A collection of the late soul singer’s covers of songs by Janet Jackson, Prince, and others reveals her remarkable ability to reinterpret classic sounds while refusing to be relegated to the past.
In 2002, Sharon Jones and Daptone Records co-founder/bandleader Bosco Mann claimed that they were suing Janet Jackson over the song “What Have You Done for Me Lately.” The label issued a press release accusing Jackson of copyright violation and alleging that her 1986 hit single was actually written in 1969 by Jones and Mann: “The original recording, ‘a much raunchier version,’ had been only a regional hit on the soul scene in the early seventies and had fallen into relative obscurity by the time Jackson had recorded her pop version fifteen years later.” It just so happened that Daptone was selling a 7" single with Jones’ version on the A-side and the Dap-Kings’ instrumental on the B, both of which are convincing in their analog production and gritty groove.
Never mind that Mann (aka Gabriel Roth) was born several years after he allegedly co-wrote the song. The name of the law firm—Dewey Cheatham—revealed the whole thing to be a clever hoax engineered to promote the single, taken from Daptone’s first full-length release, Dap-Dippin’ with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Nearly 20 years later, their cover of Jackson’s hit is less significant for how it sounds than for the way it pitched Jones as an artist removed from time and wronged by the music industry. Which wasn’t too far from the truth: Jones, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016, had been working day jobs and singing in wedding bands for decades before making her recording debut (singing backup for Lee Fields) in the mid 1990s. She brought to that session, just as she would to Daptone, a stylistic approach and set of techniques from another era, and Jones spent the rest of her life not just defining retro soul for a new generation, but defying the retro part of that label.
Covers were always a significant part of Jones’ repertoire, a means of connecting her to the past and also linking the past to the present, and that gives Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Rendition Was In) the weight of a career retrospective. It might even reveal more about Jones than a greatest-hits collection would, emphasizing her decisions about which songs to sing and how to sing them. She had remarkable range vocally and stylistically. While her take on “What Have You Done for Me Lately” ultimately sounds uncharacteristically tentative, turning Jackson’s icy staccato into a rhythmically limp hook, she had more luck with subsequent covers, navigating established soul classics and usually holding her own against the originals. She conveys a sense of staunch determination on Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me,” as though she’s not the one who needs saving. And she strips the breathless singing and lush production from the Marvelettes’ “Here I Am Baby,” replacing them with a rawer vocal and a sinewy guitar groove. It sounds like you’re sitting in their practice space with them.
But the non-R&B covers—the songs that make her and her band push themselves—are more daring and perhaps more satisfying, in particular “This Land Is Your Land” (included on the digital version but not the vinyl). Originally released as the B-side of her 2004 single “What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?,” it’s become one of her signature tunes, a work of democratic funk conveying both patriotic pride and civic outrage, especially when she gets to the verses typically omitted from Woody Guthrie’s song. Less popular but just as powerful is her reimagining of the Wailers’ deep cut “It Hurts to Be Alone.” (Often credited to Bob Marley, it was written and originally sung by Junior Braithwaite.) The Dap-Kings wisely downplay the Trenchtown pulse and teen romanticism of the original, giving it a loose, late-night sway to match the adult regret and restraint in Jones’ voice.
Just Dropped In similarly reveals much about the business of being in a band and running a label—like how Jones and Daptone supplemented their albums and tours with extracurricular projects. Many of these covers weren’t chosen by the band, but commissioned. The band recorded Stevie Wonder’s “Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” for a bank commercial, and their reading is straightforward right down to the electric sitar. Similarly, they did a note-for-note cover of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ 1964 single “Giving Up” to use as a Dr. Dre sample, although it was ultimately discarded. These songs sound a bit too faithful to the originals, and you wonder what the band could have done with them if they’d been given more freedom to cut loose or open them up to other possibilities.
Seven years and innumerable shows after the Janet Jackson hoax, Jones recorded another iconic hit by another idiosyncratic ’80s artist. Punchy and provocative, her cover of “Take Me With U” was a standout on Spin magazine’s 2009 Prince tribute Purplish Rain, showcasing what sounds like a completely different band. They drive it like they stole it, adding a sharp guitar motif to frame the action and a corkscrew baritone sax riff to push the song along at a frenzied clip. There’s nothing tentative about Jones’ performance, which is forceful and agile as she navigates the tricky rhythms, and her delivery of the line “you’re sheer perfection” nearly out-raunches the song’s auteur. It doesn’t have all the baggage of previous covers, but it stands out for the sheer joy they take in upending pop history.
Buy: Rough Trade