You may not have heard of Shelby J., but trust and believe, you’ve heard Shelby J. For instance, you’ve watched her sing and dance her heart out as the cornrowed glamazon on neo-soul visionary D’Angelo’s Voodoo tour. Or you’ve listened to her smoky, powerful pipes singing the “Right Here, Right Now” refrain from Kmart’s popular radio campaign. Or lending those same pipes to the albums and tours of a slew of musical greats: Mary J. Blige, Carlos Santana, Roy Hargrove, Martin Luther, D’Angelo, Anthony Hamilton, and her current bandleader/mentor, Prince. This lady’s sultry voice has been ev-er-y-where.
Now sporting a sexy bald crown that brings to mind the gorgeous Ohio Players’ album cover model Pat Evans, Shelby J. (née Shelby Johnson-Allen) has long been a familiar face on stage and TV. She’s been playing with her live band Black Gypsy, performing on VH1 Soul, the MTV Movie Awards and soloing with Prince on the Superbowl XLI Halftime Show.
The Greensboro native is now poised to take her rightful place at center stage, and there are precious few singers who can boast of having songs on their first solo album produced by his Royal Purple Badness himself. Working with Prince (whom she describes as “The greatest ever. Period. Dotcom”) was “humbling and awesome! I am so very thankful for his guidance and his support in all that I do. That’s my brother right there! He’s got my back and I sho’ got his!”
Shelby J.’s solo single “North Carolina” is the bluesy anthem that state really needs right now. It mixes the influence of late, great Al Green producer Willie Mitchell’s deep drummin’ and church-organ funk with Prince’s singular guitar riffs and just a hint of a reggae skank rhythm. The song is message-driven and inspirational, speaking plainly about her experiences growing up a tomboyish Black girl of modest means in her beloved state, at the crossroads of old Dixie racism and New South social progress.
The song features fellow North Carolina native Anthony Hamilton on the hook’s low harmonies and riffing the fiery “well-wells” with gospel conviction. The tune’s subject matter is incredibly timely: just last April, the North Carolina NAACP had a Confederate flag successfully removed from flying at the state capitol building, and, more recently, former cooking show host Paula Deen was accused of operating a segregated, Jim Crow-style eatery in the state.
While she finishes work on her debut album, Shelby J., along with husband Levern Allen III and her parents-in-law, own and operate Bezingy—one of a tiny number of African-American-owned apiaries in the U.S. It’s a fact that’s still surprising to the singer because “beekeeping originated in Africa! Yes, that’s right, it’s ours!
“We have come in contact with one or two African-American beekeepers in the state,” she says. “But most of them only sell their honey locally at farmer’s markets and have not set up online stores like www.bezingy.com. I’m super proud to say that we now ship internationally, with satisfied customers in France, Australia and England! Not bad for a four-person company.”
And not bad for a powerhouse singer who’s been upping the musical game of famous artists for years. To quote Anthony Hamilton, “Being in the industry, you run into talented people who go off and change the world. Then there are times when you meet amazing talent in people that will change your life. Shelby J. is just that kind of person. To know her is really to love her.
“We’ve traveled the world together,” he continues, “singing with D’Angelo, Carlos Santana and even Prince. Her voice lends home to every song and stage. She’s the truth!”