If you haven’t heard soul songstress Naomi Shelton, do yourself a favor and stop reading
this article for a sec. Seriously, put the mag down and go do a quick YouTube search of her music. Check out the acoustic version of “What Have You Done, My Brother?” and the tune “Heaven Is Mine” from her latest release.
Shelton is backed by the Gospel Queens, a three-piece powerhouse in their own right, to make up Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens. The group’s new record, Cold World, came out this summer on Daptone Records — the band’s first album since their debut five years earlier called What Have You Done, My Brother?
At age 71, Shelton got a late start to the music industry — a very late start. In fact, she was in her 60s before she recorded anything — originals or covers.
“I grew up in a very religious family. There was always music being played,” Shelton says of her humble and spiritual beginnings.
She continues, “Me and my sisters, we would go every Sunday morning to the radio station in Tuskegee [Alabama], which my dad built. We would go and broadcast every Sunday morning at 6 o’clock, then come back home and have our breakfast on the table, then get ready for church where we’d be all day long.”
The songs on a Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens record are tinged with religion, social issues and a rather pessimistic yet hopeful view of the world. But you don’t have to align yourself with God to enjoy them.
Pitchfork, a comprehensive website of what’s happening on the independent music scene, gave Cold World a 7.3 out of 10. That kind of praise doesn’t phase Shelton — she’s less diva and more divine.
“I just keep a positive attitude. And I do thank God that he helped me rid all of my vices, which is drinking and smoking,” Shelton says. “So I just drink my juice and just take care of my voice and just keep a positive attitude. If you have a negative attitude, you’re going to have a negative voice. If you keep a positive attitude, you keep up with a very happy voice.”
Shelton grew up in the South, but has lived most of her adult life in Brooklyn, New York. She’s always been a singer — mostly gospel and soul — but didn’t join a record label or get into the industry side of things until about 15 years ago, when she signed with Daptone and joined The Gospel Queens, a trio comprising Bobbie Jean Gant, Edna Johnson and Angel McKenzie.
“We work together as a package with me as the lead singer,” Shelton explains. “Our whole thing is, ‘Keep your head up and hold onto your dreams.’”
After recording their debut album (Shelton’s first recording ever), the ladies hit the road — playing some of the most prestigious festivals in the world including Bonnaroo, Monterey Jazz Festival, Montreal Pop and Ottawa Bluesfest.
“This day and age, you have to learn not to get too comfortable with one thing in life because life will just pass you by,” explains Shelton. “So you have to have a little of this, a little of the other. That will keep you motivated and keep you going with what you have to do.”
When it comes to putting together a Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens record, the team at Daptone — specifically label founder Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Mann) — chooses the songs and puts Shelton behind the mic.
“Music has changed quite a bit with hip-hop this and the other. But not so much that music has [completely] changed. I just think that people are doing what they’re comfortable and happy with doing, which is all kinds of music,” Shelton says. “I do what I like and I like what I’m doing.”
Shelton will turn 72 in the next few weeks, but there’s no indication that she or the Gospel Queens will be slowing down. They’ll continue touring the world and already have plans for a third Daptone release.
“I’m not planning on retiring no time soon,” she says. “But when I do retire, I’m going to keep myself active and not going to just sit around — I’ll volunteer myself to anyone who needs a little music going.”