Like many gospel and rhythm and blues singers, Naomi Davis Shelton learned to sing at an early age in the very church where she was baptized. Her parents were very dedicated and involved members of Mt. Coney Baptist Church in Midway, Alabama, and by age six, she was already singing there alongside her two older sisters, Hattie Mae and Annie Ruth. Her father was a designer who had built some of the radio studios out in Tuskegee, and every Sunday morning all through high school, the Davis Sisters would sing on a regular half-hour broadcast from one of the very studios their father built. As a little girl, Naomi was inspired by the southern gospel quartets like Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
“Those were pretty much my mentors. I was inspired by their music – the spiritual tone they had in their voice. They wasn’t doing a whole lot of hollering and stuff, they was just outright singing. During them years we weren’t around a whole lot of big time people singing. It was a small little town. My father and mother kept us very busy, with church affairs – every Sunday going places singing, just me and my sisters. So we pretty much had our own little style going as the Davis Sisters of Alabama.”
Following in the steps of her older sisters, Naomi left Alabama directly after her high school graduation in 1958. She joined Annie Ruth in New York, living in a rooming house and working private duty with a family in Hempstead, Long Island. However, she was not happy there, and in 1959, when her mother fell sick she returned to Alabama. In 1960 she left again, this time to join Hattie Mae in Florida, where she found work as a nanny in Miami Beach.
It was these first years away from home when she discovered the blossoming sound of soul in the voices of Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and Lou Rawls. This new sound would be a fresh inspiration, and would have a lasting impression on Naomi’s gospel-rooted approach to soul music.
With this newfound soulful feeling, Naomi made her first foray into secular music in Florida, singing rhythm and blues in the Opalacka talent show on Thursday nights. She began bringing home first place prize money every week and soon got up the nerve to try her luck over at the hipper, jazzier talent shows over at St. John Lounge. Still underage, she would don sunglasses, hats, and extra make-up in order to get in the door and mingle with St. John’s older, classier clientele. It wasn’t long before she began taking all of the first place prize money home from there as well. However, her daytime work was not paying well, and in 1963 Naomi moved back to New York, where she had landed a job taking care of another family in Hempstead, Long Island.
She moved into an apartment near the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a friend and began sitting in with bands at local clubs, settling into a gig as the house singer at a little place called the Night Cap on Flatbush Avenue. At this point Naomi was working constantly: working for herself as a household technician during the day, and doing three sets a night, seven days a week down at the club. It was there at the Night Cap where she would meet the man who would later become her producer, mentor, and friend for life.
Cliff Driver and his band had just come off the road backing Baby Washington, and had taken a job as the house band at the Night Cap. Cliff took an instant liking to Naomi’s voice. “I liked her cause she had a different type voice – a raspy sound like Mavis Staples.” They worked together for only a few months before Cliff left and another band came in to replace him. Naomi stayed on at the Night Cap for a couple years before moving to the Bronx to join another R&B band that had a resident gig for the summer at the Spring Hill Club up in the Catskills. The next several years would see the two of them traveling separate paths – Naomi fronting different bands, Cliff backing different singers – occasionally crossing paths back at the Night Cap, or when Cliff would call Naomi to fill in for another singer. Naomi spent the seventies and eighties singing with R&B bands in clubs all over the New York area, but throughout her career she never stopped singing gospel, returning to Greater Crossroads Baptist Church in Brooklyn every Sunday, where she sings and emcees programs to this day.
Cliff hadn’t come from a musical family, but when he arrived at the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville as a young man, he found music all around him. Though his first instrument was trombone, his music courses required that he learn all of the instruments, and after he began to take a specific interest in arranging, he eventually switched to the piano as his main instrument. In 1947, at the tender age of sixteen, Cliff moved to the Bronx, and joined up with Chick Chanifield’s Band. Like all of the bands Cliff would play with in the late forties, Chanifield’s was a dance band, playing the big band hits of the day out of music books. While the other musicians were reading down the charts, Cliff had to learn quickly to follow along by ear.
During the day, Cliff attended the Lighthouse for the Blind on 59th Street, where he studied woodwork and other trades along with his music classes. Aside from learning to build chairs and make belts, it was through the Lighthouse that he was able to secure a much-needed union card that enabled him to get better work as a musician.
At eighteen, he struck out on his own, leading his band in places like the Savoy and the Harlem Club in Manhattan. His first influences included Ray Charles, and singers Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. “They all had different styles. I liked each one. I said I’ll take a little bit of that, a little bit of that, and I’ll put a little bit of me. That’s what I did.”
Over the next few decades Cliff led and played in countless Rhythm and Blues bands. He led Charley Moore and the Honkytonks, played with Carl Earskins’ Band, and even ventured into Latin music as the piano player for the great Johnny Ortega’s Band.
Sometime around 1956, he started cutting sides for Neptune Records behind vocal groups like the Devours and the Hearts, as well his own group, the Cleftones, with whom he cut ‘The Masquerade is Over’. Under his own name, he put out instrumentals like ‘Juicy Fruit’, ‘Drive On’, ‘Driver’s Roll’, and ‘Crazy Hot’.
In the mid-fifties he moved to Brooklyn and played with Little Rockin’ Willie (the band he would later lead behind Naomi at the Night Cap in the early sixties,) as well as baritone saxophonist Johnny “Rough House” Green. It was around this time Cliff took a young singer from the Hearts named Baby Washington into the studio and produced her first solo sessions. They would have a hit together on Neptune Records with ‘The Bells’ in 1959, and go on to record ‘The Time’, ‘Workout’, ‘Never Could Be Mine’, and ‘Nobody Cares’ in 1961. In 1962 Baby split from Cliff and moved to Juggy Murray’s Sue label where she would later have success with ‘That’s how Heartaches Are Made’ in 1963 and ‘Only Those In Love’ in 1965.
The late fifties were the heyday for the New Jersey organ scene, and amidst all of his work with Baby Washington, Cliff was also leading an organ trio. They would do week long engagements at Club 20, The Broadway Lounge, Leon’s, and The 570 in Newark – dueling keys with Groove Holmes, Jimmy McGriff, Charlie Earland, Wild Bill Davis, and Bill Doggett as they all ran the circuit together.
In the sixties he would play with the Nightcats, and when Little Richard split with the Upsetters, bandleader Charlie Lucas brought Cliff in to replace him on piano. With the Upsetters, Cliff went on the road backing the legendary Little Willie John, and later on, L.C. Cooke (Sam’s brother), Millie Jackson, and John Adams.
Throughout all of this, Cliff was also leading his own show as Cliff Driver and his Band. As the house band for various clubs, Cliff backed all the top rhythm & blues acts of the day when they came through town on tour: Ruth Brown, Solomon Burke, Faye Adams, Reba Jones, Arthur Prysock. In 1967 Cliff switched from the Jimmy Edwins Agency to the Universal Agency, who booked him and his band for a month long run at a club in Bermuda backing Lloyd Barber and some other singers. When he returned he took up with the Coasters, with whom he would tour for a year or two before a narrowly averted plane crash would change his course.
In 1968, Cliff was on a small plane out of Columbia, South Carolina with the Coasters. Coming in to land in Augusta, Georgia, they hit some ice and almost missed the runway. Cliff was so shaken that when it was time to head back to New York, he refused to board another plane. “We’re gonna catch that bird,” said the Coasters. “Well I’m gonna catch that dog!” said Cliff, and made his way home on the Greyhound bus. He was invited back to Bermuda, but after the traumatic landing in Augusta, Cliff wouldn’t board another plane, and instead took his band for a run upstate. (He would later join the Coasters again for a brief stint in the early seventies, but would never shake his fear of flying.)
It is impossible to get a complete account of the innumerable rhythm and blues acts Cliff played with in the fifties and sixties, as he was rarely credited on record and is not the type to vainly reminisce about the old days.
In the early seventies, a promoter named Bobby Robinson, who had a record store up on 125th Street in Harlem (the recently defunct Bobby’s Happy House), put out the instrumental track ‘Soul Train’ by a group he called the Ramrods. The record was a huge hit and would later become the theme for the TV show by the same name. Cliff was recruited along with saxophonist King Curtis and guitarist Jimmy Spool, who had played on the record, to play the Apollo and later put the act on the road. Though the original band broke up after only a few gigs, Cliff took over the Ramrods and continued to do club dates and record sides with them for a few more years, including a whole year stretch at a club up in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In 1976, Jerry Goldberg (the bassist from the Ramrods, who had broken up the year before) invited Cliff to join his new band Primitive Love. After a year, Cliff left to put together his own band again and got a gig playing for New York Mets’ Hall of Fame ball player Tommie Agee at his Outfielder’s Lounge, where they would play for most of 1979 and 1980.
Surprisingly, Cliff didn’t start playing gospel until a church-going friend of his told him that a local church needed a musician in 1977. When asked about the difference between playing rhythm and blues and playing gospel, Cliff explains:
“To me, I played gospel the same way that I played music in the clubs. I only know one way of playing. To me it’s soul music. They come up with different changes now with this contemporary gospel, but I don’t mess with that… It’s more or less the words that make the difference. The music doesn’t change. They just notes. Whether it’s rhythm and blues, gospel, or a ballad.”
By 1980 Cliff’s band had broken up and he had stopped playing in clubs all together. He was tired of all the smoking and drinking, the long hours, the traveling. Besides, he found that the money was better in church. He would stay out of the clubs for most of the next two decades until an old friend named Bob Orzo (who had been the manager of Primitive Love) brought him a gospel singer named Akim around 1997. Akim was writing a lot of original material, but needed help getting the music together. Cliff agreed to produce him. It was Akim’s request for three back up singers for the group that led Cliff to assemble the first incarnation of the Queens: Gloria Cartright, Shelly Fields, and Lisa Poindexter. When Akim fell off the scene in 1999, Cliff and the Queens (then consisting of Edna Johnson, Lisa Poindexter, and Judy Bennet) were eager to find a new lead singer and continue working together. It was Edna who suggested Cliff’s old friend Naomi Shelton. Naomi had never stopped singing both in church (as Naomi Shelton) and on the club scene (as Naomi Davis), and jumped at the chance to work with Cliff again. Thus began Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens.
Later in 1999, Cliff and Naomi were doing a club set with Jerry Goldberg and legendary James Brown bassist Fred Thomas at Flannery’s on 14th St. in Manhattan, when then Desco Records label man Gabriel Roth approached them about doing a recording. A staunch J.B. enthusiast, Roth had been tipped off about Fred’s gig by Bob Orzo who was managing Thomas, and had been bowled over by Naomi’s voice and Cliff’s organ playing. A few weeks later, Cliff and Naomi ventured up to Desco’s 41st Street studio for a session. Backed by Desco house band The Soul Providers, Naomi and Cliff cut ’41st Street Breakdown’, credited on the 45′ as Naomi Davis and the Knights of Forty First Street. Backed with an instrumental entitled ‘Catapult’, the record made some noise in the then-budding deep funk scene, getting heavy rotation at overseas funk parties by DJ’s like Keb Darge and Snowboy. A second session produced an unreleased 10″ containing ‘Wind Your Clock’ and ‘Talking ‘Bout A Good Thing’, test pressings of which have been sought after by collectors ever since, commanding exorbitant prices.
Though the success of ’41st Street Breakdown’ had earned a bit of a reputation for Naomi Davis on the funk scene, Desco Records closed its doors forever in 2000, and Naomi Shelton and the Queens continued to focus their efforts in the church. As Cliff describes it, “After we cut those records, things fell apart for a minute. Things change directions.”
However, it wasn’t long before Roth would cross paths with Cliff and Naomi again. This time it was Cliff who called upon Roth. Cliff had been through a few different bass players with the Queens including Jerry Goldberg, and Fred Thomas (when he was not on the road with James Brown). He enlisted Roth, who started playing bass for them on their church programs and on some demo recordings.
Over the next few years, Roth formed and developed Daptone Records with partner and saxophonist Neal Sugarman. And though Daptone’s second release, The Sugarman Three’s Pure Cane Sugar (2002), features Naomi Davis on a gospel tinged uptempo song called ‘Promised Land’, it was not until 2005 that Roth and Driver got together and decided to try to record a full length gospel soul album for Daptone.
It took three sets of sessions over three years before Roth and Driver finally found the right combination of singers, songs, and musicians to make Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens’ full length. Most of the record was cut live to an eight track tape machine on June 20, 2007 at Daptone’s House of Soul in Bushwick Brooklyn, though a handful of tracks were taken from the earlier sessions on June 16, 2005 and January 24, 2006. The final result, What Have You Done, My Brother? is a testament to the singular sound of gospel and soul music, invoking the early sounds of Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, The Staple Singers, and Sam Cooke.
Currently, Naomi and the Queens find themselves performing more and more frequently outside of their traditional church engagements. With momentum growing, they can be heard every Friday night at the Greenwich Village club Fat Cat, as well as in clubs and festivals as part of the Daptone Soul Revue, or on their own billing, which has included the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Takeover event (September, 2008) and Lincoln Center’s American Songbook event (February, 2009). The power and raw feeling in Naomi’s voice and the sincere benevolence of her character seem to lift everyone within earshot when she sings, and with the Queens at her side and the force of Driver’s musical direction at her back, her performances are commanding the attention of an exponentially growing number of fans, reaching far beyond the pews of the local churches. Though the experience of hearing her sing can be truly transcendent for even the most secularly minded listener, she has a simple and humble approach to what it is she does. “My occupation is singing. My other occupation is going out in the field, helping others whatever way I can.”
Cliff Driver is the musical director of the group, and leads the band with his inimitable honkytonk piano style. Jimmy Hill, the organist on the record, leads his own blues and R&B band and has a pedigree rivaling Driver himself, including a stint in the late sixties backing Wilson Pickett. (Coincidentally, his band was backing Daptone stablemate Charles Bradley at the Tarheel Lounge on Bedford Avenue when Bradley was first seen by Roth and Sugarman.) The record also features guitarist Tommy ‘TNT’ Brenneck and Bosco Mann, both of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and each a producer in their own right. Brenneck is also part of The Budos Band, The Menahan Street Band, and heads his own imprint, Dunham Records. His country approach to rhythm and blues guitar handily won him a place at the table with Driver, who often features Tommy’s twangy guitar figures in his arrangements. Most of the drums on the record were played by Brian Floody, a fixture on the bluesier end of the New York jazz scene who beats an indispensable if understated pulse throughout the bulk of the record. ‘What Have You Done?’, ‘Am I Asking Too Much’, ‘What More Can I Do?’, and ‘I Need You To Hold My Hand’ feature drummer Homer Steinweiss, also of the Dap-Kings, whose distinctive feel has become the backbone of the Daptone Sound, as well as the uncredited force behind the music of Amy Winehouse, Jay-Z, Nas, Mark Ronson, and countless others.
The Gospel Queens are made up of Bobbie Gant, Cynthia Langston, and Edna Johnson. Bobbie, who sings alto, was born and raised in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and started her singing career at her church’s junior choir. After going to school in Nashville, she moved to New York, where she began singing with a few different groups, including with Helen Ferguson and the Personalities, who opened for Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ray Fox, among others. It was in 2000 that Bobbie was first introduced to Cliff, who was playing organ at her church, Brown Memorial Baptist, and asked her to join the Gospel Queens soon after, claiming that he knew she could sing because of the “way she talked.” Soprano Cynthia, the youngest of the Queens, grew up singing in Brooklyn’s Spring Hill Baptist Church, where she met Cliff, who played the piano there, as well. After touring with the Off-Broadway gospel production of The Devil Used My Children – for which Cliff was the musical director – as a young teenager, singing with various gospel groups, and living in various places around the country, Cynthia resettled in Brooklyn, where she formed the a group called the Gospel Samaritans before joining the Gospel Queens in 2006. Tenor Edna Johnson was 9 years old when she began singing at her church at school in her hometown of Clairton, Pennsylvania. When she was 15, her mother enrolled her in music school in Pittsburgh. At 18, she moved to New York, where she sang in an R&B group called The Charlettes. Edna met Cliff in 1998 at Greater Crossroads, where she sang and Cliff played the organ, and joined up with the Gospel Queens the following year. Sharon Jones, Judy Bennett, Jamie Kozyra, and Tamika Jones contributed additional background vocals on the record.