A lot of people are talking about Leon Bridges these days (including us), and as well they should. The young Texas crooner has smoothly slid onto the scene over the past couple months and has now officially arrived. Bridges appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon on Monday night, and his debut album, Coming Home, was released Tuesday. Despite almost half the album having already been released, it’s still one of the more anticipated albums of the year. Bridges’ sound is vintage soul, echoing Sam Cooke, a little Otis Redding, and that classic Motown sound. A passing glance around the rest of contemporary music, and it would appear that Bridges is a lone wolf out there, carrying the banner of classic soul and R&B by his lonesome.
That’s not really the case, though.
Bridges is certainly an anomaly in popular music, but he’s definitely not the only artist out there looking to recapture and reinvent the musical glory of Cooke, Redding, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and more. The resurgence of soul has been steadily gaining steam for a handful of years, with its origins most easily traced back to the launch of Daptone Records in 2001. Daptone is a small label based out of Brooklyn that prides itself on its roster of neo-soul, R&B, and funk acts. It’s an artist-run-and-driven label whose home base isn’t an office building or suite among many, but a row house. When embarking on a exploration of Leon Bridges’ contemporaries and fellow soul banner-carriers, Daptone Records is an ideal place to start.
The Daptone Records Crew
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
They could be considered the original gangsters of the new-soul movement. The band released their first album Dap-Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings in 2002; the first album released by Daptone Records. While the live album was more funk than soul, it got the ball rolling for the band, who followed it up with Naturally, whose sound was now less funk and more soul. It sounds more like the Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings we know today. Doubling as the house band for Daptone, The Dap-Kings have worked with Mark Ronson, most notably while he produced Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. Jones was discovered while singing backup for Lee Fields, and quickly became a fixture in the growing soul renaissance that was amassing in and around New York City.
Who They Sound Like: A fiery combination of Aretha Franklin and The Meters.
Essential Listening: “100 Days, 100 Nights,” “She Ain’t a Child No More,” “Natural Born Lover,” “Be Easy”
Saun & Starr
Former running mates of Jones, Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan Love reconnected with Jones, joining the band as back-up singers, “The Dapettes,” in 2008. Natives of the Bronx, they both met Jones while auditioning for a wedding band in the 1990s. After spending the past couple years backing up their old friend, Saun & Starr started recording their own material at Daptone and released their debut album, Look Closer, earlier this year. It’s in the same vein as Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, just replacing some of that band’s funk tendencies with more R&B trappings.
Who They Sound Like: The Supremes, The Ronettes.
Essential Listening: “Look Closer,” “Hot Shot”
A former James Brown impersonator, Bradley had been around multiple bands before finding a home at Daptone, when the label’s co-founder discovered him performing under the name Black Velvet. Connecting with Daptone’s other go-to house band, the Menahan Street Band, Bradley quickly made a name for himself and developed a reputation as a wild soul singer. He sings with his heart on his sleeve, painting his vocals with the pain of years spent living hard and enduring rough spell after rough spell. He’s released two albums, 2011’s No Time for Dreaming and 2013’s Victim of Love, and on both he is backed by the Menahan Street Band.
Who He Sounds Like: A version of Otis Redding, who spent years struggling to get by and survive.
Essential Listening: “The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” “No Time For Dreaming,” “Where Do We Go From Here?”
The Menahan Street Band
Bradley’s partners in crime are a real mixed bag of Daptone musicians. The band comprised members of The Dap-Kings, The Budos Band and Antibalas; and beside their work with Bradley, they’ve released two albums, the first one being 2008’s Make the Road By Walking, whose title track was sampled by Jay Z on his track, “Roc Boys (and the Winner is…).” Their second album, The Crossing, was recorded entirely on analog at founding member Thomas Brenneck’s Dunham Sound Studios.
Essential Listening: “Make the Road By Walking,” “The Contender”
What They Sound Like: Curtis Mayfield, minus the vocals.
The Muscle Shoals Crew
We now move south to the greener pastures of Alabama, specifically FAME studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the home of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who were responsible for providing music to back Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and many more. The studio has become a mecca of sorts, and recently has produced two neo-soul acts of note.
St. Paul and The Broken Bones
A seven-piece band based in Birmingham, Alabama, they recorded portions of their debut full-length, Half the City, at FAME studios, working with Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes. Heavily influenced by Pickett and Sam Cooke, the band is fronted by Paul Janeway, who possesses a voice soaked in vintage soul, akin to how Bridges’ is. Soul music purists will love St. Paul and The Broken Bones.
Who They Sound Like: Otis! Wilson! Sam!
Essential Listening: “Call Me,” “Like a Mighty River,” “Half the City”
Soul with grit is still soul, don’t let the lack of polish fool you. East is a young up-and-comer channeling the sound of Stax records and Muscle Shoals R&B. East is a Nashville guy these days, but recently spent some time recording at Fame. His debut album, Delilah, comes out in July, but his Fame Studios session is definitely worth checking out.
Who He Sounds Like: Booker T., Wilson Pickett and Ray LaMontagne with more soul and bite.
Essential Listening: “Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em and Forget ‘Em,” “Satisfy Me”
The Texas Crew
Staying in the south, we head west and to Texas.
I love bands that give their sound a name. The Suffers, a 10-piece band from Houston, play what they call Gulf Coast Soul. It combines sounds found in the Gulf Coast region: blues, country, hip-hop, Cajun and more. Taking a page from the Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings playbook, The Suffers are a rock-solid band fronted by a powerful female dynamo (Kam Franklin) on vocals. The music isn’t as funky as The Dap-Kings, but tight nonetheless. They’ve released two EPs so far and were named one of the 25 New Artists You Need in Your Life in 2015 by BuzzFeed.
Who They Sound Like: Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner.
Essential Listening: “Make Some Room,” “Gwan”
Comprised of two guys (Andrew Trube and Anthony Farrell) who made their bones as songwriters for people Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, The Greyhounds are a down and dirty soul band. Their version of is sprinkled with country, R&B and dusty blues. They have released a studio album, Accumulator, and a live album, Heaven On Earth, so far.
Who They Sound Like: Bill Withers, Booker T., Taj Mahal.
Essential Listening: “What’s On Your Mind,” “Lone Rider”
Finally, there are two more acts out there worth checking out. They defy geographical grouping, though.
A California kid, Waterhouse does more R&B than soul, but the latter is present. In some ways, he reminds me of Mayer Hawthorne, another artist who brought soul back. Waterhouse sounds more authentic, though. So far, he’s produced two albums, 2012 Time’s All Gone and 2014’s Holly.
Who He Sounds Like: Van Morrison, Wilson Pickett, Hall & Oates.
Essential Listening: “Say I Wanna Know,” “This Is a Game”
Karl W. Davis and The Sweetpeas
A Georgia dude bringing southern soul to France, I heard Davis on the radio one day and thought I was listening to Al Green… or, at the very least, an Al Green cover band. Davis is a throwback scholar, just like Paul of St. Paul and The Broken Bones. He released an album, It’s High Time, in 2014, and spends most of his time in France, but you can hear the influence of southern soul and Muscle Shoals in his music.
Who He Sounds Like: Al Green, The Isley Brothers.
Essential Listening: “Shiny Trust”