The first time I saw Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, nearly 20 years ago at the legendary Frank’s Cocktail Lounge in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I turned to my companion and said, “I get it — they’re a classic R&B cover band that plays originals.” While not completely inaccurate, my hot take was seriously short-sighted. In the years that followed, until Jones’ death from cancer in 2016, she and the band became one of the most formidable ensembles in the game, establishing a thriving studio and label, backing Amy Winehouse on her classic “Back to Black” album, opening for Prince on his 2011 arena tour, and most importantly releasing a series of albums that found them working vintage R&B into new yet familiar shapes.
Still, that initial impression has come full circle with this posthumous covers compilation — cleverly if longwindedly titled “Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Rendition Was In” — which collects a wildly diverse baker’s dozen of songs, around half of them previously unreleased, recorded at various stages and for varying reasons all across their career. The bill of fare ranges from Prince’s “Take Me With U” to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” from Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and Shuggie Otis’ “Inspiration Information” to ‘60s classics like Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me” and the song that inspired this album’s title (“Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In,” originally performed by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and given a second life by “The Big Lebowski”).
The reasons behind some of these covers presents a revealing picture of the business of being a working band, particularly one that got a serious reputational boost from their potent work on Winehouse’s Grammy-winning album. According to the notes accompanying review copies of “Just Dropped In,” some were originally recorded for commercials, movies, and TV shows. Others, such as their covers of Bad Medicine’s instrumental “Trespasser” or Stevie Wonder’s classic “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” — which opens the set and brings home not just how long it’s been since Jones’ passing, but since the song was Barack Obama’s campaign theme — were re-creations, requested by music supervisors looking to avoid the expense of licensing the original versions. Similarly, their take on Gladys Knight’s “Giving Up” was requested but not used by a producer who wanted to sample it for a beat on a Dr. Dre album. “Rescue Me” and Musique’s “In the Bush” were outtakes from “The Wolf of Wall Street” soundtrack, for which the band recorded several unused sides; others were cut for tribute albums, and some just because they wanted to.
To say that Sharon and the group make each song their own is almost an oxymoron because some of them, particularly the ‘60s soul sides, are simply part of the group’s DNA; others, particularly the Janet Jackson and Prince covers, sound virtually nothing like the originals but still reflect the influence those artists had on the Dap Kings. Likewise, without the lyrics, you’d never know they were playing Guthrie’s bittersweet and sadly relevant paean to America, “This Land Is Your Land.”
And while it’s bittersweet to hear the dearly missed Ms. Jones’ voice again in all its glory, it’s a joy to hear her and the band pouring so much love into these songs.