Gospel soul singer Naomi Shelton performed in Brooklyn nightclubs for four decades before she was “discovered” by Daptone Records. The 71-year-old recently released Cold, Cold World to critical acclaim, and commercial success, enjoying a limelight that had long eluded her.
If her career has been a “slow train coming”—to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan—it’s a train that arrived right on time. Shelton’s long years of wandering seem to lend her unique depth and pathos. Her pipes are a bit subdued with age, but they still crackle with surprising fire and ice. A phenomenal panel of vintage musicians—including legendary pianist Cliff Davis and James Brown’s bassist—makes the album shake and swing like old-school 1970s R&B, electrifying the body while edifying the soul.
Despite the unusual musical accompaniment, Shelton nevertheless hews closely to traditional gospel themes. “Sinner” is a satisfyingly bold opening salvo, with drums snapping smartly to a reggae clip. Shelton begins with the declaration, “I was born to be delivered,” before wryly asking, “Am I the only one?” In a culture where speech is often hamstrung by political considerations, Shelton’s plain proclamations are as surprising as they are refreshing. Again and again, she is not ashamed to reiterate the simple fact that she’s a sinner, which is why she’s “got to find myself a cross.”
The reality of collective sin forms the basis of the album’s title track, “It’s a Cold, Cold World.” The rhythm section lays down a punchy groove while Shelton bemoans how folks in the wider world gossip and betray one another out of an obsession for self-protection and promotion. Yet even more chilling is the lip-service given by believers who “say they love God with all of their heart / yet we are a people so far apart.” Whether trodden down by those inside or outside the walls of a church, the Gospel Queens—Shelton’s moniker for her backup singers—belt out the one true hope: “Trust in Jesus, you’ll find a friend.”
That hope leads naturally to Shelton’s penultimate track, “Thank You Lord.” Accompanied by a proud and funky bass line that seeps into the bones, Shelton trumpets how “You died on Calvary / you died there just for me / so I get on bended knee / I just want to thank you Lord.”
It’s not just the final hope of deliverance but also the manifold grace in this life that she celebrates. Shelton gives a satisfying shout before crying out, “I have you by my side / you there to be my guide / I cannot be denied / I just want to thank you Lord.” A tambourine joins the jam as Shelton and the Queens trade off bluesy calls and responses. And although the volume fades out in the middle of this party, a day will come when the praise keeps on going.
Thankfulness is something Shelton discusses both on and off the stage. Online publication Wondering Sound asked her what she says to people who question God and doubt. Shelton answered simply, “When you look at all the hardships today, you really have no one to look to but God. The government can’t help you, the president can’t help you, the Democratic party, the governor, the mayor—they can only do so much. So you got to look up. Your help is going to come from God. He’s the one who’s supplying your needs every day anyway. … He will always make a way for you.”