By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
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Sunday morning happens every Friday night in the West Village, where a faithful congregation assembles at the Fat Cat for another soul-redeeming revival with Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens. In a large, low-ceilinged basement suggesting a '60s suburban rec room, sixtysomething Shelton and company amble past casually strewn thrift-store sofas to the spot where the stage would be, if this venue had a stage. While pool balls clack and chess games rage on nearby, blind organist/bandleader Cliff Driver is led to his stool as the rest of the band—including former James Brown bassist Fred Thomas and Shelton's three backup belters—sets up in front of a sign reading, "Featuring the music of [blank] and his orchestra." Before the evening's over, Shelton's eager flock will find themselves fully rocked by the gloriously greasy groove of some old-school gospel-soul testifying.
Alabama-born Shelton, a Brooklynite for the last 32 years, first began playing with Driver on the 1960s NYC soul/r&b circuit, when his mile-long résumé already included work with Little Willie John, Ruth Brown, and countless others. Fast-forward to 1999, bassist/entrepreneur Gabriel Roth, then running indie r&b label Desco, came to hear them at Flannery's on 14th Street because his hero, Thomas, was on the gig. Soon, Roth convinced them to cut a Desco single, and a few years later, when Shelton and Driver abandoned nightclubs for churches and created the Gospel Queens, they tapped him to play bass whenever Thomas was off touring with the Godfather of Soul.
Cut to the present. Roth is king of Daptone Records' neo-funk empire, producing and playing with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the Budos Band, and others, while shepherding Naomi & the Queens along to cult status via their Fat Cat residency and now, the group's Daptone debut, a funky fender-bender called What Have You Done, My Brother?. "What people really hear from us is the gospel sound, but with the nightclub beat," Shelton assesses. "It's like the everything bagel—you throw in a little of this and a little of that."
Her bandleader/mentor Driver feels right at home with this mix. "I build my music around her style of singing," he explains. "She's got a blues and gospel sound, and that's what my music is, so we blend with each other." On her way up to the microphone at the Fat Cat, Shelton—resplendent in a silver-sequined hat and matching sneakers—greets audience members like old friends. Unleashing a mix of old gospel tunes and new "message" songs written mostly by Roth, Shelton's raspy roar fills the club with a jolt of angelic electricity. She works the room, grasping listeners' hands, back-slapping, high-fiving, and coaxing onlookers out of their seats for a little sanctified shuffle. All the while, the Queens make like a cross between the Raelettes and the Caravans, while Driver masterminds the Stax-goes-to-church feel.
"This is where we've been for the past three years," Shelton says later. "Each week, it's getting better and better. . . . If you aren't doing something right, nobody's gonna want you there for three years. It's like a man being with a woman: It ain't how many gigs you can get, but can you hold some? It's all about the people. The whole thing is all about love. . . . Wherever I can go to give love, if I can just touch one soul."
Having seen Shelton's mission in action, Roth concurs. "She really lifts people up," he says. "That's the thing about the Fat Cat, people being able to go down there and get their dose after a hard week. Functionally, it's the same thing as people going to church once a week. . . . She's into lifting people's spirits and spreading love."
Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens play Joe's Pub May 27