Published Feb 23, 2021Naomi Shelton — the American gospel and soul vocalist who led Daptone Records outfit the Gospel Queens — has died. Shelton's label home confirmed reports of her February 17 passing today on Instagram, though a cause of death was not revealed. She was 78.
"Her spirit was the brightest and most positive in our family, and she was genuinely full of love," Daptone wrote of Shelton on Instagram. "She called us all for our birthdays every single year, asked about our kids and significant others, always had a story to tell, reminding us of all the shenanigans that went down over the years, and was, hands down, the coolest person in the room. We loved her dearly."
Born Naomi Virginia Davis on October 14, 1942, Shelton began singing in her Midway, AL, church at age six, performing with her older sisters at other churches and regularly on radio. Outside of gospel, Shelton would come to discover the the music of soul icons James Brown and Otis Redding through the airwaves.
"Whether it was gospel or soul, it was always about the words for me," Shelton would tell the New York Times in 2009. "Didn't matter if it was 'Please, Please, Please' or 'If I Can Touch the Hem of His Garment.' It was all about reaching the people."
Upon graduating from high school in 1958, Shelton moved to Long Island, then Miami, then Long Island again before landing in Brooklyn. She continued to sing all the while, performing evenings and weekends while working as a maid by day.
"I never gave up," Shelton told the Times of her professional aspirations. "I claimed from the age of 6 I'm going to be a singer. So I stayed out there. I kept my faith. And I felt in my spirit that something has got to give."
In 1999, Shelton met pianist Cliff Driver, and the pair began performing in New York. Catching the attention of future Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth that same year, the pair were invited to record for Roth's Desco Records. As Naomi Davis & the Knights of Forty First Street, Shelton, Driver and Desco's house band cut singles "Forty First Street Breakdowne" and "Wind Your Clock," ahead of the label folding in 2000.
Shelton would land with Daptone following Desco's dissolution, though wouldn't make her label debut until 2009 with What Have You Done, My Brother?, which Exclaim! called "healing music the way gospel was intended to be." The group would produce follow-up Cold World in 2014.
Frequent Daptone collaborator Thomas Brenneck (Menahan Street Band, Dunham Records) recalled backing Shelton as a member of the Gospel Queens. "I can't really put into words what I learned and felt playing music with them," he wrote. "It certainly gave me a foundation and understanding of gospel music and its integral part of soul, funk, country, rock and roll. Everything. It shaped me as a musician and arranger."
Brenneck continued, "One time on tour with Naomi, we were stopped at a gas station and I step behind the store to smoke a joint and who do I find but Naomi smoking a cigarette. She says "don't tell Cliff". We both cracked up. She was incredible. She was a beacon of light and love. I'm sure she touched everyone who had the pleasure of hearing her sing."
Saundra Williams of Daptone's Saun & Starr wrote, "A queen. Naomi Shelton just had a very special way about herself. From how she talked, dressed, made you laugh and touched you. Everything was full of life and intention. I will always remember the glint in her eyes and the corners of her smile that led up into those incredible cheekbones. She was beautiful inside and out. She had a smile that filled you up, if you ever had one directed at you but her voice, her singing, was full of heart and that very same intention that said to me, 'live your best life, enjoy your life and don't ever forget about your creator — God.' A faith that was unshakable."