july 2009

Naomi Shelton: 'It's right around the corner. Things are getting ready to happen.'

'It's All About Love In My Book'

Undaunted and optimistic, Naomi Shelton brings the Word to the world. It's a message 60 years in the making.

By David McGee

Truly a woman whose faith passes all understanding, whose patience brooks comparisons to Job's, Naomi Shelton reached a watershed moment in June with the release of her first album, What Have You Done, My Brother? It took her only 60 years to get to this point.

But even getting to this point was a matter of fits and starts, with results so unsatisfying in sessions in 2005 and 2006 that Ms. Shelton was seriously pondering a return to R&B until her musical director and confidante Cliff Driver assured her things were going to work out.

Ultimately, Ms. Shelton leaned on her faith. "I wasn't restless at all," the Alabama native long since transplanted to New York says with the faintest hint of southern accent. "You know what? I said, 'It's right around the corner. Things are getting ready to happen.'" So I kept holding on to my patience, holding on to my patience, saying, 'Hey, it's just around the corner. It's right around the corner.'"

Gabriel Roth, co-founder of the Brooklyn-based Daptone label that Ms. Shelton calls home, told a New York Times reporter of his own frustrations with those first sessions, and his concern that a gospel album would have too limited an appeal-"but I realized I had to let her sing gospel," he said.

And why not? It's Ms. Shelton's natural métier. It's home.

Naomi Shelton (right) wrecking the house, with the redoubtable Gospel Queens in support (from left: Edna Johnson, Cynthia Langston, Bobbie Jean Gant): 'I love when I can get down there and work with the audience, touch the audience. When I'm up there on stage and can't move, they know I'm very uncomfortable, because they know I'm a person who likes to get out and feel and touch. Because people want to know somebody cares.'

"To be honest, I've been singing gospel since the age of six, because my mom and dad were both involved in church," she says. "That's the only thing we knew-to go to church on Sundays and sing gospel songs. Me, my older sister Hattie Mae, other sister Annie Ruth, we were the Davis sisters. My father was a contractor who built houses, and he helped build a studio between Tuskegee and Eunice Springs. Every Sunday morning he would take us up there at six o'clock to broadcast on the radio."

She has plenty to broadcast now. What Have You Done, My Brother? is a full-bore classic gospel album built on the music that became the foundation for modern R&B and '60s soul as crafted by Brother Driver on piano, Jimmy Hill on organ, Tommy Brenneck on guitar, with a sturdy, supple rhythm section comprised of Gabriel Roth (billed as Bosco Mann) on bass and Brian Floody and Homer Steinweiss on drums. Backing Ms. Shelton are the fulsome female chorus known as the Gospel Queens, Cynthia Langston, Edna Johnson and Bobbie Jean Gant—Ms. Langston in particular has a star turn on the lead singer on "I Need You To Hold My Hand," sounding for all the world like the Shirelles' great lead vocalist Shirley Alston in a gently rocking arrangement and a bright, lilting melody redolent of the savvy arrangements Luther Dixon crafted for the Shirelles. Five of the dozen songs were written by Roth/Mann, including the darkly percolating title track with the Gospel Queens moaning ominously behind Ms. Shelton's gritty lead beseeching the listener take spiritual inventory before it's too late; another Mann track, "By Your Side," is a swampy grind reminiscent of the emotional pleas emanating from Muscle Shoals and particularly from Percy Sledge in the mid-'60s, the difference being the lyric pleading for the Lord's guidance in living a better life. Elsewhere, the crowd gets it going on a stomping, house wrecking take on Claude Jeter's "Trouble In My Way," and closes with a shimmering, deliberate rendition of Sam Cooke's ever timely "A Change Is Gonna Come" that finds it own turf between the classic versions by Cooke and Otis Redding, mainly by enhancing the parched, weary testimony Shelton offers with a mournful guitar and the Gospel Queens' shouted retorts.

Born in the mostly black southeastern Alabama town of Midway, a small community then and now of less than 500 population, Ms. Shelton gained a complete education in gospel beginning in early childhood. Though immersed in gospel, transfixed by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, she and her sisters—who performed as the Davis Sisters—had plenty of contact with the gospel-infused R&B of the mid- to late '50s as well; their father, in fact, would entertain folks playing R&B on harmonica.

Get flash player to play to this file

'What Have You Done, My Brother?' The title track from her new album, performed at a fundraiser for Barack Obama, at Southpaw, Brooklyn, NY, October 23, 2008.

After graduating from high school, Ms. Shelton's odyssey began. She moved to New York City, returned to Alabama after a year in order to take care of her ailing mother, then relocated to Miami, where her daughter was born. In 1962 she returned to New York, where she remains, a loyal member of the Greater Crossroads Baptist Church in Brooklyn and a regular Friday night attraction at the Fat Cat club in Greenwich Village.

In 1963, while playing regular gigs at the Night Cap club on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, she befriended the man leading the house band, Cliff Driver, already a veteran on the R&B scene who had backed Baby Washington and would go on to work with the likes of Ruth Brown, Arthur Prysock and Solomon Burke, among others. Their paths crossed and diverged over the years, but in 1999 they began a serious collaboration, as R&B artists on the club scene. Their first recordings, made for the Desco label, were issued that year—funk singles titled "41st Street Breakdown' (credited to Naomi Davis and the Knights of Forty First Street), and "Wind Your Clock" b/w "Talking 'Bout a Good Thing." The discs picked up some steam on the club circuit and became collector's items, but didn't do much to advance Ms. Shelton's ambitions. Still, meeting the man she refers to as "Brother Driver" set her on the path she'd been seeking and provided a focus for an artist who admits she could be a hard case at times.

"Brother Driver was my teacher," Ms. Shelton says. "He's the one who's responsible for where I am today. Even though you have a gift, you need someone to help you project that voice and get it together. He was the one who really worked with me through the years-it wasn't easy, because I wasn't always an easy customer to deal with. I wasn't. I'd been wild, up drinkin' the whole night, so like I said, he continued to work with me. And he saw something in me that made him want to invest time in me. He knew the sound he wanted; he just needed a singer to deliver the message with that sound."

Brother Driver also steered Ms. Shelton forthwith back into gospel. "This is what he had asked me, let's go this route. He thought things were getting ready to change around in music, there was a lot of stuff going on in the gospel world. So I said, 'Okay, whichever way it's going, we'll get on the train and ride.' That's what we did."

Get flash player to play to this file

'Am I Asking Too Much?'—Live at Southpaw, Brooklyn, NY, December 8, 2006

Along came Gabriel Roth, in the nascent stages of his Daptone label development, and Ms. Shelton found herself singing a gospel-influenced uptempo song, "Promised Land," on Daptone's second release, The Sugarman Three's Pure Cane Sugar, in 2002. Then came those futile sessions in search of an album for Naomi in 2005 and 2006. Everything clicked, though, on June 20, 2007, at Daptone's House of Soul in Bushwick, Brooklyn, when most of the cuts comprising What Have You Done, My Brother? were laid down on eight-track tape; the tunestack was further fleshed out with a few cuts from the earlier sessions. The songs, whether originals by Roth or covers, skirt the border of gospel and R&B, and that's pretty much how Ms. Shelton prefers it, because she sees a strong connection between the two styles that suits her attitude just fine.

"To be honest about it, I love R&B," she says. "When I look at the R&B world and then at the gospel world, I see that in both there's a story in the songs, and you have to make that story come alive in your own life—I put it with my own life. That's how I relate to a song, that's how I can deliver it. I have to put my ownself into it, because it's always something you're going through or you're gonna face. So I look at the R&B world, it's all about love in my book. They both are telling a story. Yes."

One interesting aspect of the song selection is how it becomes a personal testimony on Ms. Shelton's part. Of Roth/Mann's original songs, she says, "Gabe wrote the songs according to the kind of person he saw in me." The titles alone bespeak someone not preaching a general message of faith to her flock but indeed questioning whether she is coming up short in her own faith, or reaching out for divine guidance in her daily life—"What More Can I Do?," "I'll Take the Long Road," "I Need You To Hold My Hand," "Am I Asking Too Much?," "Lift My Burdens." Those questions are with Ms. Shelton every day as she sets out on her life's mission.

"I always say I don't ever want to get too comfortable, because every day you want to continue to grow more and be better. So every day you wake up and you're looking for a better day than it was yesterday. I say to God, I know I cannot be you, but I want to be more like you. To continue to stay out here and show love, give love, because there's a lot of people out here that wants love. If nothing more than a kind word. I love when I can get down there and work with the audience, touch the audience—we walk around and touch people. When I'm up there on stage and can't move, they know I'm very uncomfortable, because they know I'm a person who likes to get out and feel and touch. Because people want to know somebody cares, and they want to be a part of what you're about. You just can't say, It's all about me, I'm up here and I'm a singer. No. I let them know—you are the cake, and I'm glad you've allowed us to have a slice of it. Exactly. That's what it is."

Get flash player to play to this file

Introducing Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens—EPK promoting the album, What Have You Done, My Brother, features interviews with Naomi Shelton and Brother Cliff Driver 


That Night, That Speech

'We Cannot Walk Alone At This Moment'

Get flash player to play to this file

President-elect Barack Obama, Election Night speech, Grant Park, Chicago (as broadcast on C-Span, 28:31)

Various Artists

Songs of hope, affirmation, unity, the promise of America and spiritual rebirth are the meat and potatoes of this spirited celebration of a new world ushered in by the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land. Half of the 12 tracks are produced (and partly written) by the Grammy winning gospel brothers, Cedric and Victor Caldwell, and are infused with those siblings' command not only of contemporary gospel but also of smooth jazz, pop, R&B and old school funk. The Caldwell tracks—big productions, with strings, orchestra, guitars, drums and soaring, emotional, triumphant voices exulting in the moment—also incorporate snippets from Obama's actual speeches, with the urgent opening track, "This Is Your Cue," taking its cue from the election night speech Obama gave in Grant Park, reproduced in part at the outset before the lyrical message of opportunity ahead unfolds in the declamatory vocals of the powerful Benita Washington. In the swirling, string-rich, pop grandeur of "This Curtain's Raised," Kelly Price and Shirley Murdock offer a special dedication to Michelle Obama in the form of a song reflecting on a new opportunity arriving by dint of destiny, and though the lyric references a lost soul being given another chance, a closing verse clearly describes Mrs. Obama on election night, "behind the curtain" but with momentous opportunity looming. The Potter's House Mass Choir wrecks the house on a surging performance of the Caldwells-penned, Kevin Bond-produced testimony, "A Path In the Sea," on which a young, unidentified female singer wails like the young Aretha Franklin in a stupendous performance fronting the big-voiced choir (a live track, it retains the audience's understandably wild applause at the end of the performance). There are subdued, contemplative moments, too—the spirit of change and hope is beautifully articulated by Jerard Woods on the Caldwells' assertive, "I'm Gonna Make It," another of those songs that addresses God directly but also evokes the optimistic spirit Obama embodies for so many Americans now, regardless of color; and the Williams Brothers use a slow burning, steady funk groove to make a stand for unwavering faith in "Still Here," which catalogues a soul repeatedly 'buked and scorned—"dark days, I've had my share of dark days, but I'm still here/disappointments, I've had so many disappointments, but I'm still here/I made it through another day's journey/God kept me here!"—but standing strong with God to get through the challenges. With a "Pop" Staples-like shimmering electric guitar and a briskly picked acoustic guitar keying the arrangement of "Brothers & Friends," Micah Stampley and Michael O'Brien craft a compelling message about the strength and bond of friendship in overcoming hard times. In a rousing closing track, "Signs of the Times," a superstar lineup of Marvin L. Winans, Michael McDonald and Vanessa Bell Armstrong preach (Winans) and provide vocal ballast on Marc Harris's ruminations on a turbulent world, as a full band and horn section (which includes Jim Horn) cook behind them in Earth, Wind & Fire-style; this litany of social ills Harris doesn't attempt to address with empty sloganeering, but rather lets stand, without hint of resolution—which comes only when the song fades out and President Obama enters, declaring, "America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done, not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for, not with an economy to fix, and cities to rebuild, and farms to save. Not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend. America we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone at this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise, that American promise. And in the words of Scripture, hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess." Yes, we can. —David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024