Shirley Brown: Woman to Woman

Stax exits the stage on a high note

Soul singer Shirley Brown owns the somewhat dubious distinction of having the last major hit single for Stax. The title track from her 1975 debut album, issued on the Truth subsidiary, reached the top of the R&B chart in 1974, and just missed the pop Top 20. The album’s lead off, “It Ain’t No Fun,” was issued as a follow-up, but with Stax sliding into bankruptcy, the release stalled further down the charts. Stax had survived the near-death of their 1967 break with Atlantic, and with the 1968 creation of an instant album catalog under the direction of Al Bell, the label had successfully expanded its roster with non-Memphis acts. But a shaky distribution deal with CBS eventually undermined the company’s foundations.

Brown was born in West Memphis, but raised in Illinois, where her church singing provided a strong gospel background. Her musical education was advanced by an apprenticeship with blues guitarist Albert King, who also introduced her to Stax. Her debut was co-produced by Stax founder Jim Stewart and MG drummer Al Jackson Jr., and the songs collected loosely around the title hit’s theme. Brown delivers performances that are infused with anguished strength and heartbreak that may or may not be repairable. The calm with which she delivers the hit single’s spoken introduction suggests the protagonist will thrive, whether or not her relationship survives the infidelity at the song’s core.

Brown is magnificent singer, with a voice that could have easily overshadowed a song’s lyrics or melody. But when she lets loose with an impassioned wail or soars to a high note, it’s to express and punctuate the song’s emotion rather than demonstrates her range. Brown stays strong in the face of unrequited love, failing relationships, infidelity and unfulfilled desire. But it’s not all romantic gloom, as she revels in the love of “Long as You Love Me,” and celebrates her mate in “So Glad to Have You” and “Passion.” Concord’s 2011 reissue adds five bonus tracks, including covers of “Respect” and “Rock Steady” previously unreleased in the U.S., and a previously unreleased version of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” that stretches the Stevie Wonder title into seven minutes of simmering gospel soul. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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