In the six years since the release of their last full-length record, Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens have toured extensively, playing main stages at some of the most prestigious festivals in the world, including Bonnaroo, The Monterey Jazz Festival, Montreal Pop, and The Ottawa Blues Festival. Though seasoned veterans, these last years of touring played a crucial role in the creation of the songs that would become the forthcoming album Cold World. With Gabriel Roth (Bosco Mann) at the helm, Naomi and company went into the studio (add date), and cut twelve inspired new songs live to eight-track tape.
Though the music is most unapologetically gospel, most of the lyrics on the record would fall under what could be called “message songs”. That is, music containing uplifting spiritual messages, reminiscent of the more inspirational moments of The Staple Singers or Curtis Mayfield. However, the relationship between gospel and soul music does not need to be discussed again here. It is as plainly and naturally inherent in these grooves as it is in the singer’s every word and motion. There is no one alive today that has a voice or spirit more capable of lifting an audience than Naomi Shelton. On this record, the grooves are pure Soul. ‘Sinner’ sits atop Side One as a dark welcome into the soulful stomping world of the Queens. They flow effortlessly from the Sunday stomp of ‘Get Up, Child’ to the country-twinged swagger of ‘One Day’ and ‘I Earned Mine’; from the river’s edge lilt of ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘I Don’t Know’ to the energetic boogie of ‘Thank You Lord’, ‘It’s A Cold, Cold World’, and ‘Bound for the Promised Land’. At the heart and soul of the band’s sound lie Naomi’s raw, gritty vocals, commanding attention with every heart-wrenching syllable. Veteran Queens Edna Johnson and Bobbie Jean Gant – who have been singing with Naomi for the better part of 20 years – joined rookie Queen Angel McKenzie – who joined the group in the winter of 2013 – to provide perfect answers to Naomi’s calls. The band, whose ages range from 17 to 82, is led by Brother Cliff Driver with a musical pedigree that includes working with legends Baby Washington, Little Willie John, King Curtis, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Solomon Burke. On bass guitar is the infamous Fred Thomas, who spent the better part of his musical career backing up The Godfather of Soul himself, Mr. James Brown – in the eponymous JB’s. Rounding out the group are Jimmy Hill, who played alongside Wilson Pickett in the late 60’s, guitar whiz Max Shrager, who at the tender age of 17 composed two of the album’s tracks, and Mikey Post on drums, who spends his 9-to-5’s helping run the business at Daptone HQ. Like many gospel and rhythm and blues singers, Naomi Shelton learned to sing at an early age in the very church where she was baptized in Midway Alabama. Alongside her two older sisters, she performed every Sunday morning on a regular radio broadcast as the Davis Sisters. As a young girl Naomi was inspired by the southern gospel quartets like Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, and The Five Blind Boys of Alabama. In 1960, Naomi moved to Florida and it was in these first years away from home when she discovered the blossoming sound of soul in the voices of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Lou Rawls. With this newfound soulful feeling, Naomi made her first foray into secular music by singing in a local talent show where she quickly and regularly began to take first prize. In 1963, Naomi moved to Brooklyn and took a gig as the house singer in a little place called the Nite Cap on Flatbush Ave. It was here where she met her musical director and lifelong friend Cliff Driver. Cliff hadn’t come from a musical family, but when he arrived at the Kentucky School for the blind – after a tragic hunting accident – music was all around him. It was here that Cliff began honing what would become his classic honky tonk piano style. In 1947 at the age of 16, Cliff moved to the Bronx and quickly found work as a musician, eventually (in 1956) releasing his first record under the name The Cleftones on Neptune records. The song ‘The Masquerade Is Over’ has become a much coveted 78rpm record in today’s record collecting world. Fast forward to 1999 and enter long-time original Queen, Edna Johnson, whose storied career started up in Harlem singing back-up for touring acts like Lloyd Price and Eddie Floyd. Edna was a singer in Cliff’s group The Queens, and when the Queens were in the market for a new lead, it was Edna who suggested Cliff’s old friend Naomi Shelton. Naomi had never stopped singing both in church (as Naomi Shelton) and on the club scene (as Naomi Davis) and jumped at the chance to work with Cliff. Thus began Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. Later in 1999, Cliff and Naomi were doing a club set with legendary bassist Fred Thomas at Flannery’s on 14th St. in Manhattan, when then Desco label man Gabe Roth approached the group about doing some recordings. The fruit of those records were two deep funk singles that became instant classics on the bourgeoning funk scene of the time. Desco Records closed its doors forever in 2000, but Gabe Roth along with Sugarman 3 sax-man Neal Sugarman promptly started a new label – Daptone Records. In 2002 Naomi sang lead on a track for the Sugarman 3’s album Pure Cane Sugar, but it wasn’t till 2005 that Mr. Driver came back into the picture and hooked up with Roth to record a full length NSGQ record. It took three sets of sessions over three years before Roth and Driver finally found the right combination of singers, songs, and musicians to make what would become the first offering from NSGQ – What Have You Done, My Brother? In support of the release of NSGQ’s Sophomore LP, Cold World in July of this year, Naomi and the Queens are planning to tour extensively. To Quote Naomi, “My occupation is singing. My other occupation is going out in the field, helping others whatever way I can.”