Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens – What Have You Done, My Brother (2009)

FrontCover1Sanctified soul sister Naomi Shelton rose to prominence in her late sixties as a member of Daptone records’ retro-rooted soul/funk stable, along with her backing group the Gospel Queens, but her pedigree as a performer of both sacred and secular music stretches back much farther than that. Born Naomi Davis Shelton, in Midway, Alabama, she began singing in her Baptist church at an early age. After graduating high school in 1958, she moved first to New York, then spent time in Florida, where the greats of the burgeoning soul movement — including Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Lou Rawls — inspired her to try her hand at singing secular R&B; she soon became a regular winner at a local talent show. In 1963 she settled back in New York and landed a regular gig playing three sets a night at Brooklyn’s Night Cap. There she met pianist Cliff Driver, who would become her musical mentor and co-conspirator, on and off, and eventually, some three decades later, the musical director of the Gospel Queens. That group came together in the late ’90s, by which point Driver had been off the scene for nearly 20 years, although Shelton never stopped singing, in both clubs (as Naomi Davis) and churches. In 1999, Driver got back in touch and invited her to become the new lead singer in a vocal group he’d been working with, and they began performing around New York, soon catching the attention of Gabriel Roth, then the head of Desco Records. Roth invited the pair to a recording session with the Desco house band, which yielded the “41st Street Breakdown” 45 (credited to Naomi Davis & the Knights of Forty First Street) and a couple of sought-after unreleased tracks. When Desco folded and Daptone arose in its wake, Davis remained in the fold, appearing live as part of the “Daptone Super-Soul Revue” contributing her vocals to a song by the Sugarman Three that was issued as a single, but it took nearly a decade for before Naomi & Gospel Queens got around to making a recording of their own.

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2009 saw the release of What Have You Done, My Brother?, a full-length arranged by Driver, featuring members of the Dap-Tones, and split between versions of gospel classics and soulful originals penned by Roth under his Bosco Mann alias. Shelton & the Gospel Queens toured extensively in support of the album, including appearances at the The Monterey Jazz Festival, Bonnaroo, and Montreal Pop. In 2014, Davis, Driver, and Bosco Mann returned to Daptone, laying down a dozen new songs live in the studio. The results were released in July 2014 as Cold World.

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Daptone Records, arguably the epicenter of the 2000s funk/soul resurgence, has launched records by retro-styled revivalists (the Budos Band, the Mighty Imperials), reissues of vintage-era obscurities (Bob & Gene), and even reissues of revivalists (the Daktaris, the Poets of Rhythm), but for a long time the label lacked another act that could compare with its flagship star, Sharon Jones, a bona-fide throwback soul artist with roots in the music’s heyday who’s still very much musically active today. Enter Naomi Shelton, a commanding and full-throated vocalist whose musical identity stems equally from her churchgoing rural Alabama childhood in the ’40s and ’50s and her tenure on the New York club scene in the ’60s and beyond. Like Jones, hers is an undeniable, inimitable voice, a rich and gritty alto brimming with authority and hard-earned authenticity, but also an unmistakable sense of compassion, grounded by a forthright, soberly pragmatic sensibility. What Have You Done, My Brother?, the first full-length Shelton has cut in her long and varied career, is a gospel record, to be sure — from the reedy organ notes that open the proceedings to the inspiring lyrical message of uplift and righteous struggle, bolstered by the sturdy and stirring backing harmonies of the Gospel Queens — but it’s a soul record, too, just as obviously, and one that bears many of the hallmarks of Jones’ Daptone sides.

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Along with a number of traditional and classic gospel numbers, most familiarly Sam Cooke’s timeless “A Change Is Gonna Come” (which sounds as affecting as ever, and more personally informed than usual, in Shelton’s relatively unadorned take), she’s blessed here with a handful of top-notch original tunes by Daptone ringleader Bosco Mann (aka Gabriel Roth) which, true to form, are practically impossible to distinguish from the older songs — although the socially conscious, mock-deferential “Am I Asking Too Much?,” which is rather atypically sardonic, does feel particularly like one of Jones’ groovy struts. Roth also serves as producer and plays bass, alongside fellow Dap-Kings Tommy Brenneck and Homer Steinweiss, while Jones herself is one of several supplemental background vocalists, in addition to the Queens (two of whom take turns on lead vocals.) Suffice it to say, fans of Jones and/or the label won’t be too surprised, and certainly shouldn’t be disappointed, by what they hear here, even those who wouldn’t typically be inclined to listen to a gospel record. And, thanks perhaps to the understated influence of the band’s arranger and musical director Cliff Driver, or to Shelton’s unaffected sincerity, or simply to the directness, optimism, and relevance of the music’s spiritual message, this set is blissfully free of the occasionally over-earnest schtickiness that can sometimes creep into Daptone’s more retro-minded output: this is real, and this is righteous. ((by K. Ross Hoffman)

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Personnel:
Tommy Brenneck (guitar)
Cliff Driver (piano)
Brian Floody (drums)
Jimmy Hill (organ)
Bosco Mann (bass)
Naomi Shelton (vocals)
Homer Steinweiss (drums)
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The Gospel Queens:
Edna Johnson – Bobbie Gant – Cynthia Langston
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background vocals:
Jamie Kozyra – Sharon Jones – Judy Bennett – Tamika Jones

Bosco MannTracklist:
01.What Is This (Morganfield) 3.13
02. What More Can I Do? (Barnes) 4.23
03. I’ll Take The Long Road (Mann) 2.56
04. What Have You Done (Mann) 3.46
05. I Need You To Hold My Hand (Williams) 3.21
06. Trouble In My Way (Jeter) 2.55
07. Jordan River (Traditional) 2.31
08. He Knows My Heart (Traditional) 2.38
09. Am I Asking Too Much? (Mann) 4.02
10. By Your Side (Mann) 2.53
11. Lift My Burdens (Mann) 3.05
12. A Change Is Gonna Come (Cooke) 3.49

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1 thought on “Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens – What Have You Done, My Brother (2009)

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