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Shirley Brown

Woman to Woman (Original Recording Remastered)

(Concord (Stax); US: 25 Oct 2011; UK: 10 Oct 2011)

This album, one of the last Stax releases to make any impact before the venerable label went belly up a short time later, produced a No. 1 hit (“Woman to Woman”, two weeks at the top of the Billboard R&B charts) but otherwise failed to register much on the radar. This is a shame, since it was (and remains) a top shelf soul record from one of the most astonishingly consistent labels in the history of commercial music.


Though perhaps too much of an Aretha Franklin sound-alike to have ever properly emerged as an icon (and, to be honest, I find it a bit distracting, especially since she even covers two of Aretha’s greatest numbers in “Respect” and “Rock Steady”, included here as bonus tracks, but wisely left off the original print of the record), Shirley Brown’s voice is booming and powerful, and her presence is utterly commanding. Especially in the tracks in which she starts chatting to the listener (“Woman to Woman”, “It Ain’t No Fun”), Brown is able to convey that rare thing: the intimacy of a friend, insisting that you hear what she has to tell you. You don’t want to miss a word, not because what she’s saying is so clever or compelling (necessarily), but because you feel like it’d be rude to ignore her. I mean, she’s talking right to you, after all. It’s ineffable, and simply an amazing feat.


Brown was discovered by none other than Albert King, Stax star and undeniable luminary in the field of blues-based rock ’n’ roll, and she went on to sing and tour with his band for almost a decade. In 1972, after some prodding by King, she finally released some of her own material with a small label (from which little of significance has emerged). But, King’s tutelage continued to open doors for her, and she was invited to record for Stax in 1974. Putting together a crack studio band – has Stax ever fielded a weak side, even once? – Brown’s proper debut is packed with intensity, stellar grooves, and redoubtable playing. Featuring Al Jackson on the drums (only months before his untimely death), the great Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on the bass, (Rufus’s son) Marvell Thomas on pianos, guitarist Bobby Manuel (then an MG subbing for Steve Cropper), and with Lester Snell on organs and the Memphis Horns adding their depth, this is one hell of a storied band. And it shows: there isn’t a note out of place on the record. 


But, since Stax was on its last financial legs, Brown would go on to enjoy the dubious distinction of having released the last major single on the once proud label. It’s tempting to consider what might have been had Brown and the brilliant music minds at Stax been able to work together on a follow-up to capitalize on the attention of “Woman to Woman”. Instead, it remains a footnote – a perpetual inclusion on lists of “one-hit wonders” from the 1970s. She certainly could have done worse, but she deserved better.


This release, one of a series of remastered and repackaged Stax classics (others have included Booker T. & the MGs’ amazing but mostly forgotten McLemore Avenue and the Dramatics’ masterpiece Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get), marks the first time this record has sounded this good since the mid-1970s. Kudos to Concord records for taking this project on, and letting us have a chance to be reminded of these records from late-period Stax, some of which rank alongside their earlier masterworks.

Rating:

Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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