Once upon a time, back in the P.C. (pre-COVID) era, every New Yorker had their go-to spots for eatin’, drinkin’, and shakin’ a leg. Places you’d religiously visit, that you loved so much you might be torn about sharing them, fearing that the Hipster Horde (in which, if you looked closely enough in that group selfie, you just might recognize yourself) could descend and make everything too cool for locals school. The Fat Cat, located next to the Christopher Street subway stop in Greenwich Village, was and wasn’t one of those places, pending the time and day you descended into the basement venue. The joint would often be crammed with beer-drinking co-eds more interested in slouching around on musty couches or smacking balls — pong or billiard — than paying mind to some tired musicians wedged along a dimly lit wall trying their best to entertain.
But for nearly a decade on Friday nights at 9 p.m. sharp, when blind Chitlin’ Circuit vet and bandleader Cliff Driver would hit a few thick chords on the house Hammond organ, thus setting in motion fifty minutes (maybe fifty-five if the tip jar was feelin’ it) of gloriously greasy gospel delivered by Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, folks’ souls took notice. Graced with a vocal register more subwoofer than tweeter, Mrs. Shelton — often adorned in glittery Big Apple cap and equally gilded sneakers and buttressed by three harmonizing Queens and a four-piece backup band (five, if you counted the adjacent subway line) — barked, rumbled, and rolled through traditional and original numbers slathered in funky R&B that’d have locals and tourists alike muttering, “OMG.” It was — guaranteed — the best-damned $3 spent that week. And if you just couldn’t wait to feel the love again you could catch them on Sunday, in some brownstone basement church in Harlem or Crown Heights, belting the same gutbucket praise to the Lord (in front of a much-better-dressed, mostly African American crowd, mind you). “I’m not a sweet singer, I’m a hard singer,” Shelton once told me. “’Cause I got a big mouth.”
The library of sacred and secular music is crammed with so many unwritten books about and unrecorded songs by the countless big-mouthed woulda/coulda/shouldas. But when Naomi Shelton died, at the age of 78, on February 17 in Brooklyn, no one could claim her big voice was missing from that analog card catalog. Naomi Virginia Davis was born on October 14, 1942, outside Midway, Alabama (population midway to 1,000). Not knowing she’d have to wait sixty more years for her album debut, she declared herself a singer as a six-year-old, and every Sunday at 6 a.m. sang gospel along with two of her six siblings — sisters Hattie and Ann — at the radio station in Tuskegee that her father helped build. Inspired by the success of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, as well as the Blind Boys of Alabama, Naomi eventually left Midway after high school and headed north to big-mouthed Brooklyn, in search of that dream gig. By day that gig was housekeeping, and by night she’d take the 41 bus to sing at neighborhood spots like the Night Cap on Flatbush Avenue.
“I met Naomi around ’67 or ’68 while playing in Cliff Driver’s band at the Night Cap,” recalls bassist Fred Thomas, who would go on to replace Bootsy Collins in James Brown’s sonic circus as well as sing with Shelton for fifty years. “She was strictly singing R&B and soul then, not gospel. Her voice sounded tough.” She also caught Driver’s ear; he had worked closely with and recorded such singers as Baby Washington. “She had a different type of voice,” he told me before he died, in 2016. “She had that raspy sound, like Mavis Staples.”
Shelton preferred the male voices of Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, however — “hard” voices that demanded attention, which she got more of after Gabe Roth stumbled into Flannery’s one night to learn a few licks from his idol Fred Thomas, who happened to be accompanied by Shelton and Driver, and convinced the latter duo to record a few 45s. “Naomi has that raw gospel sound, that phrasing,” Roth told me once. “I don’t know if there’re any singers that can sing like her.” Roth’s Bushwick-based label Daptone Records was starting to make sonic ripples due to another local heavyweight, Sharon Jones. And although Shelton would eventually record two full-length gospel albums — 2009’s What Have You Done, My Brother? and 2014’s Cold World — she never matched the sales or widespread recognition of her label-mates Jones and Charles “Screaming Eagle of Soul” Bradley. Even so, she was the queen — so respected was Naomi that the late Jones, at her own sold-out 50th birthday concert, sang backup for her.
“Naomi has a unique ability to literally throw love out of her mouth at people,” says Roth. “When she sings, everybody around literally just feels better.” No more evident was this gift than during a public radio interview in which a troubled listener called in. “I have been suicidal for two weeks,” she informed Naomi. “And in listening to your song, I feel like I’ve got something to live for.”
“My whole thing was if I could just reach out and touch peoples,” Shelton says in the interview, “Then that is money in my pocket already.” And continue to touch her music did, as Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens traveled throughout the boroughs, the U.S., Canada, and Europe, even after myositis landed her in a wheelchair. Over the past three years, while the disease slowly weakened her body, you could still see her energetic bi-monthly gospel brunch on Sundays at Bed-Stuy’s Bar Lunatico, right up until COVID-19 pulled the plug.
Naomi Shelton wasn’t pure; like all of us, she had a skeleton or two lurking in that proverbial closet. She could curse you out like a woman from Bullock County who countenanced no bull. But if you had the chance to feel the grit of her voice sand your troubles into momentary dust, to field her questions about you and your family, to witness her laughing harder than a Muppet, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking she was. At her show, when she grabbed your hand and squeezed, and urged you to squeeze that of the stranger standing next to you—you did it because she made you care. And when she sang, “What is this? Got me feeling’ so gooood, right now?” there was only one answer: It is you, Naomi. It is you. ❖