March 7, 2012 -- Forget the gleaming stainless steel skyscrapers. Forget the latest recording equipment, overpaid executives, and auto-tuning. Walk by the ramshackle red-brick building on 115 Troutman Street in Brooklyn, and hear those riveting R&B vocals pouring from the other side of the door. The window might be cracked, dirt-smeared and stained, the awning hanging at an awkward angle. But those voices, they’re coming from a deep place, and they have an uncanny power to move, captivate, and transform.
For Neal Sugarman, those voices are some of the only true ones left in the music industry. His record company, Daptone Records, does things the hard way. They set up shop here, not in a fancy building. They embrace that sound that feels like it’s shot straight from the 1960s, and record it on vinyl. For years, before he and his business partner, Gabriel Roth, started Daptone, Neal traveled the world playing the saxophone, going wherever he could find work. He’s parked cars, cleaned dormitories, catered food—all to stay true to his dream. Now, in its 10thanniversary, the label has been a tremendous success—its signature band, the Dap Kings, have backed Amy Winehouse and Rod Stewart; Gabriel earned a Grammy Award for his engineering work; and Sharon Jones, Daptone’s biggest star, has sold more than 100,000 albums, sparred with Stephen Colbert, sang with Michael Buble, and opened for Stevie Wonder and Prince.
Daptone's success comes as a shock to many in the business. They promote themselves as the “little indie label that could, would and certainly should.” Perhaps their secret to survival is what they’re not. “At this point, it’s on fire,” Neal says. “We do better every year.” He and Gabe have a few simple rules they follow: no loans; no advances; if money is needed, simply work harder; and above all, stay true to the music.
Neal’s journey with music began at a young age. He grew up in Boston with a father that groomed him to have an ear for rhythm. In the evenings, he and his dad would pick out a record (Neal says his dad had a massive collection), kick back and listen as the harmonies filled up the room. The records of choice were usually something by Smoky Robinson or the Temptations—and anything from Motown.
Neal played guitar and the saxophone and favored blues and rock. During his years at the Berklee College of Music, he sat for hours and listened to jazz, studying the techniques of other sax players. He searched for the roots of the music and found his answer in R&B. That’s how he set himself apart from the other students. “There weren’t too many other guys into R&B,” he says.
When he graduated from Berklee in 1991, he moved to New York. He parked cars and catered food during the day, and at night, played as many gigs as he could. He traveled to California for a few months and played sax for a comedienne's act. He spent a winter in New Orleans and scraped by, earning $10 every set he played on Bourbon Street. In 1996, he met an organ player named Adam Scone, and they formed a band called The Sugarman 3. A few months later, a friend told him he should meet Gabriel Roth.
Two years after their first meeting, The Sugarman 3 released their first record under Gabe’s label, Desco Records. “We were trying to make a scene happen,” Neal says. “We’d go on the road playing and go to dance parties in Europe.”
Gabe helped him get work as a sax player in other bands. In 2000, Sugarman 3’s second record arrived. Neal and the band were on the road, constantly touring festivals and booking gigs. They started working on the third album, but Gabe and his business partner decided to split ways, and Desco Records was no more.
Neal made a decision—it was time to join Gabe, and push for a new era of music. He became co-owner, and he and Gabe renamed the label Daptone Records.
“At this point, it’s on fire."
They took a list of contacts and started making phone calls. They decided to maintain the same branding strategy. And there was one key factor—Gabe had just started producing a second album for a woman named Sharon.
She was a teenager when she decided major record labels were not going to work for her. Sharon Jones had dressed to the nines for her audition at Sony Records. She had practiced and practiced and practiced for this moment, and they were about to crush her dreams.
“Sony told me I was too black and too fat and too short,” she says. “And when I told him my age I was too old.”
Sharon had begun singing at an early age. She made her debut as an angel in a Christmas play in Augusta, Georgia, singing “Silent Night.” Through her teenage years, she kept at it and auditioned with all the major labels. But the story was always the same—too black, too fat, too short, too something.
In the 1990s, after rejections piled up, Sharon decided she couldn't make a career out of singing. So, she started working as a corrections officer at Riker’s Island in New York. She sang cliché wedding songs on the weekends. When she heard a man named Gabriel Roth was looking for backup singers, she called him and said, “Why use three girls when I can do all three parts and save you some money?”
That was 1996. Gabe was so impressed with Sharon’s work, he asked her to record her own song, “Switchblade.” Desco’s house band, The Soul Providers, needed a good vocalist, and now, they had one. Sharon could do everything. She had a take-no-prisoners, soulful voice and she lit up the stage with a boss attitude and commanding presence. She had smooth, chocolate skin, big, expressive eyes and a megawatt smile.
Everyone loved her.
Best of all, Gabe wanted her just as she was—an experienced woman then in her 40s with a sturdy handshake, a can-do attitude and a little extra padding around the waist.
It wasn’t long before she and the Soul Providers were off touring. She kept her job as a corrections officer and still sang in the occasional wedding. It was more about the music than the money then, she says.
But, good things only last so long. Desco became defunct, and Sharon was unsure about the future of the Soul Providers. She didn’t wait long for an answer.
Neal was also playing with the Soul Providers when Gabe split from Desco Records. When he and Gabe decided to start Daptone, the decision about what to do with the band wasn’t a hard one to make: simply keep it, and rename it. The Soul Providers became the Dap Kings. Sharon was still the lead vocalist. “It was a great way to start out a label,” Neal says. Sharon was just starting to get hot—she’d been touring in Europe, and the second album was about ready for release.
Neal and Gabe decided to stick to what they knew best. They’d record on vinyl, and concentrate on soul, funk, and gospel. They wanted to get their name out at the local level, then regional, state, and national levels. Everything was one step at a time. Indie music spreads through word of mouth, so they both knew growing the label could take a while, Neal says. And what they were doing was rare.
“Rhythm calls; it’s simple and it always grooves,” Neal says. “If you hear a record and it doesn’t touch the senses, it doesn’t work. It has to feel natural. There’s a certain organic aspect of the record that makes soul recordings from that time—theybreathe a certain way. It makes us want to keep making them this way because no one else is. It’s not like the singers (at Daptone) are doing technical gymnastics in the studio . . . All the singers or bands have that certain something you can’t put your finger on, but you can feel.”
Neal grew up listening to vinyl records in their entirety—front to back. Now, it seems listeners have short attention spans because of the digital era. He prefers the vinyl experience. Of course, sticking to vinyl has its limitations. While the format is more “organic,” Neal says, and nothing is digitally redone, it’s difficult getting vinyl mastered because there aren’t too many people doing it. But, it’s worth it. The sound of classic soul records was rich, direct, and had a palpable human presence to it; the overall experience was the unique sum of everything from the artistry and groove to the mechanics of tube-driven guitar and bass amps, analog mics, and now-vintage tape recorders.
Sharon also defends the use of vinyl. In April of 2010, she was a guest on The Colbert Report. Sharon sat in on a raised chair and wore a rosy pink dress. Her hair was braided back in tiny sections. Stephen Colbert looked and her and said, “Now, young lady, there’s something I respect about your style. It is old school soul singing . . . One thing I do not respect about what you’re doing is that you use an old recording style.”
Sharon turned to him and gave him a chilling look—the kind that your mother gives you when you’re in BIG trouble – from head, to toe. “I’m getting cut to ribbons. I’m gonna need a new suit when this is over.” Colbert cleared his throat. The audience laughed. “You built your own studio, correct?”
“Yeah, we built it,” Sharon says.
“Why not the latest digital recording equipment?”
Sharon purses her lips and tilts her head. “Could we get the sound that we have now?”
“Sony told me I was too black, too fat, too short and too old."
- Sharon Jones
While Sharon was joking with Colbert, there was truth in what she said, and her loyalty to Daptone and the music they make together runs deep. When she was a kid, she dreamed of the bigger labels. Now, she’d never give them a chance.
“I don’t even want to deal with a major label because they’re going to try to make me look like Beyonce and make me expose my behind,” she says. “If that’s what I gotta do to make it out here I’m satisfied where I’m at. If that’s what I gotta do—that’s crap. You think I want to comb my hair to try and look like Lady Gaga? And Beyonce got a beautiful body, but I don’t wanna be showing my tail. If you want to come out with your behind hanging out and water dripping out of your head and your face painted—you can do that, that’s your thing, but me, I want to come out to the audience to sing, feel their energy and they feel mine, and they go home and say that’s a great show. "
“I’m not going anywhere but Daptone. Why do I need to go somewhere else when I’ve got everything coming from them?”
Sharon and the Dap Kings had a long road to what she calls her real success, however. They might have been touring Europe, but they were taking gigs that only paid $2,000-$3,000. They would do show after show just to break even, and there were times when Sharon came home and had to borrow money to pay her bills. About five years ago, things began looking up. Critics took notice, and fans did, too. The album "100 Days, 100 Nights" sold more than 100,000 copies. But in 2010, their release, "I Learned the Hard Way," debuted at #14 on the Billboard charts and rocketed up to the #2 slot for independent album. At the same time it hit the #6 slot for R&B/Hip-Hop. This album also sold 100,000 copies—but in the first four months alone.
She collaborated with Michael Buble on a video, and used the money as a down payment on a house in Augusta. She opened for Smokey Robinson and Prince and is a regular guest on The David Letterman Show. She has even acted alongside Denzel Washington in the film The Great Debaters and sang the majority of the soundtrack. Sharon said goodbye to Rikers Island. And now, those gigs at festivals that paid a few grand—they can’t even afford Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
Neal sits on a faded couch inside the Daptone studio on Troutman Street. He crosses his long legs and leans back with his hands behind his head. The microphones, piano, and saxophones are scattered around him. He’s in his element.
He and Gabe have three full-time employees now. They outsource a lot of their work (distribution and marketing mainly). But they remain musicians, not just owners of a record label. They tour with the bands and write music. As Neal likes to say—“If you’re going to succeed in the record industry, you have to be an entrepreneur.”
He wants to do a Latin record at some point, but right now, there’s so much untapped music in the talent pool they have, he wants to continue to explore it. “Now, we have the attention of people. Every record is doing better than the last. The gigs are amazing. You might bring your mom to a Sharon Jones concert and both be flipped out. At this point, it’s just keep on keeping on.”
Sharon and Neal have a similar view on the future. For Sharon, whose shows have sold out venues across the country and overseas, it’s still about the music. Just like it was when she was a kid, singing “Silent Night” to a church audience on Christmas.
“Right now, this is what we want to do,” she says. “We get out there and sweat and sing and you sing until they feel and you feel it. And even when you’re not feeling good, you get out there and put the face on and do it until you feel it.” As Gabe says, right now, "it's on fire."
Sarah Perry is a recent graduate of the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Sarah's work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, and Ten Spurs Literary Journal. She enjoys travelling, cooking, reading, listening to folk music, and writing bad poetry with a pencil in one hand and a goblet of Cabernet in the other.
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