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‘It Ain’t Retro’ Author Jessica Lipsky Details the Dap-Kings’ Involvement in Amy Winehouse’s Classic ‘Back to Black’ Album

Guy — who had come into the Daptone fold post–Dap Dippin’ — arrived at Ronson’s Mercer Street studio in downtown Manhattan with his own demo in hand. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings had just cut a cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1970 Motown hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” and when Guy pressed play on the track (which wouldn’t be officially released until 2014), Ronson was blown away. “It was just so much the real deal,” he later effused. 

When Ronson wasn’t squeezing in demo sessions for his own project, he was collaborating with a young British singer named Amy Winehouse who was looking to evolve from the jazz-inflected vibe of her debut record. 

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Winehouse’s expressive contralto vocals and intensely personal tales of love lost, addiction, and rebellion were a perfect match for Ronson’s production style, but getting her rough cuts to sound both old and rhythmically engaging was a challenge. “I was probably using, you know, like, whatever computer trick I could [to] make things sound old,” Ronson told NPR. Then, he put on the Sharon Jones cover Dave Guy had recently shown him. “I said, like, ‘How good is this? We should get these guys to play these demos.’” When Winehouse responded with an affirmative, enthusiastic “It’s the nuts!,” Ronson called up [producer, bassist and Daptone co-founder] Gabe Roth to set up a few days of studio time. 

Winehouse had already flown back across the pond by the time Ronson knocked on the door of 115 Troutman for his session with The Dap-Kings, CD-J demos and arrangements in hand. The band recorded six songs for Back to Black and, later, the ever-popular “Valerie” for Ronson’s Versions. 

“That was, like, the most professional thing we’d done to date,” [guitarist] Binky Griptite reflects. “We’d just been doing our own thing and on our own time in Gabe’s studio, or were at home smoking weed and working on our own schedule. So we weren’t used to having another producer being in there, like, ‘Okay, we gotta knock this out by five.’ I mean, we’d had a taste of it, but it was still in the early days.”  

The Dap-Kings also developed on Ronson’s arrangements, sinking into horn parts, charting chords, and adding [Homer] Steinweiss’s drum sound, which managed to meld the refinement of a jazz-educated drummer with a minimalist, almost childlike approach to playing. In an NPR interview, Ronson cited the band as the driving force behind “You Know I’m No Good,” Back to Black’s second single: “I had always thought of it almost as… kind of Latin, like, samba.” He wasn’t feeling his arrangement in the studio, so he offered it up to The Dap-Kings to interpret in their own vocabulary. [Daptone co-founder and saxophonist Neal] Sugarman and Guy came back with horn lines, emphasizing Ian Hendrickson-Smith’s baritone sax to complement Winehouse’s deep voice (Ronson speculated that Back to Black was the first time he’d utilized that instrument), while Steinweiss and bassist Nick Movshon developed an intimidating rhythm.  

“[They’re] probably the most incredible rhythm section I’ve ever worked with,” Ronson added, publicly cementing the band’s torch carrying lineage. “That was when I really discovered the magic of The Dap-Kings and… very much like The Wrecking Crew in L.A., and, you know, The Funk Brothers, like, are a special group of musicians that really just bring you something that nobody else does.” 

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