A bundle of contradictions on record, Shirley Brown made some beautiful music…while shadowing Aretha
By David McGeeSTAX REMASTERS: WOMAN TO WOMAN
Acquisitive but abstemious; domineering but subservient; love struck but lovelorn; secure but needy; vulnerable but impregnable; self-reliant but co-dependent--Shirley Brown was a bundle of compelling contradictions back in the day when she was speaking up and out for women in love in the landmark 1974 single “Woman to Woman,” a surprise million seller by a then-unknown artist whose career making single turned out to be the final hit for the Stax organization (Brown was on the Stax subsidiary, Truth); shortly after the release of the 1975 album titled after Brown’s single smash, Stax closed up shop for good. Though the followup to “Woman to Woman,” 1975’s “Ain’t No Fun,” climbed into the Top 40 of the R&B chart, in succeeding years she has returned to the upper echelons of the R&B world only once, with 1977’s “Blessed Is the Woman” single (#14 R&B), but has never stopped performing. Now signed to the Mississippi-based Malaco label, she still knocks out audiences down south with her rousing, impassioned live shows. In 2009, following a 14-year absence, she returned on CD with the Unleashed album. If the Shirley Brown of the “Woman to Woman” era presented herself on disc in a variety of conflicting guises, the facts of her career show her to be both victim and survivor--but strictly on her terms.
A recent live version of ‘Woman to Woman,’ Shirley Brown
That it never happened in a very big way for Ms. Brown after “Woman to Woman” is a product of multiple misfortunes—from the Stax closing to simple bad timing, and possibly being complicit in her misfortune by resisting the fleeting fabulousness of disco and the numbing mechanization of hip-hop in favor of clinging to the gospel-rooted soul she understood and believed in as the best vehicle for expressing herself. On the bad timing front, the Woman to Woman album, co-produced by Stax founder Jim Stewart and MG’s drummer Al Jackson, was not only Stax’s last stand, it was one of the last stands of the classic soul music style pioneered by Ray Charles and advanced by a host of great artists following in his wake, many of them on Stax, in fact. One of those groundbreaking artists was Aretha Franklin, and among the myriad reasons for Ms. Brown failing to gain much commercial traction after the sassy and singular “Woman to Woman” may well be due to her sometimes uncanny vocal similarity to (and conscious adherence to the style of?) the Queen of Soul—the second cut on this reissued version of Woman to Woman, the reggae-tinged beauty “Long As You Love Me,” finds Ms. Brown singing of love’s sustaining energy in a lilting, high register you could mistake for Miss Aretha’s if you didn’t know better. On “I’ve Got To Go On Without You,” a beautiful, pulsing production enriched by Lester Snells’s churchy organ and the robust surge of the Memphis Horns, centered on the confessions of a straying woman who knows she’s fatally messed up her good thang, her moans—the “whoaaa-ooohh”s and “oohh-oooh”s as well as the piercing, melismatic cries--come straight out of Aretha’s playbook, whereas the stuttering, repeated vowel sounds are derived from Mavis Staples. Where’s Shirley?, you might ask. Well, she’s here, in a manner of speaking, and when she does show up many good things happen.
From the Woman to Woman album, ‘Stay With Me Baby,’ Shirley Brown
“Woman to Woman” is one side of Shirley Brown—the woman taking extreme umbrage at the revelation of her husband’s infidelity (a moment arising from her own subterfuge--she fishes a gal’s phone number out of her husband’s pants pocket during a surreptitious search for incriminating evidence, indicating both a lack of trust and an instinct for sensing when another mule was kickin’ in her stall) and in a cool, calm voice calls up the mistress and calmly but firmly orders her to stay away--literally telling her so, in an opening monologue of a minute, 30 seconds’ duration, certainly a daring commercial ploy in any day. Most diplomatic, she appeals her case in a calm but stern “woman to woman” voice backed by an arrangement blending soothing, measured passages with outbursts of string-supported emotional heat (the Memphis Symphony Orchestra was recruited for these sessions). Her ballad singing is nigh on to mesmerizing in all its fragile beauty on the grinding, late-night stirrings of “Passion,” and producers Stewart and Jackson frame it sensitively in a low-key backdrop of strings, cooing female voices, bright ripples of organ from Lester Snells, and a tender, yearning vocal Ms. Brown controls with smoldering equanimity. This is top-drawer interpretive singing, full of personality, abundant in deeply felt longing, the kind listeners understand in their guts, if not their loins. Where’s Shirley? Right here.
Shirley Brown at her best: ‘Passion,’ from the Woman to Woman album
Among the five bonus tracks rounding out the 15-song CD, a sultry, conflicted love tune, “Ain’t No Way,” brings out the best of Ms. Brown’s gospel-trained vocalizing in its earnest, pleading attack, soaring and fiery, but Aretha had already done this song to a turn. No matter the fury of the fireworks Ms. Brown unleashes here—and they are something to behold, as they are on “Respect” and “Rock Steady,” also included in the bonus tracks--these cuts would never be, could never be, career calling cards, owned as they were by one Aretha Franklin. More interesting, but also ultimately flawed, is a previously unreleased, tasty rethinking, in “Woman to Woman” terms, of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”—that is, with a spoken introductory monologue addressing a man she bailed on, confessing to the wounds she inflicted and suggesting he “take me for what you think it’s worth” (which begs the question of what “it” is). Her vow of commitment unfolds at a steady midtempo pace for the first 4:50 of a 7:13 track, kind of bluesy but bright and full-on Aretha gospelized in its piercing, high moans and trilling shouts, before the last 2:13 breaks into a proud strut mirroring the original Wonder version. Unfortunately, at the time these recordings were made there was already an Aretha, and an Aretha at her peak to boot. Raised singing in the church and blessed with soul and style, Shirley Brown only intermittently claimed her own turf vocally, seeming forever to be shadowing Aretha; couple that to the setbacks noted above, and you have Shirley Brown remembered largely if not solely for “Woman to Woman” and not at all as the distinctive stylist she could have been. In presenting the contradictory personas Ms. Brown adopted on record, the Woman to Woman album paradoxically illustrates the paradox of a stillborn career.