Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens Interview

by Danielle Kosann


Born into a family of musicians, 66-year-old Naomi Shelton grew up singing gospel with her sisters at churches throughout Alabama. Eventually, she moved to New York, where she spent most of her life performing soul music in Brooklyn nightclubs. Now, more than forty years since her arrival in New York, Naomi recently released her first full length album, "What Have you Done, My Brother?" with her band, Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. Produced and musically directed by Cliff Driver, with former James Brown bassist Fred Thomas and powerful vocals by Edna Johnson, Cynthia Langston and Bobbie Jean Gant, the album testifies to Naomi's deep roots in gospel and soul.

We sat down with Naomi to ask her a few questions about her band's new album and what motivates her as a performer.

You must be so excited about your new album. I know you've been doing this a long time and this is your first album. How does it compare to what you've done in the past? How does it feel to finally release it?
Well, we had two CDs before this, but this is the first on this record label [Daptone Records]. It was a dream I had years ago—and I knew I was going to make it. But, all these years went by before [we made it] because it just wasn't the time. I had to wait for my time.

You and the legendary pianist Cliff Driver collaborated on this album, but have been performing together for a long time, if I'm not mistaken. How did that relationship come about?
I was the house singer at The Night Cap in Brooklyn, and whatever band came in to play would back me up. So Driver came in one day, and that's how we connected. Then we ran into each other a few years later. He was inspired by my voice and we started rehearsing together and he got my voice together, helped me project, and we got a few gigs. We separated a few times but always stayed in touch.


Your music is deeply rooted in both gospel and soul. Who and what inspires you? Anyone in particular?
Sam Cooke, The Blind Boys of Alabama…I didn't really have a lot of other people I knew when I was coming up. Those were the majors. Aretha Franklin, the original Davis Sisters…

Read the rest of the interview after the jump.

When I watch you perform, it's pretty clear it's in your blood. Did you ever want to do anything else?
People ask me that but you know, singing, that's what I know how to do. I claim it. My mother and father were singers; I was around it all my life. If it's in your roots you know, in your foundation, you never steer away from it. And I knew my day was going to come.

Well, you're an amazing performer. You made me want to get up and dance and that rarely happens. How do you connect to the audience in such a powerful way?
It's a natural thing. You've gotta be sincere about it. A lot of people can put on a big front, but it's not natural. If you're all wrapped up in yourself, you can't connect. But if you give your love to people, they feel something and we can all connect. People give me my energy – that is what inspires and motivates me; that's what makes my life. Once I'm out there with the audience, I can work miracles.


Well it's amazing. And you are 66! I've seen 20-year-olds perform with a quarter of your energy.
Gabe, our producer, says, “Don't tell anyone you're 66.†I don't care, I am! That's why I love it! Thank God I'm still moving and doing.

I have to ask, those headpieces you wear are awesome. I've never seen you without one. Is that your signature?
You know, there's a story behind those. When I was growing up my dad always wore the meanest hat in Alabama. He was known for it. And I always said when I get to be a big girl I'm going to wear a big hat like my father. That's how I get it going on!

Your genre of music is incredibly powerful. How do you think it resonates now in our culture?
That's the whole thing with it. It came at the time when everything important is going on. To come out at such a perfect time, that's all we can strive for. We have powerful songs and they just touch souls, reach people and give love.

You can find Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens performing weekly on Friday nights at Fat Cat and opening for Burning Spear in Prospect Park on 30 July 2009. "What Have You Done, My Brother?" is available on iTunes and Amazon.