BluesWax Sittin’ In With
Of The Sugarman 3 and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
By Robert Putignano
Saxophonist Neal Sugarman is a full-time member of Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings, leads his own The Sugarman 3 Band, and co-runs Daptone Records. You can also hear Sugarman’s sax on albums by Al Green, Eric Clapton, Steve Cropper, Mark Ronson, The New Pornographers, and on Amy Winehouse’s Grammy-winning Back to Back from 2007. I recently caught-up with Neal just as he was releasing his fifth Sugarman 3 release, What the World Needs Now, for Daptone Records.
Robert Putignano for BluesWax: How you doing Neal?
Neal Sugarman: Everything is good here in Switzerland.
BW: Great! Your latest Sugarman 3 is a lot of fun.
NS: Yes, What the World Needs Now, we had a ball making it too.
BW: I’m digging it.
NS: Thanks, the Sugarman 3 was what I was doing when I met Gabriel Roth, who I am now partners with at Daptone Records; he’s also the leader of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. This latest disc is our first in ten years. Fortunately I’ve been busy spending those ten years mostly on the road with Sharon Jones’ band, and we’ve been working real hard to get the label off the ground.
BW: Not easy I’m sure, but you have a very successful story to tell.
NS: It’s been fantastic! We’re making records that we love and are fortunate that people are listening and buying them. But it’s a big hustle, yet we’re having a great time; we are privileged to be able to do what we love. Being a musician and running a label is how I see making a dual career work, especially since I was first just a musician. These days I feel you have to have your hands in all the pots, so that you can try to control your own destiny.
BW: Plus it doesn’t even make sense anymore to sign with an established label, does it?
NS: Well, I’m a label guy, but the reason we started our own label was that we couldn’t find a record label that we wanted to be involved in. To me a record label is not just some guy who says, “Well I’ll put your records out and let’s see how it goes.’ To me a record label should be a brand that puts out a certain style of music which to me was why labels like Stax, Motown, and other independent labels made their niche. We love old records and we try to make our records sound and feel like the records we’ve always loved. This concept was a necessity for us.
BW: You’ve obviously done this well. How old are you Neal?
BW: Well I’ve got a dozen more than you, and was fortunate to grow up listening to a lot of late sixties, seventies, and eighties soul-funk when there was a lot of great music made.
NS: I bet, when I moved from Boston to New York in ’91 there were a lot of heavy guys falling off the radar screen, guys like Dexter Gordon for example, but you could still go up to Harlem and hear a few of these guys, but the heydays were mostly over for them. Growing up in the eighties there was the punk rock movement that I just figured that I needed to be honest with myself and to do what I was formulating. But I have to tell you that there’s a young generation of musicians and young fans that are really exploring those old soul records to search for that unstoppable groove.
BW: I’ve felt that music has kind of lost our way in the last decade or two, don’t you agree?
NS: Yes and no, part of the success of the Dap-Kings is seeing and feeling how people are readily responding to our music which is largely based on that old-school groove. We still listen to Bobby Blue Bland, and while we don’t try to copy that style, yet what we do definitely feels like that sound.
BW: I’ve always felt that musicians should listen to the best music that resonates with their souls, then lay down their own interpreting spin on it, and just left the rest behind.
NS: That’s right.
BW: Plus it doesn’t hurt that other than working with Sharon Jones, you’ve also worked with a lot of other heavy musicians.
NS: Yes, through the success of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings showed that a lot of people liked our sound which afforded us to get session work. Producers like Mark Ronson and others had heard our records and have also listened to a lot of great recordings and knew that what made good-sounding albums. We are not just a bunch of studio musicians thrown together backing a featured artist. To me what went wrong in the late eighties and nineties was that producers would form these super-groups, where it may have worked, but more often it didn’t work.
BW: And how many times were the musicians not in the same studio and were phoning in their work.
NS: Sure, to me that’s completely weird. With the Dap-Kings you are guaranteed to get a group that has a great vibe and can groove together. That’s what Mark Ronson wanted when he asked us to record on Amy Winehouse’s breakout record. Questlove [Ahmir Thompson of the Roots] used our horn section on Al Green’s record Lay It Down, too, and so on, but those ones were big ones for me.
BW: Working with Clapton had to be cool, too.
NS: Yes, that was his producer calling on us for Eric’s 2010 record, and working with Steve Cropper on Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales was unbelievable as well.
BW: Both Clapton and Cropper are some of my many favorite musicians.
NS: For me working with Cropper with his legacy at Stax were and still are some of my all-time favorite records.
BW: You’re preaching to the choir Neal. That was some house-band with the MG’s backing up so many extraordinary musicians on their recordings.
NS: Absolutely! Plus they were able to walk into that Memphis, Tennessee, studio often. That’s what made them comfortable too, and this similar concept has also become our model with recording at Daptone Records. Bottom line: we wouldn’t have a label without our own studio! For me our studio sound gets better and better; we’re learning more about how to use the studio and how to arrange music too. I am also realizing that less is more. That worked magic for records that were done at Muscle Shoals, Stax, Fame, and others.
BW: I’m hip to that. Are you aware of these Stax Remasters series from Concord Records?
NS: Oh yeah, in fact Concord/Stax asked, “How the heck are you guys selling a hundred thousand plus copies of your records?” It’s pretty flattering when a major label asks for our opinions about selling albums. When we visited Concord to talk about this they were telling us about their plans about the ongoing Stax reissue series. That doesn’t look like that it won’t be ending anytime soon.
BW: I love it! I just interviewed the remastering guy for Concord, Joe Tarantino, who told me he’s a having a ball there reissuing so many albums that he knew well growing up.
NS: Oh wow! After we are done, please give me his contact information, I’d like to talk to Tarantino. As speaking of reissues, we did a reissue of a Darrell Banks record that we felt was important to re-release, and a handful of other obscure stuff. So having Tarantino’s input would be important to us, especially since we are considering re-releasing other obscure and out of print albums.
BW: I am sure Tarantino would be delighted to hear from you. I will also shoot you the links for the BluesWax interview that I transcribed:
NS: Thanks, I will check out the Tarantino article.
BW: Tarantino also told me he just remastered Green Onions. It’s the fiftieth anniversary edition, he told me it sounds fantastic and that they are releasing it in “glorious” mono.
NS: Wow! That’s so cool, and that’s the way they used to cut records that sounded so good. Actually the Sugarman 3 album is also in mono because we felt it sounded more pushed together and raw. Stereo mixing is an entire different thing, but it also sounds slicker, so mono for this new release just made sense, and I’m pleased at the way it came out.
BW: Cool. Your new CD is getting a lot of airplay, and I see it’s also getting a lot of airplay from jazz radio.
NS: I know, it’s actually incredible and I’m knocked out about all the jazz airplay. The one disappointment so far is that with all summer touring with Sharon Jones, we haven’t gotten to do many gigs as the Sugarman 3. So once we get back home in September we’ll be doing some Sugarman 3 gigs as this band sounds too good to not play our own music live. So I will get in touch with you when we start playing around the New York City area.
BW: Great Neal, count on me to do whatever I can to get the word out.
NS: Thanks Bob. In case you didn’t know, our drummer Rudy Albin used to drum for Brother Jack McDuff, and replaced Joe Dukes in McDuff’s band. Our B3 player Adam Scone is one of everyone’s favorite organ player.
BW: I know Scone well; Melvin Sparks used to tell me he would use him on his solo recordings.
NS: Scone and I have been playing together for over ten years.
BW: Well Neal, it’s been great chatting with you, I wish you well with continued success. You certainly have a great story to tell the world.
NS: Thanks Bob, we’ll keep doing what are hearts tell us to do and keep at it.
BW: Oh, one last question. Not that it’s any surprise, but how did you guys hookup with Bernard “Pretty” Purdie?
NS: He was on our Pure Cane Sugar album. We were thinking about covering one of his songs, “Modern Jive,” that Richard Tee co-wrote, and we are on a gig with Purdie at SOB’s in New York City one night, so I asked him if he would consider coming into the studio with us to play drums. We were playing “Modern Jive” live in concert, but the only way I would record it on an album was if Purdie would play on it. So he told us his busy schedule and we worked it out. The vibe he put down was fantastic, and now I know why he was called on so often to record on so many incredible artists albums.
BW: Right in the pocket, he’s also Bob Porter’s favorite drummer, mine too.
NS: Great talking to you Bob, thanks.
Bob Putignano is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax, a contributing writer at Blues Revue, and the heart and soul of Sounds of Blue.
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