December 6, 2008

SOUL EXCITEMENT:

Soul Reviver (SAKI KNAFO, 12/07/08, NY Times Magazine)

In the early 1990s, while the cool kids in the New York University dorms were listening to Nirvana and Pavement and P. J. Harvey, Gabriel Roth, a Jewish teenager from California, sat in his dorm room, night after night, listening to one obscure James Brown record after another. He listened to “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs,” a 45 that Brown cut in honor of a college-football team. He listened to Brown’s esoteric rock version of “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.” He listened to “Gettin’ Down to It,” a collaboration between Brown and, as Roth puts it, “these white jazz guys — but it was really actually a cool record.” Mostly he listened to “Hot Pants,” an album that largely consisted of just one chord. It was like “some kind of strange calculus,” Roth told me recently. “Everybody playing one little note or one little beat. But the whole thing worked together.” Roth and a friend would sit in his dorm room and listen to “Hot Pants” for hours on end. They’d listen to one side of the album several times in a row, and then they’d turn it over and listen to the other side. “We would smoke weed and listen to the album,” he told me, “or not smoke weed and listen to the album.”

Fifteen years later, Roth is a 34-year-old songwriter, bassist and sound engineer, as well as the somewhat-reluctant co-owner of Daptone Records, a small record label in Brooklyn. He is still a musical outsider: he says he strongly dislikes almost every pop song recorded since 1974, including one or two that bear his own imprint. What appeals to him — what consumes him — are dusty soul and funk records from the 1960s and early ’70s. By studiously emulating these recordings, he has gained a reputation as a devoted, even obsessive, musical purist. In an age of MP3s and computer-generated sounds, he has distinguished himself by making vinyl records featuring actual musicians manipulating real-life instruments. He has rejected the music industry, and in doing so, he has aroused its interest. Stars like Jay-Z and Kanye West and corporations like JPMorgan Chase have exploited his distinctive sound to lucrative effect. The smash hit “Rehab,” along with five other songs from “Back to Black,” Amy Winehouse’s top-selling album from 2007, were recorded in Roth’s studio, and for a stretch of several months last year, you could hear a pumped-up version of Roth’s signature style nearly everywhere you went — your car, the deli, your nephew’s bar mitzvah — even if you had never heard of Roth.

The defining project of Roth’s career is Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, a nine-piece band with a horn section, an extensive wardrobe of crisp suits and a 52-year-old lead singer (Jones) who once worked as a prison guard on Riker’s Island. Like all the 30-odd artists who make up what Roth likes to call the “Daptone family,” the Dap-Kings are a varied bunch: black, white, Latino, young, not so young, downright seasoned. Jones, the band’s dazzling frontwoman, is the most widely recognized Dap-King, but Roth is the group’s undisputed leader; he writes most of their songs, plays bass and produces all their records. When he convened the group a decade ago, few people could have anticipated that an outfit of meticulous soul revivalists with an astonishingly energetic, smack-talking, 4-foot-11 middle-aged black woman for a lead singer would become one of the more celebrated indie acts in the country — or that Roth’s continuing passion for the music of James Brown would result in critical adulation, a platinum record and a Grammy Award. But mainstream success, Roth insists, was never the point. “Our goal is simple,” he told me. “We want to make the kinds of records we want to hear.”


Here's a treat: check out the Soul Santa podcast from the Daptone Records Jukebox:
Tracklisting:

1. Jing Jing A Ling ~ Honey and the Bees (Chess)
2. Merry Christmas, Baby ~ Otis Redding (Atco)
3. This Christmas~ Donny Hathaway (Atco)
4. Stevie Wonder Drop (Motown)
5. Snowflakes~ Betty Lloyd (Thomas)
6. What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas? ~ The Emotions (Volt)
7. The Gift of Giving ~ Bill Withers (Sussex)
8. Eddie Kendricks drop (Motown)
9. Soul Santa~ Funk Machine (Creative Funk)
10. Silent Night Chant~ Rotary Connection (Cadet Concept)
11. Christmas in Vietnam~ Private Charles Bowen (Rojac)
12. Let's Make This Christmas mean Something This Year ~ James Brown (King)
13. Without The One You Love ~ The O'Jays (Neptune)
14. Gwendolyn Berry (The Sisters Love) Drop
15. Let's Get It Together This Christmas ~ Harvey Averne Band (Fania)
16. Gee Whiz, It's Christmas ~ Carla Thomas (Atlantic)
17. Back Door Santa~ Clarence Carter (Atlantic)
18. I Wanna Spend Christmas With You ~ Lowell Fulsom (Kent)
19. Mr. Santa Claus (Bring Me My Baby)~ Nathaniel Mayer (Munster)
20. It's That Time of the Year ~ The Manhattans (Starfire)
21. Santa's Got A Bag of Soul ~ The Soul Saints Orch. (Jazzman)
22. Pull My Sled ~ Raindeer Runners (Soul Fire)
23. Merry Christmas Baby ~ Charles Brown & Johnny Moore's 3 Blazers (Hollywood)
24. Smokey Robinson Drop

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 6, 2008 9:45 AM
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