Daptone Records came into my life a decade ago when I was in college. I obtained my undergrad at a state school in southwestern Kentucky just an hour north of Nashville in a city called Bowling Green. Bowling Green is a sizable city as far as Midwestern cities go. It is the third largest city in Kentucky and coincidentally home to the third largest state university. For its size, it still has a small town feel because of the university’s presence. Bowling Green is a nice, quiet place to attend school or raise a family.
Bowling Green, however, is not a cultural hotbed. The city is tucked between Nashville and Louisville which get more events and programs. Though, there are elements that promote that value. The university there strives to bring in more international students and increase its scope broadly through exchange and study abroad programs. Cage the Elephant, which as seen a considerable amount of success recently, originated there. And Corvettes, the classic American sports car, is manufactured there and maintaining its image as a homegrown icon. Despite having a lot to offer, Bowling Green can leave a lot to be desired for someone looking for things below everyone’s radar.
That’s how I felt when I picked up my first Daptone Records release in 2007 from a small record store in Bowling Green. It was 100 Days, 100 Nights, the third studio release from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. It instantly became one of my favorite albums and I could not stop singing the praises of Sharon Jones or Daptone to my friends.
That album dropped at the beginning of my sophomore year of college and really defined the sound of my college years. At that time, I was entering the second semester of my radio show Soul Food that aired on my college’s student radio station. I love soul music and Soul Food was an outlet for me to express that. The first semester went alright, but it had trouble finding its footing in terms of sound. I ended up playing a lot of classics and threw in some songs that sounded awkward on a progressive college station. But when I got into Daptone, I got the sound I was looking for and the connections to find similar record labels and artists.
Though I did expand to other independent soul labels like Numero Group, Daptone was my musical epicenter in those days. I had all the early releases from Sharon Jones, the Sugarman 3, the Budos Band, and Antibalas. No one else had these albums. This was exciting stuff and I had to make sure everyone knew about.
I was an early adopter for Daptone and there were challenges associated with that. I had fans of the show and some colleagues at my college radio station became really into what I was playing. However, I did get a lot of resistance whenever I tried to speak the gospel of Daptone.
The strangest criticism I had about playing Daptone’s music, or any soul music, was that I could not be taken seriously because I was white. I got this a lot from colleagues at the radio station a lot in the form of jokes and snide comments. Just the fact I was white made my show somehow subpar or worthy of ridicule because the idea of me playing music by predominantly black artists was ridiculous to them. Despite having a solid fan base and high performance evaluations from our quality assurance department, this was something I never managed to evade.
While producing this show, I was also on the stations Board of Directors. We planned two charity concerts events during the year and strategized on artists, ways to promote, and the overall design and theme of the event. I would also push really hard that we book Sharon Jones. The response to this was typically lukewarm. This issue, to them, was that they felt soul music was no longer relevant and that an act like Sharon Jones wouldn’t draw much of a crowd. I would protest this. Not only because we never had soul acts on the bill, but that Sharon Jones would become too big to book within a next year or two. I had seen her perform live and her records were amazing. The only way to go was up. This suggestion would always get dismissed and the station would instead book acts like Freezepop (became the band appeared on the video game Rock Band which was popular at the time) or one-hit wonder Stacey Q to talk for a little bit on a Halloween-themed radio show. Such a waste of money.
As I was nearing completing my undergrad, I just grew further away from that station. I was more focused on my video production capstone, internship at Country Music Television in Nashville, and listening to music that I would make an impact. It was also during the last year of my undergrad that my radio show Soul Food was no longer renewed. The reasoning was that people didn’t care about soul music. I didn’t care anymore. I had dismissed the people around me at the station as idiots who couldn’t see that there was a larger world out there. I was emotionally checking out. I wanted to graduate, move, get a job, and surround myself with people I knew who got it.
As I was checking out and doing my own thing until graduation, Sharon Jones did indeed blow up the way I knew she would. With the 2010 release of her album I Learned the Hard Way, her career was skyrocketing. She was making appearances on shows like The Colbert Report and performing at massive festivals like Bonnaroo. When the college station got the album, it was like pulling teeth to get the music director to put a track in rotation. Eventually, they would just so I would get off their back.
Over the years, Daptone and its repertoire of artists only continued to grow in popularity. Sharon Jones was the crown jewel of the label, but they also supported some of the hardest working and most entertaining artists on an independent label. Charles Bradley, the Screaming Eagle of Soul, earned his way and ultimately finding happiness and success after a hard life. The Budos Band and Antibalas brought their own aggressive form of funk to larger venues and festivals. Daptone music started appearing in commercials, film, and television shows (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings even performed in a Martin Scorsese movie). Daptone was unstoppable.
Last week, I attended the opening night screening of the 9th annual Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (CIMMFest). The featured documentary kicking off CIMMFest was the Chicago premiere of Living on Soul. In the spirit of great music revue concert films like The Last Waltz and Monterey Pop, Living on Soul was a Daptone showcase piece.
The film featured performance recorded during a three-night revue at the Apollo Theater that was held in December 2014 to celebrate Daptone’s 20th anniversary. This was an incredibly big deal. No one had played a multi-night residency at the Apollo since James Brown in the 1970s. Coming from their humbling beginnings in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Daptone had worked for two decades to get to this point. And they deserved it.
The residency featured over 40 different musicians including performances from Daptone stalwarts such as Charles Bradley, the Budos Band, Antibalas, the Menahan Street Band, Saun & Starr, and Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens. The film featured a performance form each band as well as behind-the-scene footage and interviews with them preparing at the Apollo or working at the Daptone studio.
Sharon Jones, the leading lady of Daptone, had two performances in the documentary kicking off the festivities as well as brining everything to a satisfying close. At the time of the filming, she had just beaten cancer. At the closing, she performed “Get Up and Get Out” from her latest album at the time Give the People What They Want. She announced that the arrangement was changed from the studio release to give it some Tina Turner flair. She performed the song spectacularly with the lively stage presence she was known for. During the performance, she was shouting not unlike a southern preacher about her journey beating cancer and the joy she felt performing that evening at the Apollo. It was an emotionally driven performance that filled me with absolute joy and brought tears to my eyes.
The film was emotional on a lot of levels. First, it was great to see these incredibly talented musicians talk about their lives and their struggle to get to this point. Secondly, both Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones passed away in the last year. Both had found success very late in their lives after having difficult experiences. Bradley spent a lot of his time on screen talking about never giving up on your dreams no matter how hard it gets.
Lastly, it was emotional for me personally because I had been a fan of Daptone for a decade. Admittedly, I have strayed away a bit since my initial discovery. Over the years, you discover new interests or get busy with jobs, relationships, or anything else life throws at your way. Still, Daptone had been a big part of my life during formative years and still are one of the best record labels around. Daptone consists of a group of people that struggled to get the success they absolutely deserved. And I feel some pride in being an early fan of theirs (though they had technically been around for 13 years, they were still quite small in 2007). I loved Daptone and I was passionate about them because I wanted to support and elevate these talented artists. I’m not bitter about the resistance or ridicule I received early on about this. It is merely just a part of my history with Daptone. Besides, I ended up being right. Daptone and artists like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley became huge. I’m not bitter, but I do feel validated.
While Sharon Jones’ closing performance was the highlight of the documentary, one performance continues to stick with me. One of the first few performances in Living on Soul featured the Como Mamas. The Como Mamas are a trio of a Capella gospel singers from the small town of Como, Mississippi. Ester Mae Smith is powerful and raspy, Angela Taylor provides a deep soothing voice, and Della Daniels is the energetic voice of the group. Together, they bring their story and experiences to gospel music and breathe new life into it.
The song they performed was “Out of the Wilderness,” a traditional gospel tune. Their performance on Living on Soul was a Capella, but the recorded versions have a backing track. It was initially released as a 45 single in 2014, but would appear on their second studio album Move Upstairs in 2017 with a whole new arrangement. Before going into the song, the group projected pure energy and joy about their excitement performing at the historical and acclaimed Apollo Theatre. They absolutely loved coming all the way from Mississippi to bring the people of Harlem to church.
Before their performance, there was footage of them backstage hanging with Sharon Jones. They sung spirituals and offered their praises to Jesus for the opportunity to be a part of something truly special. Much like the Sharon Jones’ and Charles Bradley’s history I can’t imagine that the women of the Como Mamas had an easy life. However, they take every opportunity they can to feel joy and I find that so remarkable.
The provided an introduction in the film to “Out of Wilderness.” Whether you were going through a divorce, illness, or other calamity, you must get through those trials because there is joy and relief when you overcome adversity. When you emerge out of the wilderness, there is satisfaction and a love for life because you survived. I really gravitated towards that message because it is something I forget sometimes. I am here because I have survived and I didn’t quit. And that means I need to take stock of the good things around me and appreciate them. That’s the best thing anyone can do for themselves.