The Naomi Shelton We Knew

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On an unseasonably warm evening in October, Richard Julian, the owner of LunÀtico, a restaurant and music venue in Bed-Stuy, rang a bell attached to the wall and called for silence. As his customers looked up from their plates of harissa eggplant and fig flatbread, Julian made it clear that this would be no ordinary evening. “If you saw Naomi Shelton here, you know how special she was,” he said. “We want to celebrate all of that energy that she brought.”

Shelton, who died last February, had reigned over LunÀtico’s gospel brunches on alternate Sunday mornings since 2017. A fixture of Baptist churches and rhythm and blues bars for more than five decades, she’d gained a larger audience in her early 60s, when Daptone Records, the soul label that introduced Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley to fans around the world, produced her debut album, What Have You Done, My Brother? She had all of the gifts that the most renowned singers share (and a few that they don’t): an arresting voice, hard and raspy; a genius for making an old phrase sound new; a smile that sparkled like her sequined dollar-store hats. But her greatest gift came from somewhere deep within. As both a singer and a friend, she had a preternatural ability to make people’s burdens a little easier to bear. “I would tell her all these things that were going wrong,” Julian told the crowd. “‘The ice machine’s broken. I’m getting a divorce.’ She wanted to know all of it.”

Once, when he was going through a real rough patch, she beckoned him to bend closer to her wheelchair. “Richard,” she told him, “what you need to do is wear sequins and scream like James Brown.”

I first heard Naomi in 2008, when I was 28. My friend Par and I had gone to see some musicians we knew play at Goodbye Blue Monday, the sort of Bushwick establishment that used to be called a hipster bar. I was a regular at that type of bar in those days — the tail end of the era that produced a profusion of Brooklyn indie-rock acts like Grizzly Bear and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. As we waited for the show to start, another group, the opening act, walked through the door. They stood out for two reasons. One, they were just about the only Black people in the club. Two, they were about three times our age. From the narrow perspective of the young white guy that I was, those eight musicians seemed out of place, though of course they could have said the same about us. Naomi and the bandleader, Cliff Driver, had begun performing together in Brooklyn back when people like my grandparents were fleeing the borough for the suburbs. Cliff was a master arranger who played the organ like he was building a house of bricks, and Naomi sang like she wanted to shake down the walls. She screamed and growled as she moved through the crowd, grabbing our hands while looking into our eyes. I don’t remember much about the band that we’d gone to the bar to see that night, but I will never forget that first encounter with Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens of Brooklyn.

Not long after, Par and I went to hear them at the Fat Cat, an NYU hangout in the Village, where they had a standing gig. For the next few years, that was where we spent our Friday nights. The Fat Cat was a funny place, a cavernous basement down the street from Stonewall where you could drink hoppy ales, play ping-pong and pool, and, once a week, hear some of the most electrifying gospel music in the world. Every time Naomi’s voice ripped through the speakers, college kids would wander over from the billiard tables to watch. She’d shuffle up to them and squeeze their hands, forging an intimate connection with them as she sang. She had a way of making the lonely feel less alone, which I know because I was a bit lonely in those days myself. The Fat Cat was our boozy church, Friday nights our gospel Shabbat. We may not have been religious, but we were religiously devoted to Naomi.

Over time, I introduced her to my parents and sister and occasionally accompanied her to church; she remembered the tiniest gesture, like the time I brought turkey sandwiches to her apartment in Bed-Stuy. At the end of every show at the Fat Cat, Cliff and his three backup singers, the Queens, would lower the music to a simmer, and then Naomi would invite all of us in the audience to hold hands, urging us to “make the world a better place, if you can.” It sounds corny, but it wasn’t. “She really meant it,” Judy Gibbs, one of the Queens, recently told me. “She loved her audience. I think she loved them before she even met them.”

Naomi had an arsenal of “message songs” — compositions that drew on the moral and political wisdom of the Black church without explicitly invoking God. A favorite was “I’ll Take the Long Road,” a paean to patience in the face of hardship. “I’ll take the long road,” she would declare over the purring of Cliff’s organ, “and I know, I know, I’m gonna get there.” Naomi’s long road began in 1942 in a tiny Alabama town called Midway. Every Sunday morning, she and her older sisters, Hattie Mae and Annie, would sing gospel at a radio station built by their father. Shelton would later say that God told her she’d see the world someday; she moved to Brooklyn by herself after high school, determined to prove him right. She got her first break in 1963, when she met Cliff Driver at the Night-Cap on Flatbush Avenue; soon they were entertaining at the spot three nights a week. Another life-changing encounter came along in 1971, when she got a call from a man she didn’t know. As it turned out, he had dialed the wrong number, but he told her he liked the sound of her voice. The man was Dennis Shelton, and he sang in a Harlem vocal group called Cortez & the Entertainers. They went out to eat, and that was that; their marriage lasted until her death 50 years later.

“She would always encourage me,” he told me. “She would say, ‘Someone’s opinion of you is not your reality.’”

While Naomi’s nights were devoted to rhythm and blues, her days were spent running the household of a wealthy white woman who lived out on Long Island. According to Dennis, the woman promised to give Naomi $5,000 when she retired, a reward for 35 years of loyal service. That check never came. “She let her down,” Dennis said. The music business let her down too. At one point, Cliff took her to a studio in Jersey City only for the producer to tell her that her voice wasn’t good enough. Naomi didn’t like to complain, but Dennis could see the disappointment on her face.

She kept on pushing, playing dive bars and churches and community centers, and then, in the late ’90s, got the break she’d been seeking. She had been performing with Fred Thomas, a bassist with the build of a coatrack and a temperament so mellow that he had managed to survive three decades in James Brown’s band without incurring any apparent damage to his psyche. One night, Gabe Roth, a Jewish kid from Riverside, California, who had begun producing funk and soul records after obsessively studying Brown’s mesmerizing 1971 album Hot Pants, went to a hole-in-the-wall on 14th Street to see Thomas play. Watching Noami, he was deeply moved. “Naomi has a unique ability to literally throw love out of her mouth at people,” he later told The Village Voice. He asked her to sing on a couple of 45s, kicking off a long and fruitful collaboration. In 2008, at age 61, she and Cliff recorded their first studio album, featuring Gabe at the controls. She finally got to see the world, opening for Sharon Jones and headlining several European tours.

One evening in 2012, I brought a girl to the Fat Cat on a first date. The girl loved Naomi, which meant that I could keep dating her. A few years later, I married her. But by then, I’d all but stopped going to the club. My life had changed in more ways than one, and I’d begun doing other things with my Friday nights. Every once in a while, when I was feeling blue and needed a boost, I’d give Naomi a call. She would ask after my parents, my sister, my wife, and of course Par, and then she’d fill me in on whatever was happening in her world. In 2015, she had a falling out with Cliff, who had always been a demanding boss, strict and exacting. Around the same time, she nearly fainted on a stage in Boston. She had to get a pacemaker, but she didn’t complain. “God gave me a voice,” she’d say, “and the doctors gave me a brand new beat.”

In recent years, a degenerative muscular condition that had afflicted her for as long as I’d known her progressed to the point where she couldn’t leave her third-floor apartment without getting carried down the stairs. She stayed inside for days at a time, reading the Bible, Essence, and the Daily News until a close friend of hers from the Fat Cat helped her and Dennis navigate the bureaucratic challenges of getting into an affordable-housing development with an elevator in Fort Greene. That’s where she was living when I saw her perform for the last time.

It was March 7, 2020 — Par’s 40th birthday. He’d rented out a club in Red Hook and put me in charge of arranging the entertainment. There was no band he would rather see, he told me, than the Queens. I’d emailed a couple dozen of his friends, asking them to chip in whatever they could so we could hire them. By then, Cliff had died. So had Charles Bradley, at 68, and Sharon Jones, at 60. But Naomi, now 77, was still here, doing what she loved. She showed up to the party in a wheelchair, sporting a mink hat and a ruby-red jacket, her voice and presence almighty as ever. Par’s mother, dressed in a saffron tunic, stood two feet in front of her, twirling her body and undulating her bangled arms. Par couldn’t remember ever seeing his mother dance like that. None of us could have known it would be the last show Naomi would ever play.

Two days after the party, Naomi called to tell me that she’d had a great time. I promised to come see her in her new building, but the city shut down just three days after that. Ten months later, she was back in the hospital, the disease attacking her throat. Richard Julian, the LunÀtico proprietor, sat at her bedside. “You know,” she told him, “I might not be able to sing after this surgery, but I’m going to get you somebody.” She thought of her loved ones and her beloved audience first, even as she was slipping away.

Naomi died shortly after that conversation at the age of 78. The virus didn’t take her, but there’s no telling what a year of isolation must have stolen from her beyond just time. Her funeral in February was a muted affair, owing to a spike in cases. Julian sat in the crowd, watching the masked singers paying tribute, and thought, If COVID wasn’t happening, this place would be packed to the rafters. That day, he scheduled a blow-out tribute concert for what would have been Naomi’s 79th birthday in October, not knowing whether LunÀtico, which was closed at the time, would even be open.

At the concert, Fred Thomas warmed up the band with “Scribble Scrabble,” an original Cliff Driver instrumental. Then the surviving Queens — Judy Gibbs, Bobbie Jean Gant, and Edna Johnson — took the stage and began to sing, doing all they could to fill Naomi’s unfillable void. Dennis performed a couple of praise songs; at one point, he got down on his knees. Gabriel Caplan, who became the second Jewish Gabe in Naomi’s extended family when he joined the band 13 years ago, played the shimmery guitar licks I knew so well. A table of Brazilian fans near the stage smiled and clapped along, reminding me of a conversation Par and I once had with Gibbs. We’d asked if she and Naomi ever talked about the changes that had pushed so many of their friends and neighbors out of their homes and even out of Brooklyn — changes that had been driven, in part, by people like us. “Yes,” Judy said. “I can’t honestly say I was okay with it, but Naomi was so open to everyone.” LunÀtico, she pointed out, drew patrons from Brazil, Spain, France, and who knew where else.

“After Naomi lost her mobility, she said that God told her that she would still see the world,” Judy recalled. “But this time, he said the world would come to her.”

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