July 22, 2015 News » Cover Story

Soul stirrer 

Naomi Shelton brings her gospel truths to Blues Under The Bridge

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The Lord moves in mysterious ways, and one of them is through music. Preacher's daughter Aretha Franklin recorded hymns like "Yield Not To Temptation" before moving on to the more sensual "A Natural Woman." Meanwhile, Sam Cooke was parting ways with his group The Soul Stirrers, sliding from the sacred "Lead Me Jesus" to the profane "Whole Lotta Woman."

Naomi Davis Shelton, this year's Blues Under The Bridge headliner, was in her late teens, living in a New York City rooming house, when her two heroes began shifting into the secular realm. It was the late 1950s, and the young singer had recently moved north after graduating from high school in Midway, Alabama, where she'd been singing gospel with her sisters since the age of six.

At night, she would perform R&B in rundown New York nightclubs. On Sunday mornings, she'd be singing gospel at church, something she still does today.

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For Shelton, there would be no overnight success. The singer remained virtually unknown outside New York until 1999, when Desco Records' Gabe Roth saw her perform with James Brown bassist Fred Thomas in a Manhattan nightclub. A '60s soul-music devotee, Roth was just 25 years old at the time, but his label had already gained worldwide recognition for reclaiming forgotten artists like Sharon Jones and Lee Fields, recording them on a Tascam 16-track tape deck, and releasing the results as 7-inch vinyl singles.

Desco would put out two Shelton singles before going out of business in 2000. After that, the singer devoted her energies to the more churchified pursuits of Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens.

But fate intervened once again five years later when Desco was resurrected as Daptone, its stable of musicians lending soulful expertise to recordings by Charles Bradley and Amy Winehouse.

In 2009, the label released Shelton's first full-length album, What Have You Done, My Brother?, which led to international tours as well as appearances at the Apollo Theater and Lincoln Center. A 2014 follow-up, Cold World, coaxed more critical hosannas: Paste described the album as "old-school Stax with church music for anyone who'd dare to listen," while Mojo declared that it "moves musical mountains with joyous funk, ecstatic hand-clappers, and fine redemption blues."

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Shelton's local appearance this weekend carries on the tradition of past Blues Under The Bridge headliners — including The Holmes Brothers, Koko Taylor, and The Slide Brothers — who started out in gospel music before broadening their repertoires. Last week, while touring through Europe, the 72-year-old singer made time to answer questions via email about playing in rundown nightclubs, recording with musicians half her age, and moving between gospel and secular music.

Indy: From what I understand, you've always sung gospel music, no matter what kind of music you were playing professionally at the time. What was it like to play R&B and blues clubs at night, and then go sing in church the next morning?

Shelton: It was always very natural for me. I approach gospel and secular music in the same way, in that it's all soulful music that I can sing to express myself.

I grew up on gospel, but I've always loved performing R&B live. Thankfully folks like Sam Cooke opened the doors for gospel singers to cross over to secular music. I feel blessed that I can move freely between the two genres.

You did some work with Desco Records, back when they were putting out those great singles in the '90s. Were you surprised to run across such young musicians and producers who were devoted to a sound that was popular before they were even born? And what, if anything, did they do to update the sound?

At that time I was performing multiple gigs a week at a club in Brooklyn. That's how I met Gabe Roth. Our bass player at the time — who still is — was Fred Thomas from The J.B.'s. A mutual friend had told Gabe that he needed to check out the woman singing with Fred Thomas' band.

Well, I guess that was the start of everything. The session went really well, and the musicians were great. I don't get hung up on age and things like that. It was a very professional atmosphere, so I just went with the flow.

I haven't heard those recordings in quite some time, but I remember being really happy with the outcome. If it feels good, it's authentic.

I'm guessing that Daptone artists like yourself, Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones have toured more in the last decade than in all the previous ones combined. Is that something you ever wanted or expected to do?

I just love to perform. If it's in a dirty old club in Brooklyn, or a festival stage in Spain, it's all the same to me. The more smiling faces, the better, but I don't need to play in front of thousands of people to be fulfilled. I give it all I have every time I take the stage. Traveling and touring is just a nice perk to being a singer.

In terms of both music and the business surrounding it, how optimistic are you about where things are going?

I'm just blessed to be able to do what I do at my age. I try to take it one day at a time, and I thank God for all he's given me.

I interviewed Clarence Fountain [from The Five Blind Boys of Alabama] years ago, and he was adamant that Sam Cooke was wrong to move from gospel into secular music. Have there been any specific instances where you've encountered that kind of sentiment within the gospel community?

Yes, you'll always encounter some folks who think what you're doing is wrong, and that goes for any profession. All I can do is follow my heart, and try to share as much joy as possible.

I don't worry too much about what other people think. I just stay in my own lane and keep things positive.


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