Between running the Brooklyn, NY, based Daptone Records and touring/recording with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, NEAL SUGARMAN made the time to cut a new album with his funky soul trio THE SUGARMAN 3--their first in over ten years. The result, a brand new platter called WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW, is filled with originals, as well as their interpretations of soul-pop classics. While touring Europe with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Neal made time for an interview with the “Soul Ninja” KEVIN GOINS.
Interview recorded May 1, 2012.
Kevin: This is Kevin Goins with SoulMusic.com. With us today is a man who wears so many hats. He is the co-owner of Daptone Records. He is an esteemed member of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, but we also know him as the leader of the Sugarman 3--Great Soul/Funk/Jazz trio--some greasy stuff they’ve brought to us over the years, such as the great album PURE CANE SUGAR, which was out almost 10 years ago. Well, he’s got the trio back together, and for a great cause. The album is called WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW, and it is to benefit Dr. Wong’s brain tumor research program. We’re going to get more into that. Let’s welcome to the microphones … he’s over in Europe right now … let’s welcome Neal Sugarman. Neal, welcome to Soulmusic.com.
Neal: Nice to be here.
Kevin: Thank you for having us. Now, the album’s release date is May 15th. Tell us about WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW, and what is the cause for this album?
Neal: Well, I just want to clarify; we are donating a percentage of the proceeds to a benefit that means a lot to me right now, which is a benefit that’s going to help some people getting deeper into brain tumor research. And that’s not really the reason for recording the record. That was just something that is real dear to my heart right now.
I have a brother who’s quite ill, so we’re all praying for him pushing through, but there’s really no cure for this disease, so it’s more … what we have to do is employ these minds to get deeper into research. So that’s what that’s about.
Again, the record is just-- it was more just that I’ve been working with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and running the record label, and kind of put this band that I had that was … had a good reputation and we did a lot of gigs. I put it on the side for--it wasn’t quite 10 years, but it was 10 years since the last recording, and the members of the band, I had still kept in touch with.
I was hanging out with Adam Scone the organ player who’s just like one of the greatest organ players I’ve ever had a chance to play with and meet. Still, to this day, I think he’s incredible. So we were hanging out and we were like, “Hey, man, let’s try to get the band back together and get into the studio,” and we started just writing a couple of songs together, and thinking about the direction that we wanted to take the band in this time around.
So it was really no expectation. I blocked out a week at the Daptones Studio in between tours and recording sessions, and all the mayhem that we had going on over there, and just started digging into some music, and it just started flowing like really better than I ever could have hoped it would have.
Again, I took the kind of no expectations approach, and I was real clear, “Let’s just play together,” and this band has a certain sound when these musicians get together, I wasn’t going to try to put them in any kind of box, but let’s keep playing music, and if something doesn’t work, we’ll scrap it and move on. We were just rolling tape the whole time, and fortunately for me, it came out to be what I think is probably the best Sugarman 3 record we’ve ever done so far.
Kevin: That’s amazing! I heard the album the other week, and one thing I enjoyed, and it caught me by surprise--and I had to almost adjust my headphones-- but this album was mixed to mono.
Neal: Yeah, that was a decision that I had made. It had nothing to do with when we were cutting the record. Gabe and I, Gabe Roth, Boscoe Bassman, producing most of the stuff on Daptone--we started mixing the record, and one of the things that we do when we mix is, when we pan a record for stereo, it doesn’t make sense for us.
A lot of modern records are panned pretty minimally, actually. You might hear things moving from one side to the other, but to me, real stereo recording is the drums on one side, horns on the other side. You might here some reverb from the horns on the same drum channel, and it can really create a real open warm sound by panning stuff broad that way.
I just kind of felt like the way that we recorded the record and the sound I was going to, I just kind of wanted to keep everything center. You end up, if you have to mix the record a certain way to keep everything open and not put too much stuff on top of each other, to make it kind of work. Just kind of a little bit of a challenge for us, and something to make the record sound different.
But another thing is, when you hear records now, the way records are played in night clubs or restaurants, sometimes the record’s panned too hard. You only hear … you could be sitting in the front of the restaurant and you hear only one half of the record. So I kind of like the idea of keeping this one mono. I don’t want to give the impression that it was a real big throughout our decision. It was just kind of like Gabe said to me, “How do you want to mix it?” And I said, “Mono.” And we just kind of kept it going that way. It worked out good.
Kevin: Like Phil Spector, back to mono.
Neal: Yeah, man. It’s just a different headspace, you know? And I wanted to keep the stuff close and tight and greasy. When you start getting stereo, a lot of the … what you end up doing is cleaning things up, and it becomes a little more open, a little more broad sounding. It was in kind of the Daptone ethos; it’s just kind of raw and organic and more natural sounding.
Kevin: Absolutely, and it reminded me so much of the Jimmy McGriff and Brother Jack McDuff records that my dad owned from the 1960s. The albums he had were in stereo, but when I went into college and I discovered the same recordings in mono, they just sounded so much better, so much tighter.
Neal: Yeah, I would agree.
Kevin: So I want to go back, Neal. You came from Massachusetts. You started in the field of punk music. How did you make the switch from that into jazz and funk?
Neal: Well, you know, let’s face it, I was a young kid and I wanted to play music. And I played saxophone, and probably my first love as a saxophone player was blues and jazz records, but I wasn’t like this kind of schooled musician where I wanted to just play in the jazz band. I wanted to play music, and I wanted to play vibrant music and I wanted to play music in front of people, and so it was cool to have a bunch of friends playing in rock bands, and that’s kind of how that kind of punk thing happened. But it did sort of form a big part of who I am today, just by playing in these bands where it was a bunch of young guys --we were writing music together.
We weren’t sort of following any kind of rulebook, and it was a cool band. We could do whatever we wanted to do, and we were getting gigs and we were playing in front of girls, instead of like most of the jazz guys I knew … who really were just kind of so busy with this rulebook, how to do this and how to do that. So, it was really kind of the ‘do it yourself’ attitude that I think really helped me to form what Daptone is today--Just that same attitude.
That being said, after the punk thing, I did go back into becoming a more studied musician, and jazz music as a saxophone player is real important. Putting in that practice, my 8 hours, and studied and tried all different kinds of stuff, but I think that again, the punk thing kind of put me in a situation where I was not forced to answer to any kind of book, and that’s where the funk and soul thing kind of, to me, it felt closer to that sometimes than even the traditional jazz mentality.
Kevin: Absolutely. I want to also ask you about--you spent some time in New Orleans. Now, this was during when, the 1980s? Early ‘80s?
Neal: No, this would have been in the ‘90s., like mid ‘90s, sort of ’94, ’95.
Kevin: So that has become almost like a second home for you then?
Neal: Well, no. It wasn’t like that. Basically, I had some real good friends who … I went to school in Boston, and I had some real good friends, musicians, that were down there. They knew my aesthetic and what I was into, and they were like, man.
There was a couple different situations. I was living in New York City, I had an apartment I was in. The work had dried up, I was in between girlfriends or whatever. And this good buddy of mine named Victor Adkins, who’s still very much an important part of the New Orleans--if you go down there--the local jazz scene. He’s a great piano player. He said, “Man, I’m going on the road with Mark Whitfield.” He said, “Come on down, man. You can have the place to yourself.” It just seemed perfect.
So I went down, and it turned out that all these gigs got canceled. So he ended up needing the bread to help pay his rent anyway. But I stayed down there for about a year and a half. What I did end up getting deeper into down there was really playing R&B saxophone. I was studying and playing a lot of jazz stuff up north, and I got down there and there were real opportunities to play with soul singers and soul groups that … it just wasn’t the same in New York. And (for) these guys, it was just work. You’d go down to Bourbon Street and you’d get paid like 10 bucks a set, and you’d be there all day. It was the first experience I’d had where I was only playing saxophone for a living, and doing whatever I could.
I was, of course, playing jazz gigs and playing blues stuff, but I really did … there’s so much raw talent down there, and I felt like I kind of got thrown into it, and it really is, obviously, to this day, I’m having great opportunities now.
I’m working with Ziggaboo (of the Meters) from time to time. You just … I talk to a lot of people; I was real open. I wanted to meet as many people as I could. I wanted to play with as many people as I could--all different kinds of music. What I took back from living in New Orleans is like this rhythmic feel that is really strong down there, and what all those musicians have is a great feel. So, when I came back to New York, I felt like I did have a little advantage.
Kevin: An advantage that served you well. How did you meet Adam and Rudy and form the Sugarman 3?
Neal: Well, when I came back from New Orleans, it was a real mission of mine to want to do this kind of group, like a sax and organ kind of group. The way I did--I love saxophone playing, and what really turned me on was still, like Junior Walker and Gene Ammons and stuff like that, like real Hammond organ driven groups.
So I just, basically, set out to find guys, and a whole bunch of people were talking about Adam Scone--he was really young at the time, and there were a lot of guys … Organ was kind of coming into vogue, and there were a lot of piano players that were switching over to organ, but to me they still sounded like piano players. They played a lot of notes, they weren’t really playing as greasy as organ players that you mentioned earlier like Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, and Jimmy McGriff, but Adam had a real thing.
And then Rudy was real easy, because he had been playing with Jack McDuff for about 10 years prior to me meeting him, and a big part of the group, when we first started out was just doing Jack McDuff covers. I think we would cover the HONEYDRIPPER record from beginning to end. So he knew that music and he just felt … it was real natural with him playing Hammond organ.
So that was the basis of it, and then, as we started recording, it was a trio. It was basically saxophone, drums, and organ, and organ was playing the bass. We really did need the guitar to round it out, so we started working with guitarist Coleman Mellett; he was pretty incredible. He was good friends with Adam Scone. An unfortunate thing happened to him a couple of years ago. He passed away; he was in a plane crash on his way to a gig with Chuck Mangione.
Kevin: And he passed away in the same plane crash with Gerry Niewood?
Kevin: Oh, my goodness. I knew Gerry. I knew Chuck. I’m from Rochester. New York myself.
Neal: Then you know that scene. That was him. I was actually friends with both. You know that Gerry’s son--I’m friends with him sort of--that would be commiserated about. So you know the situation. He was on that plane, man. It was unbelievable. So, when you listen to those first two Sugarman 3 records, you know you’re hearing a little bit of that. He was definitely the youngest dude in the band. Those guys … he was, when that plane crash happened, if he was even 30 yet, I don’t even know.
Kevin: He was very young, and for our listeners, what Neal and I are discussing is his colleague perished in a plane crash. I believe it was in early 2010 [KG’S NOTE - the exact date was February 12, 2009], that took the life of Gerry Niewood, who was the …
Neal: Great saxophone player.
Kevin: Great saxophone player, worked with Chuck and Gap Mangione, who were just recently inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, just a couple of weeks ago.
Neal: And Gerry and me--he was a big dude. He was a real important dude in the New York jazz scene. He was just taught, a very well respected dude, as Coleman Mellett was.
Kevin: Yes, and they are sadly missed by myself and a lot of people in the music field. You formed Desco Records.
Neal: Desco Records was the label that I was signed to. We got a record deal with Desco, which was owned by this guy named Phillip Lehman, and Gabriel Roth, and that was on the first--we did the first two Sugarman 3 records with them. And they were really pioneering something then. They were really bringing back this sort of soul music funk and soul label that was totally geared toward just that kind of music.
They were cutting, we were doing LPs, cutting seven inches. This is back in the late ‘90s, and no one was doing that. Even the fact that the way they were recording the records, people, when the Sugarman 3 first hit, people did not know whether it was some stuff that … because they were both known as being big record collectors, as well. So no one knew if it was a new band, or something that Phillip had dug up in some vault in the basement of some New York City archive or whatever, because of the way the record was sounding and the way it looked, it was very convincing.
The thing that worked for us was once those people realized, “Oh, it’s just these three white kids from New York.“ They’d already decided that they liked the band. They couldn’t go back and say, “Oh man, this shit’s not hip anymore because it’s not what we thought it was.” They’d already committed to playing the record; especially at the time, it was a big scene in the UK for this kind of music.
So we kind of, through them not knowing who we were, we were able to develop some credibility. That kind of stuck with the band throughout the Desco era, which were the first two records. We were the only ones doing that kind of music with that kind of raw intensity.
Kevin: Absolutely. And what I meant to say was that the Sugarman 3’s music helped establish Desco Records. That’s how I meant.
Neal: Yeah, probably. We were one of the premiere touring acts on the label.
Kevin: Absolutely. Let’s talk about the third album that you guys did. The first album was “SUGAR‘S BOOGALOO.“ The second one was “SOUL DONKEY.“ Then you had a compilation called “SWEET SPOT.“ Let’s talk about PURE CANE SUGAR, which featured Bernard Purdie and Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. What was it like working with these giants?
Neal: Well, just to give you some background, we had done the two--sort of boogaloo hymn and soul jazz record, and I was kind of at that point kind of wanting to branch out and do more funk kind of ensemble stuff. So we kind of ramped up the whole band. We added trumpet; we were overdubbing different percussion instruments and trying to give it a different sound. And in that, I wanted to feature some vocalists on it.
So Lee Fields was the easiest one for me, because we had worked with him at Desco, and he’s still, to this day, one of the greatest soul singers I will have ever worked with and probably ever will work with, and still making just unbelievable records. So it was easy to get him.
Charles Bradley also sang on the record and he, at the time, no one really knew him. Obviously right now he’s going through; he’s having this huge boost in his career. Up to that point, he had never recorded music, so that was his first actual recording, and he was just a local Brooklyn guy that both Gabe and I flipped out over when we heard him.
Now Bernard Purdie was in a situation where, believe it or not, we were covering--in our live set, we were covering “Modern Jive,“ which is one of Bernard’s kind of big drum feature tunes. What’s the name of the album? I can’t remember. It’s on that big album for Date.
Kevin: Yeah, it was on the Date label. It was released somewhere around 1966 - 67 [KG’S note - the album was “Soul Drums,” released in 1968]
Neal: It had “Funky Donkey” on it.
Kevin: “Funky Donkey”! Yep, it was on there.
Neal: So, anyways, I was doing a gig. We were doing a gig with the band that he had with Ruben Wilson. It was at SOB’s in New York City. We had planned to go into the studio, really, the next day, and so we were doing the gig, opening up for Ruben Wilson and Bernard Purdie, and I think, it was Grant Green Junior, I think they had a group for a while. And I’m thinking, I’m looking at Bernard, and I’m thinking, “Man, listen, we have been covering your song live.” It has been one of the songs that I really love playing in the live set, which I wouldn’t have recorded because it just was such a drum feature.
So I thought, “Man, why don’t we get him in, and just come into the studio and cut that with us?” It was very like a last minute thing. And it turned out to be one of the real great songs on the PURE CANE [SUGAR] record, and a great experience for me. We were doing our … we probably cut most of the songs on the record. He had time; We called him in, he came into the studio, and he was so amazing. It really dawned on me why he became such an important figure as a studio drummer during that period, because he just made the whole session feel great.
He came in with such a positive vibe, and one other note is that we were cutting drums with two microphones. He saw the two mics on the drums and he was immediately like, “Wow, I haven’t recorded that way in a long time. It’s such a relief to see some analog recording with minimal mic-ing.” Then he just was there, and just trying to make the groove. And he kept trying to lock the band in, and “This is how we’re going to go.” Just really took control without making anyone feel bad. Everyone felt great being in the room with him, and that, to me, is the sign of a great studio musician.
Kevin: Absolutely. A professional at that. I also want to talk about the formation of Daptone Records and your work with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. I know we’re kind of tight for time, but could you briefly give the listener an overview as how Daptone came together?
Neal: After we cut PURE CANE SUGAR--at that time Desco Records was kind of falling apart. Gabe and Phillip were parting ways, and we had the PURE CANE record. We had PURE CANE SUGAR in the can, and Gabe had just finished the first Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings record. So we were actually collectively shopping them around.
We were not sure what we wanted to do. We were trying to find a label. The one thing we knew was that we wanted to records to stay together because we really believed in kind of a scene. We love record labels, we love the idea of old records. What made a great record label was the records being curated and a sound, and everyone we talked to--we just could not find a label that we felt comfortable with turning these records over to.
So I think it was just after a month of searching around, we just said, “Man, let’s just do it ourselves.” Gabe was a little more hesitant because he had just felt burned from the Desco thing, but it was something I was always interested in, the business side. So we started Dap Tones. That was 10 years ago. Hence, 10 years since the last Sugarman 3 record. And, getting back to the reason I wanted to record PURE CANE, and I talked about wanting to sort of get involved in backing singers. When Gabe said to me, “Man, why don’t you come out with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings?” it was good timing for me.
I was really ready to sort of be a side man, and not to mention working with a great singer and working with a great horn section. I knew right away that that band had something to offer. So that’s kind of where I stayed for the last 10 years, working on the road, mostly with Sharon Jones, and recording and playing with the Dap Kings, and running the record label.
Kevin: Many, many jobs, my friend. Many, many jobs.
Neal: If you want to stay alive in the music industry, man, you’ve got to diversify.
Kevin: Absolutely! And that’s a great lesson right there. I know this is going to go off my list of questions I have for you, Neal, but I want to point out that what I admire about Daptone, is that you have kept alive the aesthetic on how an independent record company used to run, used to be operated, back in the days. And I’m talking about back in the days when Atlantic was launched, when Stax was launched, even when Motown was launched. I mean you have an 8 track reel-to-reel machine in the studio there. You don’t use a lot of the modern electronic gimmickry. It’s a home grown sound. That’s what I love about listening to anything that comes out of Daptone.
Neal: Yeah, everything we touch--it’s not like a lot of record labels are run--which is like, you sign the band, you give them a bunch of money, they go into the studio, they deliver a master to you, and then you’re like, “Oh, this is cool. Let’s try to market it.”
Everything we put out is hand-crafted, and the owners of the record label are checking out mixes. The secretaries are coming down checking out mixes, and yes, it’s very much like Stax and Motown, and we own our own studio, but it’s almost the only way it would work for us, because we’re musicians, as well.
It wouldn’t … the idea of just giving someone money to go record a record and come back with something completed--it’s not that interesting. It’s the whole process, and we want to be involved in all the artists we record. From micing the drums to getting the sounds, to having something to do with it, to having them branded as a Daptone artist.
Kevin: And you also attracted the attention of many hit makers: Al Green, Robbie Williams, Lilly Allen, and, of course, the late Amy Winehouse with her Grammy Award winning song “Rehab,” which should have been released as Amy Winehouse featuring the Dap Kings.
Neal: Yeah, there’s some other songs, especially, that I hear the Dap Kings, we played on that, and like “He Can Only Hold Her” and all that stuff; that’s like the Dap Kings through and through. Yeah, it’s been really cool. Mark Ronson is responsible for a lot of that, and a lot of other producers are realizing that they can come to a band that’s playing every night and recording together and eating together and sleeping together, and that’s what it takes to make a great record. It’s not just put together a bunch of all-stars. That theory seems flawed to me. So a lot of the people, including Questlove when he’s producing an Al Green record--He wants to bring the horn section in, and we’re going to definitely deliver something that I don’t think anyone else will be able to.
Kevin: Absolutely, and I’ve got to point out that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have done some great albums: 100 DAYS - 100 NIGHTS, I LEARNED THE HARD WAY,” which was on my PC for over a year, and also a recent recording.
But let’s get back to--bringing it back to the Sugarman 3, you have this great new album, WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW. Fifteen percent of the money made will go toward Doctor Eric Wong’s campaign for brain surgery research. Now, you’re in Europe at the current time. You’re coming back to the United States the week of May 9th, correct?
Kevin: Any plans on any gigs or tours or shows in the United States or in Europe?
Neal: Well, right now I have a whole … I’m completely booked because of the festival circuit with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Then, probably come September, we’re going to start doing some more Sugarman 3 gigs. Which, for that being, it’s a great live band and all the musicians are all live musicians, and that’s really when the band shines.
Yeah, it was just kind of like, I could have waited to put the record out, but I was excited about it. I compromised in the fact that we’re not touring right now, but looking into September and possibly moving after that. I think that, even if we go out and do a tour for Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, a lot of people get to hear the band.
Kevin: Good. Excellent. And I’m looking at some of the itinerary, that you’ll be at Jazz Fest, I believe. That’s Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings will be there.
Neal: Yep. Sunday.
Kevin: You’ll be at Jazz Fest, as well as doing a gig in DC this weekend to commemorate Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” with John Legend. All this information by the way, for our listeners, is on their wonderful website, DaptoneRecords.com. The album, the Sugarman 3, WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW, will be released on May 15th. You can preorder the album. Order through Daptone Records.com because the money will go directly toward the artist.
Neal: And toward the donation.
Kevin: And toward the donation.
Neal: A bigger net of the donation.
Kevin: Which again is Doctor Eric Wong’s Brain Tumor Research fund. 15% of all CD and LP orders. Okay, is this going to be released on vinyl?
Neal: Oh, sure, yeah. If you buy the LP, you get a free download code, which has been working really well for us. That way, you can get the deluxe vinyl packaging, and you still get the code for free, so you can put it in your computer and upload it to your personal device; and it really does sound great on vinyl, man. There’s something--maybe it’s psychological, somehow, spinning it in a record, but it vibrates great. The guy that mastered the vinyl did an exceptional job on it.
Neal: It’s definitely the format to be listening to music on.
Kevin: You will not find me disagreeing with you, Neal, because I still have my turn table. I still have my Garrard turn table with the 3 speeds and I look forward to hearing this on vinyl. Now, you can also download the first single which is “Rudy’s Intervention.” You go on DaptoneRecords.com, find out more information about that. And Neal Sugarman will be back in the United States this coming weekend. I just mentioned the tour dates, the Sugarman 3 will be touring sometime in the Fall, but go on DaptoneRecords.com, order this album, preorder it, it will be available May 15th. You got a turn table? You ain’t got no excuse: get it on vinyl. Neal Sugarman, thank you so much for joining us on SoulMusic.com. Safe travels back to the United States.
Neal: Thank you very much.
Kevin: And thank you. You have a great day, Neal. This is Kevin Goins of SoulMusic.com. Check out the Sugarman 3 album WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW, 15% of all the LP and CD sales will be donated to Doctor Eric Wong’s Brain Tumor Research Fund. Log on to DaptoneRecords.com, Kevin Goins with SoulMusic.com, take care. Thanks for listening.
Neal: Bye bye.
Kevin: Take care, Neal.
About the Writer
Kevin Goins aka “The Soul Ninja” is a veteran of the radio and recording industries, has authored liner notes for CD collections by Earth Wind & Fire, Melba Moore and Stacy Lattisaw. He's also the producer/host of the Internet radio interview series "Soulful Conversations" as well as a classic R&B show "The Kevin Goins Soul Experience".