7. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects (2011)

New York City, NY

7. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects (2011)

Published January 2019

Geography

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings provide us with our first and only distinctly Brooklyn story. Jones herself was raised in the Bedford Stuyvesant (‘Bed Stuy’) neighbourhood – the Brooklyn equivalent of Harlem in terms of its reputation as a cultural centre for the borough’s African-American community  and went on to attend high school and college in the area. And more than any other US100 New York entry the story of this artist is deeply tied to the story of their record label, Daptone Records, based in Brooklyn’s working class neighbourhood of Bushwick.

I’m continuously amazed at how many odd little connections I can make between successive US100 tracks, and I certainly didn’t anticipate that I could connect Be My Baby to Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects through the United States prison system: two decades prior to Phil Spector being sentenced to 19 years to life, Sharon Jones was working as a corrections officer on Rikers Island as she struggled to earn a living through music.

Affinity

In my previous write up I confessed an aversion to the most relentlessly overplayed examples of Christmas cheese, but I also acknowledged Phil Spector’s Christmas Gift as my favourite festive album. Now we reach another significant milestone in my relationship to Christmas music, a track that came with a realisation that some festive numbers can even be enjoyable outside of the holiday season.

Meanwhile, after six opening ‘oldies’, Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects injects some much needed 21st century modernity into proceedings, selected in part to reflect the fact that the original US trip upon which this is based saw us land in New York City in mid-December when the 78ft Rockefeller Christmas Tree was already up. It was also picked, however, because I find the soul, funk and R&B sound of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings irresistible. Ain’t No Chimneys is the first number of theirs I recall coming across, and its sass, wit and charm immediately found a place in my heart – as well as on my regular ‘Alternative Xmas’ playlist attempts.

Origin

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Sharon Jones performs in 2011

Along with her Daptone Records peer Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones encapsulates the definition of a ‘late bloomer’. A former church gospel singer and prison guard at New York’s Rikers Island who was inspired by the music of James Brown, it took until the 1990s and Jones hitting her 40s before a career in music took off. Her break came at a 1996 backing vocals session for Lee Fields which made an impression on Philippe Lehman, who at the time was the owner of Pure Records. Lehman went on to team up with Gabriel Roth on a new Brooklyn based label named Desco Records, and a number of Sharon Jones singles were released. Desco had a clever marketing strategy for appealing to funk and soul collectors: they omitted dates from the record’s labels, thus opening up the possibility that the customer was looking at a rare or obscure offering from the 70s.

Desco was no more after Lehman and Roth parted ways, with the latter then setting up Daptone Records in 2001. The first major release of the new label was 2002’s Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones’s first full length album backed by a band newly formed of musicians from the Daptone family who had played with Gabriel Roth on other projects in years gone by. Roth himself is the bass player in the Dap-Kings, adopting the stage name Bosco Mann. With both co-founders of the label in the band – Neal Sugarman is the tenor saxophonist – one can see how Daptone, more than any other label that I know of, are run as much as a family than they are a business.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings quickly came to be viewed as figureheads of a modern day funk and soul revival. The debut album was positively received and, aided by the 2003 launch of the first Daptone Recording Studio, three more records were released between 2005 and 2010. It was in this time period that the Dap-Kings came to the attention of Amy Winehouse, who wanted a retro R&B feel for her own album. She recruited the band to play with her and the result was the Grammy Award winning blockbuster and career launchpad that was 2006’s Back to Black. Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects was initially included on a fifth Dap-Kings record in 2011, a compilation for UK audiences of non-album tracks entitled Soul Time!

Delivery

A wonderfully down to earth and gritty take on the festive period, Ain’t No Chimneys takes a pinch of Christmas cynicism from Fairytale of New York and presents it through the prism of socio-economic inequality, underpinned by funk and effortless cool. Speaking through the voice of an innocent child growing up in the New York ‘projects’ – urban public housing developments for low-income families, often characterised by their high levels of crime and poverty – Sharon Jones questions Santa Claus’s ability to deliver presents to their abode when such properties lack the necessary infrastructure for his traditional method of entry: ‘When I was child I used to wonder / how Santa put my toys under the tree / momma can you tell me / how this can be? / When there ain’t no chimneys in the projects’.

Ultimately Sharon gets an answer to her query via a sweet realisation, noting: ‘It wasn’t Santa who got the magic done / Momma now I know / you were the one / There ain’t no chimneys in the projects’. The lyrics can certainly make you smile, but at the same time by drawing a line between the ‘chimneyed’ and the ‘chimneyless’, they represent a clever and original nod to one of America’s great societal curses: deep inequality.

Legacy

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“They’re trying to say there are no soul singers – that soul music died in the late 60s and early 70s. I want the industry to know that soul music hasn’t died.”
Sharon Jones

Perhaps it’s too early to fully assess any legacy on the part of Sharon Jones or Daptone Records, but it’s certainly fair to cite them as playing a critical role in reintroducing funk and soul into the modern day mainstream musical conversation, not least through the roaring success of the Dap-Kings collaboration with Amy Winehouse. After Soul Time! came three more studio albums for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, with Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects also included on the wonderful 2015 Christmas collection, It’s A Holiday Soul Party. Alongside Sharon and her Dap-Kings, Daptone also provided a platform for the extraordinary vocal talents of Charles Bradley who released three studio albums on the label before his death in 2017 (Bradley’s late blooming makes Sharon look positively youthful at her breakthrough – he was 63 when his debut album was released).

Tragically the Daptone Records stable lost Sharon Jones the year before it lost Bradley. After a cancer diagnosis in 2013, Jones underwent chemotherapy, with her attempts to fight the illness chronicled in Barbara Kopple’s 2015 documentary, Miss Sharon Jones! I highly implore anyone interested to seek out this film (it is available in the UK on Netflix) – the unrelentingly awesome character of Jones comes through in abundance, while the tight knit nature of the Daptone family serves as a reminder of how devastating her loss at 60 years of age must have been. A particularly poignant moment arrives in the middle of a comeback gig, in which Jones picks out her oncologist, Dr James Leonardo, from the crowd.

While the Dap-Kings have made no formal announcement on their future since the passing of Sharon Jones, they did perform with country singer Sturgill Simpson at the 2017 Grammy Awards. One hopes they will continue playing their part in a modern day revival that may even one day see Sharon’s ambitions realised: for the Grammys to add soul to its existing list of 30 musical categories.

Learn more

Trivia
Q: Beyond New York City, artists responsible for Christmas songs, and US correctional facilities, what else connects US100 Track 6 Be My Baby to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings?
A: Martin Scorsese. Phil Spector claims he saved Scorsese’s career by not legally pursuing the director for his unconsented use of Be My Baby at the top of 1973’s Mean Streets. 40 years later the Dap-Kings appeared in the wedding scene of Naomi and Jordan in The Wolf of Wall Street, with Sharon Jones channeling Shirley Bassey in a cover of Goldfinger.

Watch
The Great Debaters (2007)
Miss Sharon Jones! (2015)
Amy Winehouse: Back to Black – The Real Story Behind The Modern Classic (2018)

Read
Soul Singer Sharon Jones on Battling Cancer and Her New Documentary – Vogue, August 2016
Sharon Jones obituary – The Guardian, November 2016

Listen
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2006) Spotify / YouTube
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – This Land Is Your Land (2009) Spotify / YouTube
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – It’s A Holiday Soul Party (2015) Spotify / YouTube
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – I’m Still Here (2016) Spotify / YouTube

US100 cover of choice
The Velvet Souls (2017) YouTube