Jukebox Jury: The Sugarman 3

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 05.17.12 in Jukebox Juries

Neal Sugarman is the co-founder of Daptone Records, the Brooklyn throwback-R&B indie that — thanks to collaborations with Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson, the Roots and Al Green — have become known well outside their niche audience. Sugarman began as a jazz saxophonist before switching to funkier stuff more than 20 years ago, when he first moved to New York Cityfrom his hometown of Boston. In the late ’90s, he began hanging out with Gabriel Roth and Philippe Lehman, then running the Brooklynindie Desco Records and playing together in the Soul Providers. Sugarman’s band the Sugarman 3 — with Hammondorganist Adam Scone and drummer Rudy Albin — released two albums with Desco, 1998′s Sugar’s Boogaloo and 2000′s Soul Donkey.

When Roth and Lehman parted ways in 2000, Sugarman and Roth started Daptone and began a new band with several Soul Providers and Desco singer Sharon Jones, now called Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. (Roth, a bassist/writer/producer, takes the alias Bosco Mann for much of his Daptone work.) The Sugarman 3 issued a third album on Daptone, 2002′s Pure Cane Sugar, but when the Dap-Kings’ profile blew up in the wake of their work on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black in 2006-07, Sugarman was busy behind the scenes, as well as on the road. Ten years after Pure Cane Sugar, the fourth Sugarman 3 album, What the World Needs Now, is as classicist as anything else on Daptone, and as groovy — though as Sugarman points out below, he’s been more of a soul than funk man of late, as has the label generally.

eMusic’s Michaelangelo Matos took the M train to the Daptone offices in Bushwick to conduct this Jukebox Jury. Sugarman, who had just returned from the road (again), was in the midst of buying a new home in Sunnyside,Queens, when he sat down for these selections.

The Standells, “Dirty Water”

You did a version of this song on What the World Needs Now. Was it something you wanted to cover for a long time?

Yeah. I’m from Boston. And I know the Standells are from Seattle, and it was about a night in Boston. I am very familiar with this genre of music. I came up in Boston around bands like the Lyres. My brother was in a band called the Prime Movers. When I was in high school, we were all flipping out over our Lenny Kaye compilations. So it’s not like I just stumbled on this shit. I really have an affinity for it. And much like what Daptone does, it’s raw. The Remains are one of my favorite bands. The Sonics are cool.

Not to mention, I used to play that song, “More Today Than Yesterday” [by the Spiral Staircase]. There is a soul-jazz version by Charles Earland. I was always interested in these instrumental-shuffle versions of popular songs. This is a shuffle. Doing it with the Sugarman 3, it just felt like naturally an opportunity to take it back to [that].

Booker T. & the MG’s or somebody like that might have done this song if it were by a bigger artist, like the Beatles.

Yeah. But there were songs on the record I did do because of that: The Eddie Floyd/J.J. Barnes song, “But It’s Alright.” I was really thinking of Booker T., or the Fame Gang, actually. That cut was like much like how the Fame Gang were covering “Can I Change My Mind,” by Tyrone Davis. That was the one that I was really trying to do the Booker T. thing.

With ["Dirty Water"], it was just super fun to play that song. The Boston thing was a big thing for me. Also, I heard that at Fenway Park there is someone who programs the music who’s really into Daptone stuff. Like, I’ll get calls from my brother and different friends: “Yeah, I just heard Sharon Jones at Fenway.” So, I figured, “Man, I want to get this song played at Fenway, the Sugarman 3′s version.” [Laughs]

There is a tradition of Daptone covers. Is there anything contemporary you’ve thought about doing? Something obvious, like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” or something?

Well, we did do a version — a Sharon-cut version of “Crazy,” a ballad version. We did that with the Roots. When we were doing that Al Green record they wanted to do a duet with Al Green and Sharon Jones [on] “Crazy,” which is kind of perfect, ’cause they’re both a little…[laughs]. But it never came out.

Bill Doggett, “Honky Tonk Pt. 1″

Yeah, I know this. Man, I have this. He played uptown, organ player. Damn it, the “Honky Tonk” guy. Why am I drawing a blank?

You got the title. It’s Bill Doggett. This is the original version.

Bill Doggett, of course. One of my biggest regrets is, when I moved toNew Yorkin ’91, Bill Doggett was playing every week at Showman’s inHarlem, which was a real organ bar. He was a resident. There are other things, like this guy Jimmy Robbins was up there on a regular basis. Bill Doggett I never got up to see. It was one of those things like, “Got to get up to see Bill Doggett. Got to get up to see Bill Doggett.” Bill Doggett’s an organ player, so just to hear some nasty bluesy organ shit. And then he just died, you know?

This is Clifford Scott playing saxophone. He was the honky-tonk. This was on King originally. Bill Doggett is definitely…those records are really powerful for me. It’s so simple and just grooving you know? I can’t imagine playing them for anyone and [them] saying they don’t like it.

The Lebron Brothers, “Boogaloo Lebron”

This is Mongo [Santamaria]? Definitely some more New York shit — just that it’s Nuyorican, but it’s also like soul-jazz. I mean, all the great musicians were playing inNew York. I wish I was more up on my Latin shit.

It’s the Lebron brothers’ “Boogaloo Lebron.”

The whole thing with boogaloo, which is kind of weird, is that there were these soul-jazz guys like Lou Donaldson that were calling their songs “Alligator Boogaloo.” There was real Latin boogaloo: Ray Barretto, the Lebron Brothers and all this stuff. Then there’s soul-jazz boogaloo, which was John Patton and Jimmy McGriff and Jack McDuff. They started playing this funky, Latin-y, straight stuff, and somehow that got the phrase “boogaloo.” When we were thinking of [the Sugarman 3's 1999 debut], Sugar’s Boogaloo, that was really where we were coming out of.

But since then, for Daptone, the Latin stuff is the one part of soul music that we haven’t really [touched]. I think of Daptone as a regional label. Every artist that we’ve done is from Brooklyn, for the most part. It’s not like we’re out A&Ring. We meet people that sing good, and we hang out with them and want to record them, and they join the family. The fact that we haven’t done a Latin record yet feels like that’s the one real big piece of what happened in New York in the ’60s and ’70s — and still happening — that we haven’t necessarily tapped into yet.

Walter Jones, “Living without Your Love”

I’m going to guess you won’t necessarily know this, but it’s on another local label.

It’s weird that it kind of cops some ’80s-sounding shit. But it’s not ’80s.

No, this is from 2009. It’s a New Orleans musician named Walter Jones.

But he’s definitely copping that ’80s no-wave stuff, like the stuff that was going on in the Bronx. What was that girl group — [sings "Moody"] — ESG. Which I thought was cool stuff, even on the rawer side, like the Bush Tetras.

Specifically, this keyboard sound and guitar lick strike me as being very like Prelude Records, circa ’82.

The crazy thing is, it’s not my thing, but it definitely feels pretty good. Definitely, you sit here and you start moving — you can’t not. Even the rhythmic electronic stuff, it’s not my tip, but it really in some ways can be closer to what we do than rock, because it’s hypnotic. I think that when we’re trying to groove, like Afrobeat, it’s really just trying to tap into that pulse. This is not bad. What label was it?

DFA, which is a label people think of as having a signature sound, even though it doesn’t.

So it has, like, a brand.

It’s branding, yeah — and Daptone is also pretty good at that.

Yeah, well, we focused on it. It’s a niche-oriented label, and [we wanted] to create a logo and put a brand on it and make it come alive outside of the track so that when you see that logo you feel something, as you do with Stax — which has certainly become some kind of brand for sure. It’s not like we plan on making shoes or shirts, but it’s important to have an association and a scene.

The Band, “Chest Fever”

Amazing. [Emerson, Lake & Palmer]? Deep Purple?

Very different from both, and not English.

Rascals? Oh, I know what it is, but…wasn’t that lick from a different song?

No, it’s the opening of this one. This is “Chest Fever” by the Band, from Music from Big Pink.

I have heard this before. I was thinking it was something else. But it’s amazing that you should play it just because I’ve been thinking about this group a lot — obviously, Levon Helm just died. Just the importance of this group in that period, just this great studio band that knew how to play great music in the studio and their shit was always grooving. I was just talking to someone about them recently. I was hanging out with Mark Ronson and he was playing [them]. A lot of the guys in the Menahan [Street] Band have been just listening a lot of the Band.

It sounds great. It’s weird. Especially working, I get real wrapped up in our genre of music. Sometimes as a musician you start to listen to music in a different way. You listen to a lot of music as how it relates to you and what can you get out of it. So especially now I’ve been DJing a bit, I’ve been buying more records. It’s that same thing. Don’t get me wrong: When I buy these soul records, I fall in love, and they can make me cry when I listen to them. It’s emotional for me. But I sometimes forget to look outside my genre. I’ll try to download this song today.

Jimmy McGriff, “Fat Cakes”

And this is the boogaloo shit — is that Jimmy McGriff? Electric Funk, is that the album?

The album was Soul Sugar, but I grabbed this off his Greatest Hits. For a concentrated best-of, you’re not going to get too much better.

No, this is cool. This was like real big when I was starting out and just buying records, when I first met Gabe. This was the stuff that I was flipping out on all the time, that whole soul-jazz scene. That’s what got me into this stuff. When I started, moved to New York, I was a jazz musician. I was not into bebop, the athletics of the way a lot of these musicians who were hanging out and playing. So it was real fun for me to start to play funk music — laid-back stuff with organ players. Also being able to play and get people involved in the music, which also put me away from the jazz scene and got more into raw funk, which was maybe what Pure Cane was heading in. From that, I just got really into soul records. That’s where my head is at now. I don’t listen to that much funk stuff. That genre of music, that organ soul-jazz stuff, was what kind of what got me real into where I’m at presently.

Was Gabe already a fan of this type of jazz stuff?

He was definitely a funk guy, like James Brown stuff. It was Sugarman 3 that got me into [Daptone]. We made this demo and this guy Frankie Inglesias just had this party called Soul Kitchen in New York. He was the one that was like, “Man, you’ve got to meet Philippe [Lehman] and Gabe [Roth].” They were running Desco [Records] the time.

Did you already know Desco at that point?

I didn’t. I had seen the Pure stuff: Philip had Pure Records, which was doing compilations. Desco I didn’t know about. They had just started. I took my demo up, called, and they said, “Come over.” I played them a demo, and at that point it was just trying to find a time when we could record the first album. It was amazing. It was such a cool scene.