Sharon Jones and the Daptonization of Modern Pop

There’s a tragic feeling of incompleteness to Sharon Jones’ career, and it’s best be summed up with the phrase “discovered too late and gone way too soon.” The soul and funk vocalist’s story is a well-told one: a criminally overlooked session powerhouse—who clearly possessed the chops and sheer life-force to be a star when she first turned professional in the ’70s—finally achieves fame in her late-’40s only to have pancreatic cancer claim her life in 2016 at the age of 60. Fortunately for the world, the Grammy-nominated Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, made the most of her all-too-brief stardom, dropping seven stellar studio albums, including the posthumously released Soul of a Woman, recorded as the singer underwent debilitating chemotherapy treatments.

What makes the group so unique is their ability to feel unapologetically old-school, yet without any residue of weepy nostalgia. Anchored not just by Jones’ attention-seizing voice, but the group’s agilely stabbing horns and preternaturally metronomic rhythm section as well, their music pops, sizzles, and jumps with a sweaty, determined modernism. (Especially relevant in this context is their funk-spiked reworking of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”) It’s a sound that has exerted a huge impact on 21st-century pop, pushing retro-soul into the mainstream while also making the Dap-Kings, as well as their sister outfit the Dap Kings Horn Section, in-demand session musicians in the same vein as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section or the Wrecking Crew.

Arguably the first artist to take notice was the late Amy Winehouse, who employed the Dap-Kings when crafting her own fusion of retro and contemporary R&B for 2006’s game-changing Back to Black. The album’s co-producer, Mark Ronson, then used the ensemble’s crack horn section on his massive retro-pop hit “Uptown Funk,” featuring dynamo singer Bruno Mars. More recently, the digitally minded Kesha used those soul-piercing horns on her crushing, feminist anthem “Woman,” from her emotional tour de force Rainbow.

But not every session/appearance fits snugly between the poles of R&B and pop—there’s a slew of leftfield examples, too. On her self-titled full-length from 2014, avant-garde singer-songwriter St. Vincent leans heavily on the unswerving pulse of Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss (who also plays skins for the Dan Auerbach-led Arcs), while her collaborative effort with David Byrne, Love This Giant, weaves their horns into the duo’s art-rock pointillism. Other standouts include The Black Lips, whose garage-punk rave-up Underneath the Rainbow utilizes the services of baritone guitarist Thomas Brenneck and trumpeter David Guy, and country outlaw Sturgill Simpson, who worked with the the Dap-Kings horns on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and then brought them onstage for his 2017 Grammy performance.

On top of featuring cuts from each of the artists already mentioned, our playlists dips into the Dap-Kings’ many related projects (including The Budos Band and Menahan Street Band), as well as veteran soul and funk singers Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, and Rickey Calloway who, like Jones, found a welcoming home on Daptone, easily retro-soul’s most important record label. Of course, the absence left by Jones’ death will forever be felt; she was, after all, a once-in a-generation talent. But it becomes all too clear when exploring this diverse array of songs that her vision and style will continue to echo throughout modern music for a long time to come.