’re still alive; I’m sure she would want us to play, so we’re going to figure it out.” Griptite agrees: “We’re not one of those bands that makes a studio album and puts it out, and that’s that. The show is really important, but the show is 50 percent Sharon, and 50 percent the other ten people. We can’t go out with half a show.”

They’ve all stayed busy in the meantime. Williams has joined a number of artists — Father John Misty, Benjamin Booker, and Low Cut Connie — for limited engagements, and loved the time she spent with Kesha as her “ride or die girlfriend” in the “Woman” video. The horn section, who featured on “Woman” as well, also appear on Sam Smith’s new album, The Thrill of It All; the whole band flew to Arizona last month to back Huey Lewis and a smattering of artists for the soul-spun Beatles tribute at the Lost Lake Festival, their first high-billing gig since last fall. Griptite is flexing his triple-threat status, juggling a radio show on WFUV, brief appearances coming up onscreen in The Greatest Showman and A Star Is Born, and his regular rotation of gigs thanks to his residencies in Brooklyn with his own Binky Griptite Orchestra. Roth wrapped up James Hunter’s second record with Daptone, and those tape reels continue their bicoastal commutes.

The House of Soul, meanwhile, continues to face seismic change. They were devastated by the loss of not only Jones, but Charles Bradley, who succumbed to cancer in September, and Dan Klein, the lead singer of the Frightnrs, Daptone’s first reggae act, who passed away following ALS-related complications last June, just weeks away from the release of his debut LP. Roth and Sugarman both speak of a changing of the guard of sorts, referring to the bittersweet juxtaposition of one Daptone era coming to a close as their artists — including Cuba’s Orquesta Akokán, whose forthcoming album is the label’s first entirely Spanish-language release — usher in a new one. But Griptite sees this grieving period as less of an end and more of a change, a “nothing lasts forever” sentiment that Roth and Sugarman echo. “In some ways, it’s the beginning, because of the way things go, and the trajectory that our career is on,” he says. “Yeah, the recording career stops here for us, as well as the touring career of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. But Sharon’s star and light and influence is just going to grow.” It was important to make an exception to the rule, then: It’s only fitting that Jones had the last laugh before the next chapter of her legacy begins.

The Story Behind Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ Final Album