“out of the wilderness” – the como mamas (2014)

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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.

 

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“the world (is going up in flames)” – charles bradley & menahan street band (2007)

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Soul music has been a big part of my life for a long time.  Growing up, I loved listening to old Motown CDs.  I learned all the big hits early on.  As I got older, my tastes became a little more eclectic and refined.  When I started hosting and producing a soul radio show for my college radio station, that is where I started to cut my teeth in the world of independent soul music.  With every new show, I strayed further away from the classics we all love and took chances on niche releases from labels like Daptone and Numero Group.  These labels and their artists were new to me and the college town in Kentucky where I broadcasted from, but their influence, popularity, and significance would only grow from there.

On Saturday, the world lost Charles Bradley.  Affectionately known as the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Charles Bradley was a soul music darling coming from Dunham and Daptone Records.  In his early 60s, he was releasing his first studio albums in front of adoring fans over the world.  However, the popularity and fame he acquired late in his life wouldn’t last long.  He died of stomach cancer at the age of 68.  The golden age of his career would only span six years from 2011 through 2017, but he will be missed and his legacy will only grow.

The first time I heard Charles Bradley was in 2007.  That year, 100 Days, 100 Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings came out.  I bought a digipak copy of the album that came with a bonus CD that featured a heavily stylized faux radio show called Ghettofunkpowerhour hosted by Daptone regular Binky Griptite.   Just shy of an hour long, Ghettofunkpowerhour featured a compilation of Daptone singles and releases up to that point.  Extended snippets of over 20 songs were included in the compilation and featured Daptone stalwarts such as Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the Sugarman 3, the Budos Band, Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, and, of course, Charles Bradley.  Bradley, in fact, had three songs on the compilation which included “Take It as It Come” (with Sugarman & Co.), “This Love Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us” (with the Bullets), and “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” (with Menahan Street Band).  I played Ghettofunkpowerhour on repeat because not only is it a great compilation, but it is also a fantastic introduction to Daptone.  Their catalogue has expanded and grown in recognition over the last decade, but they were already solid when I first heard them.

Other than those few singles from Ghettofunkpowerhour, Charles Bradley pretty much stayed off my radar.  Unlike Sharon Jones and his Daptone contemporaries, he wasn’t putting out full-length albums.  That changed in 2011.  To promote his first studio release No Time for Dreaming, he went out on tour.  While the album was backed by Menahan Street Band, Bradley assembled his own crew under the name the Extraordinaires.

Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires were scheduled to play Subterranean.  The show was in July.  I had just recently moved to the city that February and I found that going to shows were a great way to explore the city.  Plus, I loved what I had heard from Bradley before.

I am known for my punctuality and being early, so I was one of the first people to show up for the gig.  This worked for me because the club is kind of small and I wanted to planet myself front and center.  And how glad I am that I did!  Bradley put on such an excellent performance.  He was 62 at the time, but performed with the energy and vigor of a man half that age.  This was someone pouring their heart and soul in bringing the best show to the people and he accomplished that.

Bradley’s excellent stage performance shouldn’t have shocked me.  He was someone who worked for years to perfect his stagecraft.  Part of Daptone’s revivalist approach is to channel the energetic exuberance of funk and soul music from the 1960s and 70s.   Bradley fit right in with that spending 20 years earning extra money between odd jobs doing James Brown performances.  A pivotal moment in his life came when his sister took him to see James Brown perform at the Apollo Theatre in 1962.  Bradley, after that, would impersonate Brown around the house. He modeled his stage performances after the hardest working man in show business to the degree that he effectively a spiritual successor.

Bradley lived a hard life.  At 14, he ran away from to escape a poverty-stricken household only to live on the streets for two years.  When he was old enough, he enlisted in the Job Corps and worked as a cook for ten years.  After that, Bradley decided to hitchhike around the country finding work wherever he could.  When he overcame his stage fright and channeled the excitement he saw at the James Brown performance, his talents were shown and recognized by the right people.

Bradley’s career got as big as a soul revivalist performance could get.  He released three studio albums, performed in festivals all around the world, and was even the subject of a documentary called Soul of America that premiered at South by Southwest in 2012.  This was a man who had worked hard and lived harder, and it was finally all paying off.

His life experiences were reflected in his songs.  In December 2010, he rereleased the single “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” for the release of his first studio album No Time for Dreaming which was released 2011 (the single initially came out in 2007).  In it, Bradley sings about a world engulfed in flames where no one has any accountability.  He laments about the hardship he has lived through and that no one can tell him what to do if they’ve never felt the same pain he does.  It is a heart wrenching soulful song filled with the emotional authenticity from a man who knows what he’s talking about.  He’s weathered the harshest storms and still has the hope that we can make a better world.

Bradley is a shining example of how we can all choose to live our lives.  Times will always be hard.  Sometimes, things will be less hard.  Other times, you’ll encounter life’s most difficult experiences.  The key is to just move forward and live your life the best way you can.  Things will get better even if they get worst first.  However, that is no reason to give up.  Even if it takes decades, your dream is never worth giving up.  Bradley never gave up and his final years were his most fulfilling.  What an inspiration.

“how long do I have to wait for you?” – sharon jones & the dap-kings (2005)

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We all want the quality of our lives to improve. With our own individual dreams, passions, and interests, each one of us has our own motivations to achieve happiness, or what we may think is happiness. It is the chase; the pursuit of happiness where we manifest a perceived outcome. If I do this, it will make me happy. I want this because I believe I will be happy when I have it.

Fame and success, specifically in the celebrity sense, is a common motivator for a lot of people. The appeal of being lauded by the public for their own individual artistic expression drives them. And it really is appealing. Some may like the concept of celebrity more than others, but doesn’t the attention and the adoration sound at least little appealing to all of us?

Instant fame and celebrity status can be very damaging on a young psyche. Sure, we all the cautionary tales of Hollywood child stars. Cute kids with one-liners that get bombarded with sensory overload. The constant attention diminishes opportunities for self-reliance and the flashing lights can be blinded.

The stories of those who experienced fame early are a dime a dozen. I want to focus on how fame affects older people; people with decades of experience outside of the limelight. I find more often than not that people who find fame later in life tend to handle the negative consequences of international success a lot more maturely. This is because they have gratitude and appreciate the hard work and patience behind their success. Such is the case with Sharon Jones.

Currently 59, Jones attempted to break into the music industry. She crafted her sound singing in church gospel choirs and eventually got picked up as backing vocalist for session bands. However, she didn’t get her share of the limelight. Dismissed because of her looks, Jones had to find employment elsewhere. For years, Jones worked as a corrections officer and an armored car guard, but she never gave up on her dream.

In 1996, Jones was starting to get attention for her vocal performance after backing soul legend Lee Fields. It would be six years before she released her first album with the Dap-Kings, another six years before she gained international attention and played festivals, and finally, seven more years until she earned her first Grammy nomination. It took Jones nearly two decades to finally earn the respect and praise she deserves as a spirited soul goddess.

Though it wasn’t the first song I heard from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, but “How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?” has since become one of my favorites. Released on her 2005 release “Naturally,” this song is a perfectly crafted soul single.   Everything works. Jones’ vocals are strong and emotive as she pleads for an answer; she loves her man, but she can’t wait forever because a girl has got to live her life. And the instrumentation from the backing band is fantastic. The Dap-Kings have earned a reputation of being a precise and tight backing band (even supporting acts like Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse). The horns are rich and the analog recording adds levels of warmth and vibrancy missing from digital recording. This track could’ve easily been an R&B radio staple in the 60s and 70s. Even upon its release in 2005, it stands out as a unique contemporary treasure a decade on.

I discovered Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings after buying their 2007 release “100 Days, 100 Nights” from the Great Escape when I was in college in Bowling Green, KY. I was instantly impressed, and I told everyone about this band. It seemed no one else had known about this band and their amazing retro-soul style. This was my first experience at being an early adopter of a really cool record. They weren’t fully recognized yet, so it felt like my own little secret; my own musical treasure. Since then, Sharon Jones is a common name among the indie soul, college radio, and festival crowds. She’s found an audience and people are paying attention. She couldn’t wait on her man much longer because she had records to make and people to entertain as a true soul diva.