SHIRLEY BROWN-WOMAN TO WOMAN.
SHIRLEY BROWN-WOMAN TO WOMAN.
For many years, I’ve been a huge fan of the music on Stax. Since I bought my first album bearing Stax’s clinging fingers logo, I’ve literally bought hundreds of the albums, compilations and box sets that have been released. Over the years, I’ve explored the albums released during the various stages of the label’s history. Today, I’m going to revisit an album that was released towards the end of Stax’s lifetime in 1974. Previously, Shirley had released a hugely successful single, Woman To Woman in 1974, which reached number one in the US R&B Charts, number twenty-two in the US Billboard 100 and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1975. Sadly, this million selling single, for which Shirley received a gold disc, was Stax’s final hit single. Following on from the success of the single, Stax released an album also entitled Woman To Woman, but by this time, financial problems and litigation had embroiled the label. Unlike the single, the album wasn’t a huge commercial success, reaching number eleven in the US R&B Charts and number ninety-eight in the US Billboard 200. Part of the problem was problems facing Stax, with a lack of promotion and marketing of the album. When It Ain’t No Fun was released as a follow-up single, it too, failed commercially. Shortly afterwards, one of soul music’s greatest and most innovative and influential labels closed its doors. Stax was no more, after twenty-eight years releasing some brilliant soul and funk music. It was a hugely sad end to a once great label, and fans worldwide mourned the passing of this legendary label. However, Woman To Woman was a hidden gem that sadly, didn’t receive the attention it deserved. I’ve been a fan of this album for many years, and recently, the album has been remastered, presenting me with the perfect opportunity to write about this gem of an album.
Woman To Woman opens with the follow-up to the million selling Woman To Woman, It Ain’t No Fun, a track written by Fredrick Knight. It’s a track with a mid-tempo, with the rhythm section driving the track along. A combination of chiming guitars, atmospheric piano, beefy sounding drums and loping bass accompany Shirley as the track opens. Her voice is absolutely laden with emotion and feeling as she sings the lyrics about a love affair gone wrong, with the love they had now lost. Meanwhile, the arrangement grows, to include brief bursts of horns which interject. Their brevity is subtle a and just perfect, thanks to James Mitchell, Hi Records’ Willie Mitchell’s younger brother. Later, the Stax string section sweeps in, a perfect addition to Shirley’s near spiritual vocal. Throughout the track, her slow yet powerful vocal, is drenched in sadness and regret, made all the better by swooning, soulful backing vocalists, whose voices are the perfect accompaniment for Shirley’s vocal. By the end of a hugely moving, sad song, you can’t quite comprehend how the single wasn’t a much bigger success. With such a heartfelt vocal and an arrangement that’s full of emotion and sadness, it’s a brilliant combination and the perfect way to open the album.
Long As You Love Me has quite a different sound to the opening track. It’s a bright sound the listener hears with the rhythm section, an atmospheric Hammond organ, guitars and a burst of horns combining before Shirley’s vocal enters. Here her vocal is slightly quicker, but neither as loud nor strong. Instead, her voice has a joyous sound, as she sings some good lyrics. Granted, they’re not as good as Fredrick Knight’s lyrics to It Ain’t No Fun, but they’ve got a nice sentiment, about love and being in love. As the track progresses, her voice starts to get louder and stronger, and the arrangement gets even better. Bursts of braying horns cut in, while the Hammond organ provides a lovely atmospheric sound and some subtle and gentle backing vocalists accompany Shirley. This is a good song, well sung and arranged. However, the lyrics slightly let it down. Coming straight after It Ain’t No Fun was a tall order, and it was going to be difficult to follow such a good track.
Thankfully, after a slightly poor previous track, Shirley easily makes amends on Stay With Me Baby, a track that’s been covered by many people over the years. There have been good, bad and indifferent versions, but Shirley’s version is among the best. Her gospel influenced voice is just perfect for this song, giving a dynamic and energetic passion laden rendition of the lyrics, her voice soaring powerfully, but always in control. Matching her stunning performance is the Stax house band. They play brilliantly, starting slowly and subtly, a mixture of piano, rhythm section, gentle chiming guitars and sweeping, lush strings. Quickly, an excellent arrangement unfolds, a demonstration in how to play with a combination of subtly and drama. Not once does their playing overpower Shirley’s energetic, passionate and soaring vocal. Instead, they’re content to play second fiddle to Shirley, providing the perfect backdrop for her vocal. Together, they produce a stunning track, one full of passion and drama, that’s one of the album’s highlights.
It seems that Shirley is on a roll now, with I’ve Got To Go On Without You being another great track featuring a hugely soulful vocal and catchy, dramatic arrangement. Straight from the opening bars of the song, it’s apparent something special is about to unfold. A combination Hammond organ, rhythm section and blazing horns dramatically open the track before a powerful and deeply soulful vocal from Shirley enters. Here, she’s putting a brave face on, having been left alone when her man has left her. Her voice is a mixture of stoicism, bravery and hurt, as she gets across the story behind the song. Behind her, the band inject feeling and drama into the situation. Interjections from braying, joyful horns, swaying Hammond organ and a driving rhythm section that injects drama into the track. When combined with Shirley’s vocal, it’s a potent and compelling combination, that’s the recipe for another excellent track.
Woman To Woman, Shirley’s million selling, number one R&B single is best described as a mini-drama, with the track opening with Shirley phoning a woman called Barbara, who apparently has been having an affair with Shirley’s husband. Shirley warns her love rival, that the man she’s in love with, is her’s, every bit of him. Against a slow, lush and atmospheric arrangement that’s mainly the rhythm section, chiming, shimmery guitars, and subtle horns, Shirley warns Barbara. After a minute and a half, Shirley’s vocal begins. Like the earlier part of the track, Shirley’s voice is full of passion, but here it soars powerfully, as she warns Barbara and explains the situation. Behind her, the arrangement is still subtle, melodic, with just the rhythm section, horns and guitars combining. Together, they provide the perfect backdrop for Shirley’s gutsy vocal, which is part warning, part promise. Quite simply, Woman To Woman is a ballsy track, one part bravado, to one part passion, and one that’s quite brilliant.
After the warning shot that was Woman To Woman, So Glad To Have You is a track that’s a mixture of soulful vocal and funk laden arrangement. The rhythm section open the track, before horns serenade and the arrangement picks up a funky groove. As if on cue, Shirley’s vocal enters, strong and soulful, it soars as she gives thanks for her love. Meanwhile, an arrangement drenched in funk unfolds. Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass accompanies Al Jackson Jr.’s equally funky drums, while horns, organ and subtle wah-wah guitar combine with a piano and backing vocals. Together with an outstanding vocal from Shirley, it’s an irresistible combination, sultry, soulful, with a plentiful sprinkling of funky music.
Chiming, shimmering guitars, a slow dark bass, percussion and drums accompany a beautiful, slow and heartfelt vocal from Shirley. As if that isn’t enough, an atmospheric Hammond organ cuts in, as do swooning, sweet backing vocalists. They all accompany Shirley who sings some gorgeous vocals about love and being in love with someone. Here, Shirley gives a vocal that’s both joyful and beautiful, made all the better by a slow, meandering and understated arrangement, which brings out the best in the lyrics and heartfelt vocal.
I Can’t Give You Up might be a different style of song, but like the preceding tracks, is still of the highest quality. The tempo is quicker, the sound louder and brighter, as guitars, rhythm section and then horns open the track, before Shirley sings. Her voice is loud, clear and full of emotion and passion, as she sings some great lyrics by Fredrick Knight, who incidentally, wrote the opening track It Ain’t No Fun. Behind her, the arrangement is catchy, lush and sweeps along, combining drama and emotion. Brief interjections from braying horns, keyboards, chiming guitars and dramatic bursts from drums and piano, all play their part in an arrangement that combines elements of soul and jazz. When taken with Shirley’s emotive and joyful vocal, again, producers Jim Stewart and Al Jackson Jr have yet again, found the winning formula, producing a catchy and hook laden track.
By now eight songs into the album, I’ve come to the conclusion that had Stax not been in financial and legal trouble, Woman To Woman would’ve been a hugely successful album, given the high standard of vocals and arrangements. With just two songs left on the album, I hope I’ve not spoken to soon. Thankfully, when I hear the introduction to I Need You Tonight I realize that it isn’t the case. It’s another track featuring an outstanding vocal from Shirley. Her voice is laden with emotion, passion and drama, while the arrangement is perfect for her sad, heartfelt vocal. It sweeps lushly along, tugging at your heartstrings all the way. Strings combine with rasping horns, dramatic drums, and occasional chiming guitars. Swooning, soulful backing vocalists gently accompany Shirley, her voice rising, sadness and regret never far away. By the end of the track, this sadness and regret is so real it’s almost tangible, you feel you can almost touch it, feel it. Not many singers can bring a song to life, but Shirley Brown can, and does it brilliantly.
Woman To Woman closes with Between You and Me. Sadly, this was the last track on one of the final albums Stax ever released. Not long after this, the label folded, bringing to end a constant stream of sumptuous soul music since 1957. Fittingly, Shirley has reserved one last passion laden performance for this track. Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass, Al Jackson Jr.s’ drums, an organ and chiming guitars combine before Shirley’s voice soars, a mixture of power and passion. Behind her, an arrangement that combines funk and soul unfolds. Joining an already fulsome arrangement are lush, sweeping strings, that combine with a funky rhythm section, shimmery guitars and atmospheric organ. Here, Shirley’s vocal style is looser, with her almost ad-libbing and scatting. However, she does this really well, with her trademark power and passion omnipresent. As if sensing this could be the label’s final throws, Shirley and the band raise their game, determined to go out in a blaze of glory. This they succeed in doing magnificently, closing the album with a track that combines what made Stax famous, soul and funk music.
It seems a tragedy that Shirley’s album Woman To Woman was released at a time when Stax was just about to go out of business. Had it been released at an other time, and marketed properly, it may have given Shirley a hit album to match her earlier hit singe Woman To Woman. Because of the predicament Stax was in, Woman To Woman wasn’t promoted or distributed the way it should’ve been. Since then, many people, myself included, have realized how different Shirley’s career may have been, had the album been the huge commercial success it deserved to be. Instead, it’s had a cult following, loved by a small group of soul fans, instead of a wider audience. On Woman To Woman, Shirley demonstrates that she was far from a one-hit wonder, delivering one great song after another. Her follow-up single to Woman To Woman, It Ain’t No Fun also deserved to do much better. Sadly, it met the same fate as the album, lacking proper promotion and distribution. This meant Shirley couldn’t build on her earlier success, and instead, joined the ranks of many other artists who had one hugely successful single on Stax. However, unlike many of them, Shirley released an excellent album, Woman To Woman, which has just been rereleased and remastered. The remastering has really lifted the sound quality, bringing the music to life in such a way that you hear the subtleties and nuances of the album even better. So if you’ve never heard Woman To Woman I can thoroughly recommend it. It’s one of soul music’s hidden gems, crammed full of some hugely soulful music, sung by one of the best soul singers of the seventies Shirley Brown. Standout Tracks: It Ain’t No Fun, Stay With Me Baby, Woman To Woman and I Can’t Give You Up.
SHIRLEY BROWN-WOMAN TO WOMAN.