Sharon Jones: the power of song
During the golden age of soul music we were able to revel not just in great voices and wonderful playing but in the quality of the imagination and inventiveness shown by the best songwriters, and the lyricists in particular. They didn’t have to get fancy about it, either. Introduced to me was Delilah / Right away I reached for her hand / Suddenly a thrill went through me / Made me feel as though I was king of the land — Curtis Mayfield (for Major Lance). A simple touch upon my face / A tender kiss and a warm embrace / A few kind words, spoken sincere / These things will keep me loving you, dear — Harvey Fuqua, Sylvia Moy and Johnny Bristol (for the Velvelettes). Simple emotions, expressed with a succinct directness.
I’ve been listening to Give the People What They Want, the new album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. There’s so much to like about it. As usual, Sharon proves herself to be an outstanding soul singer, worthy of consideration alongside the likes of Betty Wright, Jean Knight and Ann Peebles. The musicians are terrific: they and their producers demonstrate a perfect understanding of the relevant styles and textures of the late 1960s and early ’70s. The singer and her band are so good at what they do that you never even stop to think that you’re listening to a recreation.
Only in one area can it be said that they fail to do themselves justice, and unfortunately it’s an important one: the songwriting. Once again all their material comes from inside the collective, mostly from the pens of bassist Bosco Mann, drummer Homer Steinweiss and saxophonist Cochemea Gastelum. Idiomatically speaking, it’s all fine. The funky swing of “We Get Along”, by Steinweiss and guitarist Joseph Crispiano, the walking bass line and great horn chart of Steinweiss’s “Now I See”, punctuated by tympani, and the sweet uptown soul of Mann’s “Making Up and Breaking Up” are extremely pleasant to the ear, but none of them contains the sort of hook, were these songs released as A-sides, that would make you put the needle back to the beginning over and over again until the whole thing had burned itself into your brain.
For me, the closest they got to that was in 2007 with “Tell Me”, a track written by guitarist Neil Sugarman for their third album, 100 Days 100 Nights. Now that had everything: not just a groove that grabs you and won’t let go, the smeary horns, the great lead vocal and the essential Northern Soul ingredient of vibes like broken milk-bottles, but a chorus that sticks to the ribs. I wish they had a few more of those.
What’s the problem? Almost certainly that, unlike the songwriters of the 1960s, they’re not engaged in fierce daily competition with rivals in other cities for the national hits that would keep them in a job. They’re not subjected to the kind of critical scrutiny that forced Smokey Robinson to keep his similes sharp and made Curtis Mayfield ensure that each song painted its own little picture. It’s a system that maintained its grip on country music but disappeared from soul and R&B some time in the 1970s. It didn’t matter whether it was “Seven Rooms of Gloom” or “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me)”, each song needed to start with a distinctive idea of its own. And those hits weren’t made without hard work.
I admire the people at Daptone Records a great deal. But if I were them, I’d locate one of the survivors of the golden age — someone like Benny Latimore, Phillip Mitchell or Paul Kelly — and put them on the payroll, working with Mann, Steinweiss and the others to ensure that each song they write has its own identity and earns its place. Because, as I say, they’ve got everything else down.
* The photographs of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is from the cover of their new CD, and was taken by Kyle Dean Reinford.
Thank you for saying it – the songwriting just isn’t there – because I have often thought the same thing about Sharon Jones, etc. I believe your analysis as to why is spot on as well. They and their ilk can be mightily impressive in concert but in the more reflective experience of listening to an album – not so much.
Interesting point. I haven’t heard the Sharon Jones album yet but your comment made me think of James Hunter, who also does perfect recreations of 60s soul and is a magnificent live act. For me, at least half of his original songs on the People Gonna Talk (2006) and The Hard Way (2008) albums DO have the kind of hooks and choruses you mention. They sound like classics that have somehow escaped your attention until now.
You’re absolutely right – Sharon and the Dap Tones give exhilarating shows, part pastiche, part update of the classic R&B showband. I especially loved the use of familiar R&B riffs – many from JB – that they used to segue into the next song. A wonderful tease, but then they’d launch into their next song, an original, and afterwards you wouldn’t remember it (though you kept dancing throughout). This is why apart from that single you mention, the albums have never stayed on the turntable long. In Robert Gordon’s great new book on Stax, Respect Yourself, he shows exactly how that songwriting competitiveness and workshopping worked on McElmore Avenue, with Isaac Hayes, Dave Porter, Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd et al all arriving to work each day wanting to up the ante. A great arrangement can’t make a dud song into a classic – which is why the composers get the royalties, and band members who contribute a bass line or a horn stab are usually left behind when it comes to payday.
Nice to see Phillip Mitchell mentioned – there was a great compilation on Kent last year of material he’d supplied to other artists (‘Something New To Do -The Phillip Mitchell Songbook’). The thought of a collaboration with a contemporary artist like Sharon Jones is mouth-watering. and in the meantime I’d recommend that compilation, or any of his own solo material (which was reissued a few years back), to anyone.
For a good few years I have looked to Hip Hop to give me something approaching the same feeling of excitement as I got from 1965-75, when, each week seemed to bring a soul record to cherish. There are only ever a very few talented people around and as far as I can see most seem to be involved in Hip Hop nowadays. Ridiculous as it may be for a sixty year old to be au fait with the work of Earl Sweatshirt or Kendrick Lamar, I can listen to the best of Hip Hop with much the same joy as I get from classic soul, and the way they sample the best beats from the past doesn’t hurt either. Mind you, I’ve never found anyone who can sing like Philippe Wynne.