Cliff Driver at The Daptone Super Soul Review, Apollo Theater, NYC. © 2015 Jacob Blickenstaff
On March 18th, legendary musician, Cliff Driver died at the age of 84. Cliff had a long remarkable life as an accomplished jazz, rhythm & blues, and gospel organist and band leader. His biography is below, though recently he may be best known as bandleader and organist for Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. I met him in 1999 and over the years have had the good fortune to make a lot of music with him, both as his bass player and his co-conspirator in the studio.
He was an honored and loved member of the Daptone Family. He played not only on Naomi’s records, but also on several recordings by label mates Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones, including “100 Days, 100 Nights”, and often tapped Daptone’s roster to man his own band as well. Most notably, Mikey Post from Daptone HQ not only played drums for Cliff and Naomi, but also took a personal interest as de-facto manager and all-around mensch for the group. We’re all grateful for the loving interest Mikey has taken in Cliff and Naomi in recent years.
Cliff was one of those characters that defies explanation. Someone you always looked forward to seeing because you knew there was a good chance he would do or say something amazing and you were gonna get a new story to tell. The list of musicians for whom he played and those who played for him reads like a Who’s Who of rhythm & blues.
But pedigree aside, as someone who had the opportunity to play with him in churches, clubs, and in the studio, I can truly say he was a one-of-a-kind musician. I learned things about music from him, that I could never really put into words. He had these rhythmic mannerisms that drifted between straight time and shuffle that gave me a feeling I could otherwise only get from some old New Orleans R&B record. Nobody plays or even understands rhythms like that anymore. He was a great organist, but I always thought of him as a piano player first. He would play the most soulful rocking piano stuff you’d ever heard, and he had this way of just banging it out like it was pizza dough. He never treated music delicately. And it wasn’t just the way he played.
In everything he did, from the way he talked, to the way he ran his band, to the way he handled his business, Cliff had an old-school roughness from a time long gone by. He had no time or patience for nonsense and often had a curt and direct way of letting you know. He did more than his share of grumping and griping, but when he smiled, it was the kind of smile that made everybody in the room smile. Maybe because you knew you must have really earned it. Though his attitude may have ruffled more feathers than it smoothed over, he always seemed to be deeply respected by everyone around him as an accomplished elder and a raw musical force. If you’d done a session with him, you always let everyone know about it, because we all know there is no cooler way to start a conversation than “We had Cliff in the studio the other day.” He was truly a boss.
As for his cause of death, I am not privy to the details, but he was a very old dude who had had several health problems as of late. Three years ago while we were all in the studio cutting Naomi’s Cold World album, Cliff’s wife and co-pilot of fifty years, Annie “Chicken” Martin passed away. His health declined pretty steeply after that, which seemed sadly natural.
Along with his two sons, John and Vincent, he will long be survived by the music in the grooves of the many records he cut, and in the loving stories of him that we will never tire of telling from bar stools, church pews, and studio couches. Though we will miss him dearly, he will be never be farther than our turntables.
Cliff Driver 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.
Sometime around 1963, Cliff’s band came off the road from backing Baby Washington and took a gig as the house band at The Night Cap on Flatbush Ave. where he met Naomi Shelton. They were doing three sets a night together, seven days a week. 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. Though neither of them knew at the time, Naomi had found the man who would later become her producer, mentor, and friend for life.
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 churchgoing 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 explained:
“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 (Now 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 Cliff continued to focus his efforts on the groups church gigs. As Cliff described 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. With Cliff as Musical Director, Daptone recorded and released Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens’ What Have You Done, My Brother? in 2009, and Cold World in 2014.
Cliff spent his last few years until very recently as the band leader for Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. Though they toured internationally, he maintaining a residency at The Fat Cat pool hall in the West Village for over ten years, where faithful regulars crowded between and in front of pool tables every Friday night to watch Naomi hold church in front of Cliff’s band.