That Time the Dap-Kings Played the White House and Met Obama
On Monday October 3, President Barack Obama hosted the South by South Lawn conference, “a White House festival of ideas, art and action” that featured everything from technological innovation to student films, including a full-length documentary on climate change. Taking place on the South Lawn of the White House, the star-studded event also featured appearances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Common and the young cast of Stranger Things, as well as several notables from the worlds of science and technology. The day included a short program of music as well, with scheduled appearances from Beverly Bond, the Lumineers, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings — that is, until the news broke late on Sunday that Jones would not be able to make it. Said Jones:
“Unfortunately, I won't be able to perform at the White House tomorrow. I’m home in Augusta recovering from pneumonia and am too sick to travel. The Dap-Kings are still going to perform and, luckily, Binky Griptite and Saun & Starr will join them to cover for me.”
Surprisingly, Jones’ cancellation had no direct ties to her ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer, but it was no less sad. After much discussion within the Dap-Kings camp, the decision was made, upon Jones' insistence, that the band would soldier on without her, bringing the aforementioned Binky Griptite and Saun & Starr in her stead. Her presence was missed.
Despite the setback, the day was a joyous one for the band, albeit with a cloud of concern for their bandmate and the sadness at the realization of a longtime goal achieved without her. We spoke with Neal Sugarman and Gabriel Roth from the Dap-Kings about the experience, if they will ever live it down, and the current state of the iconic Sharon Jones.
A gig at the White House … absolutely insane. How did this all come about?
Neal Sugarman: Sharon Jones has been talking for a long time about wanting to play the White House, and our manager was always on that in any capacity he could. And then this thing came about. They were originally actually saying that they wanted just Sharon and a stripped-down band, but Sharon was saying, “I don’t want to do it unless the whole band does it,” and they bit on it. We were on their radar a lot on request from Sharon, who wanted to play for Barack Obama for a long time.
The kernel of the idea must have come from somewhere, though. Everyone wants to play for the President. Do you know if you were on Obama’s radar?
Gabriel Roth: I know that Michelle Obama was at a show we did at the Kennedy Center years ago, and Sharon had the privilege to meet her. She definitely told Michelle, “Get us in the White House.” As far as his personal taste, we don’t have any true idea on that, but everyone has seen him online singing Al Green songs, so I assume we aren’t too far outside of his tastes.
Had any of you been to the White House before under any other circumstances? Tourist, etc.?
NS: I had not and, as a pessimist, it was much more exciting than I thought it would be. And certainly to be there with a different President is a whole different idea.
SXSL was mostly relegated to the South Lawn of the White House. Since you were obviously part of the team, did you get any sort of tour or anything?
GR: We did! We got into the actual White House and [had] a small tour of the State Floor, and got to meet and shake hands and take pictures with Obama in the Blue Room, which was pretty amazing for us. But I think the whole day, for everybody, was pretty bittersweet because it was hard not to think about missing Sharon there. The whole thing was kind of put together as a real triumphant thing for her. One thing that was real cool was that Obama wrote her a get-well note, a handwritten get-well note. And when we met him, he asked about her: “I know Sharon couldn’t be here today and hopefully she’s doing better.” That was pretty exciting to have that sort of direct support from him to her.
Later on, I got to see his panel with Leonardo DiCaprio and Katharine Hayhoe, and it was really inspiring to see him be so smart and funny and informative and motivating. Being able to see that in person was a big deal for me.
A lot is known and some things are not known about Sharon, her battle with pancreatic cancer and how she’s feeling. Do you want to give any report on that — how she’s been doing recently with the hospital stay, etc.?
GR: Obviously, she’s been in the midst of an incredible battle for a long time, but sadly, the thing that made her miss the White House gig was a simple pneumonia. The hospital wasn’t comfortable letting her go that early. I think they are planning on releasing her today, so we hope she makes a speedy recovery, and as far as everything else, she’s been getting treatments, and we’re cautiously optimistic that she can hopefully get back to the White House as soon as possible.
Have you spoken with her post-gig?
GR: Sure, we’ve talked to her a few times. Throughout this whole thing, a lot of guys in the band didn’t even want to do the show when Sharon said she wasn’t going to be able to make it. Most of the band didn’t want to go, and felt real awful about going there without her. Especially after she had shown such solidarity about all of us being there with her. But she was very vocal and very adamant that she wanted to go and represent. She was happy about it.
NS: I talked to her after the gig a couple times, and she’s struggling a little bit; she’s tired of being sick. She was obviously sad that she couldn’t make it, but we’re all trying to be optimistic that we’re all going to get another opportunity to go back there when she’s feeling better.
As far as actually meeting the President, are there any other fun personal anecdotes from that moment that you’d like to share?
GR: Well, when we went to pose for the picture, I tried to come up right next to him. That was OK until he saw Saun & Starr, [and] he said, “We gotta get the ladies in here next to me,” which they were thrilled about; and I, of course, sheepishly backed away, to my own personal disappointment. I did, of course, get a small snuggle, which I can take home with me. But it was hard, though; because even in moments like that, as small as she is, her personality is giant in the room and sort of dominates the whole situation. I think all of us were thinking about her not being there and, if she was, they probably would have had a hell of a banter. She tends to pull that out of people.
Clearly, you have played some of the biggest stages ever, with and to some massive figures — I have personally seen you play with Prince. How does meeting the President compare to that?
NS: It’s right up there. Maybe the best for me. It was brief, but still pretty amazing. I don’t want to sound jaded, but yeah — we’ve done a lot of stuff and met Prince, and that was cool, but meeting the President, especially Barack Obama … I think all of us are huge fans, and it was one of the best experiences we’ve had with the band. Kind of bigger than I expected it to be.
GR: Again, it’s so bittersweet to meet him without Sharon, but to meet Obama was huge. Bigger than anything else. You come home and you tell your kids … they didn’t care that I met Prince. Even my five-year-old was like, “Wow, you met the President.”
Do you think it was meeting the President, or Obama specifically?
GR: I think it was meeting Obama, for me.
NS: Obama as President. And I think that even having that picture is something that I’ll always look back at. Having that picture with the Dap-Kings and Obama will probably be, to my dad, a “Kennedy moment.” It was a special moment.
I’m sure it will be a photo that will hang in all of your collective homes.
NS: I don’t have a photo of me jamming with Prince, I’ll put it that way.
GR: I plan to put it on the mantel next to a picture of Sharon. We haven’t gotten one all together yet. We’ll get it.
As a band, do you feel like anything can top this?
NS: Gabe and I run the label and deal with a lot of business stuff. But the most joy that I feel is just savoring the time I have with Sharon on stage. Those magical moments. It’s always been that way for me. I’m just looking forward to doing that a little more … hopefully a lot more.
We just got off the road with Hall & Oates, and hearing stories about Gabe listening to records with John Oates are great, but just getting in the studio with Sharon, in the moment, playing music … those moments just get better and better, weirdly.
GR: To answer your question: either a gig in outer space, or getting back to the White House and doing this right.