PUTNEY—Next Stage Arts Project presents Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens on Saturday, Sept. 14, at 7:30 p.m., returning to Putney after rocking the house for sold-out crowds at their two previous appearances.
Formed in 1999, Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens’ music is hardcore soul and R&B, with deep roots in gospel.
Shelton’s husky, expressive voice contains shades of both James Brown and Sam Cooke and, in fact, her bass player is often Fred Thomas, who spent more than 30 years with the James Brown group and played on the recordings of many of Brown’s hits. Thomas’ bass is considered one of the most sampled instruments in hip-hop and rap.
Shelton became internationally known late in life, after releasing two recordings on the Daptone label, What Have You Done, My Brother? (2006) and Cold World (2014). Daptone is the same label that recorded Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and that also owns the studio in which Amy Winehouse recorded her breakout hit “Back To Black,” accompanied by the Dap Kings.
Daptone’s magic continued to work on Naomi Shelton, and after the group’s first release, the group went from playing small clubs and churches around New York City to touring the world and appearing at festivals internationally, including Bonnaroo, The Ottawa Blues Festival, and the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival. The Times of London said about the group “Shelton is delivering whip-smart soul with the energy of someone a third of her age.”
Originally from Alabama, Shelton has been singing since the age of 6. Both of her sisters sing, as did her parents and her grandmother, who also played piano.
Shelton started singing professionally at the age of 21, and after spending a short time in Miami, she moved to New York in 1961, settling in Brooklyn where she began singing in nightclubs.
People took notice very quickly. They would hear her from outside the clubs and, believing it was James Brown, they would come in for the show.
“They thought it was a man they were hearing,” Shelton said with a laugh. “Then they’d see me, and they’d be shocked.”
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Brooklyn in those days had a very active R&B scene, and Shelton, using her maiden name Naomi Davis, became a house singer at a club called the Nite Cap. Many of the shows were revues, with multiple performers appearing in succession, sometimes preceded by a comedian, and then a jam would occur afterwards.
Next door to the Nite Cap was a club called The Seville, where Millie Jackson, who went on to have many hit records, was a house singer.
As a teenager in the 1960s, I would occasionally go to the Nite Cap. Musicians from top bands, such as The Muddy Waters Blues Band and James Brown’s band would play there when they were off the road.
It was a time when white kids were beginning to make the trek into black neighborhoods to see for themselves the great music that was being made there. In a certain way, music was leading the way to further integration of the races.
While I do not remember specifically seeing Naomi Davis sing, I do remember a number of female singers who sang there regularly, and I’m guessing she was one of them.
In the serendipitous way things sometimes happen in life, around 2001, I got to talking about music to the owner of a bagel shop in my neighborhood on Hudson Street in New York City. He told me he managed a gospel group that I might be interested in, and gave me their schedule.
So I went to see the group at a place called Smalls, around the corner from my apartment. Entering the club that night was like walking into the path of a speeding freight train.
On stage, three classy women in red dresses swayed and belted out harmonies while Naomi Shelton, dressed in furs and jewels, danced out front, grunting and shouting like a female James Brown.
Behind them the band, led by the late Cliff Driver, a blind keyboard player and arranger, chugged along with unwavering intensity.
“I was never a sweet singer,” says Shelton. “I’ve got to belt it out — let it all out.”
When she performs, she likes to pull the audience into her music and lift them up.
“Anybody can get up to sing,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean they reach out and touch somebody. I am a people’s people. I love people. When I sing, it’s ‘let’s all enjoy it together.’”