Lins Honeyman met up with the septuagenarian front lady of NAOMI SHELTON & THE GOSPEL QUEENS
At first glance, it might appear that Alabama-born septuagenarian soul singer Naomi Shelton is something of an overnight success thanks to her first album hitting the shelves as recently as 2009. But, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. In a performing career that has spanned over half a century and with a reputation as one of the consistently hardest working live acts out there, Shelton's two Daptone Records releases 'What Have You Done, My Brother?' (2009) and the acclaimed 'Cold World' (2014) - full of gritty vintage soul mixed with the gospel message - plus appearances at prestigious events like the Monterey Jazz Festival have finally allowed the veteran singer to start receiving the wider recognition she deserves.
Born in Alabama in the 1940s, the then Naomi Davis first learnt to sing in church and soon began performing every Sunday morning on radio with her two older siblings as the Davis Sisters. Initially inspired by gospel acts like the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, the young singer soon discovered the more dynamic soul sounds of Otis Redding and Lou Rawls following a move to Florida in 1960. This in turn prompted Naomi to take her first tentative steps into the world of secular music by entering a local talent show and ultimately winning first prize. In 1963, a move to Brooklyn led to Naomi securing a residency as a house singer in the Nite Cap club in the borough's Flatbush Avenue. It was at the Nite Cap that she met Cleftones piano player Cliff Driver who would end up becoming her musical director - a role he still holds to this day and whose indelible stamp can be heard on both of Shelton's Daptone releases.
Like many soul singers with church roots, the years that followed saw Naomi forge parallel performing careers in both churches and the club scene before finally being reintroduced to Driver in 1999 when his band The Queens were in the market for a new lead singer. Original Queen Edna Johnson suggested Shelton to her boss and, before long, the act now known as Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens was born. Later that year, Driver and Shelton were performing with one-time James Brown bass player Fred Thomas in Flannery's in Manhattan when Desco Records' Gabriel Roth suggested that the group record for his label, resulting in a smattering of funk singles that are still regarded as classics to this day.
Unfortunately, Desco Records folded the following year but Roth, together with sax player Neal Sugarman, started up a new label called Daptone Records and, in 2002, Naomi sang lead on a track called "Promised Land" for Sugarman 3's 'Pure Cane Sugar' release before Driver and Roth set about planning a full Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens album which eventually saw the light of day in 2009. Since then, Shelton, the Gospel Queens and the Fred Thomas Band have gained increasing credibility as purveyors of the timeless funk and blues-tinged soul that Daptone has become famous for with a touring schedule that has seen the crew cover America and venture into Europe including several visits to the UK in recent times.
It is at one such visit that I catch up with the veteran singer prior to her appearance as part of the Fife Jazz Festival at the Byre Theatre in Scotland's university town of St Andrews. I am ushered into a cramped dressing room that houses three Gospel Queens of varying sizes with no sight of the main attraction. However, as they get up to let the interview begin, the wheelchair-bound Shelton - paradoxically looking somewhat frail and inexplicably youthful for a woman in her 70s - is revealed having been hidden in plain sight by her backing vocalists. Greeting me with a smile that is both genuine and dazzling, she points a gnarled finger to a seat right next to her and welcomes me with a warmth that defies the sub-zero February temperatures outside.
I begin by asking Naomi what keeps her doing what she's doing. "I tell you what keeps me going," she says with a rich accent that betrays her upbringing in the Deep South. "Being able to get up each day and go all over the world and just share the love together. This is my fifth time over here in the UK and I thank God because whatever I'm doing must be pretty right otherwise people don't want you back. For me, it's all about sharing love with each other. It's not about being a star - I'm not the star, the folks who come to see me are the stars and we just shine a light as we go through life. One day, we'll all be as one and there'll not be all this fighting, killing and carrying on. God made this world for us to enjoy. He's coming back and we know, when he comes back, he will call us as one not as individual races - we'll all be under one big umbrella."
From the get-go, it's clear that Naomi's unique gospel soul sound - colourfully described by Uncut Magazine as "a sandpapered contralto delivered with commitment and Sunday morning belief backed by a band with serious provenance" - is just a means to a greater end. "It's not just about the music," she confirms. "It's about what's in your heart. What you kick out will come back to you. If you give out love, you'll attract love. If you go out giving out hate, you're going to attract hate. I ask God, whatever I do, let me be real. Sometimes it's easy to just go through the motions in life but I don't want to do it that way. If it ain't but one song, let me get it right so I can touch somebody and that one song might help me to get to the next person. It's all about the message in the songs and God helps me to deliver that message - not just for my benefit but so people may be touched. People might say that Naomi is just singing some songs, making a few records and winning a few awards but all that doesn't mean nothing to me if I don't have love in my heart for people. When all your money's gone and the music stops and you turn off all the lights, what have you got left? What I have left is love."
I suggest to Naomi that, given her relatively late start as a recording artist, she might be mistaken for something of a newcomer and I wonder how she kept going throughout the years when recognition was slim. "I just never gave up," she advises. "I knew I was going to be a singer from an early age in Alabama - I claimed it and I held on to my dream. That's why I love that song by Sam Cooke - 'A Change Is Gonna Come'. When my first album was recorded, I was 66 years old and people asked me why I left it so late but I never worried about it because I knew my season was going to come. When my season came in, God said he had a song for me and he did."
"When you have gone through struggles in life and as you get older, it helps to look back from where you came," continues Naomi. "My mother and father taught us to never give up and, at whatever you do, give it all you've got and that's always been my motto. Don't go through life just going through the motions - do it good because, one day, somebody is going to pay attention. I didn't get envious or jealous about other folks who were making it big before me because I knew my time was going to come. My legs may not move no more but I thank God I can still sing. I sit in this here wheelchair and I don't let that stop me because he's still got work for me to do. As long as I keep my mind stable and my heart fixed with love, he will see me through."
I ask about the relationship she has with her band, her label mates and also musical director Cliff Driver whose musical pedigree includes working with soul legends such as Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke and Jackie Wilson. "Cliff and I go back many years," she smiles. "He discovered me when we were playing at the Nite Cap in Brooklyn. Whatever band came through the door, I was the house singer and Cliff often backed me up. At Daptone, we're like one big happy family and we check in on each other and that's the way it should be. Everybody got their own style of doing stuff but we all love each other. It's not about who's more successful or who's been on the road more. Charles Bradley (soul singer and fellow Daptone artist) is my neighbour - we're only two blocks from each other and we were on the same bill back in July. Me and Fred Thomas in the band go back over 40 years and Fred's played bass for the James Brown band all over the world."
I explain that, off the current album 'Cold World', the opening track "Sinner" is perhaps the standout track - made all the more remarkable that it was penned by teenage guitar whizz Max Shrager which, thanks to Naomi's gritty vocal delivery set to the raw backdrop of Cliff Driver's band and the Gospel Queens, makes it sound as though the song originated back in the mists of time in a plantation somewhere in the Deep South. I ask Naomi what her favourite tracks are on an album that has garnished almost universally positive reviews since its release in 2014. "One of my favourites on the 'Cold World' album is 'I Earned Mine' and a song we do live called 'I Ain't No Stranger' because, wherever I go, I'm not a stranger. When you think about it, everyday there's hungry people standing in a line - more and more. People are losing their homes, losing their jobs and have nowhere to live and no food to eat. You're going through all those hard times and you don't know what's going on in the world so that's why we sing 'A Change Is Gonna Come'. Sam Cooke was right - he figured it out that, if we hold on just a little while longer and continue to keep the love in our hearts for each other, a change will come. God is going to make it better."
With the soundcheck for her appearance at St Andrews' Byre Theatre still to come, I ask Naomi how she feels about being part of the Fife Jazz Festival and tonight's concert. "I'm really excited about tonight," she grins. "I don't care if there are only two people in the audience - I'll give it all I've got if there's two or 200. It's not about the numbers - it's about the people that God sends to you and that he wants you to touch that matters. You can't go around that - you just have to accept it and give it all you've got. The more I sing, the more I know that God is saying 'hey - you just got to talk to my people and let them know I'm still here and I love them.'"
A couple of hours later in front of more or less a full house, Naomi is wheeled onstage to rapturous applause and joins the Fred Thomas Band and the three Gospel Queens to command an energetic performance that artists several decades her junior would struggle to pull off. The message of God's love is put across in typical no-messing fashion with a set chock full of songs from both albums. Naomi is careful to acknowledge her audience's importance at every turn with word and gesture - mostly by blowing a kiss or two our way - and it's clear that she was being 100 per cent genuine when, earlier on, she talked about the people who come to see her being the stars of the show. "People treat you the way you treat them," she suggests. "I don't want to go through life with people thinking I'm some sort of a big diva and they've got to cater to me. I don't want to take advantage of nobody. You've got to be grateful that people take the time to help you and support you. You can be the greatest singer or performer in the world but, if your attitude is nasty, nobody's going to come to you. I want to be like the honey - I'll leave being the vinegar for other people!"
In closing, I ask Naomi what the immediate future holds for her and the Gospel Queens. "When I get back home, we're going to be starting work on the third album," she confirms. "Maybe something a bit different to what we've been doing - maybe going back to some of our sacred music roots. We want to get back and keep that music alive. That means I'm going to hang on in as long as I can and, as long as God keeps my voice going and my mind working good, I'll sit in my chair and keep singing."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.