“Phenomenon means having your first single record…’Woman To Woman’…sell a million in eight weeks,” reads the opening liner notes of Shirley Brown’s 1974 debut album, Woman To Woman. The song finds Brown confronting “the other woman” over the telephone, and is surprisingly direct. Over a seductively sweet blend of soul instrumentation, Shirley lays down the law to a lady named Barbara:
“It’s only fair that I let you know, that the man you’re in love with…he’s mine. From the top of his head to the bottom of his feet, the bed he sleeps in and every piece of food he eats.”
The opening monologue (or rap) was a technique made famous by Isaac Hayes with his classic version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” in 1969. Barry White had borrowed it for most of his early seventies hits, but Shirley Brown was the first female vocalist to top the charts with this approach. She had already paid plenty of dues by the time of her “overnight” success. Shirley had caught the ear of Albert King in 1961, when he heard her perform at the Harlem Club in Brooklyn, Illinois. She was just 14 years old. King recruited her to open for him, and she spent the next 13 years touring the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” with the bluesman.
“It Ain’t No Fun” was the follow-up single to “Woman To Woman,” and went to number 32. It is a bluesy, late-night ballad, with her lamenting, “It ain’t no fun being in love all by yourself.” Midway through we find Shirley delivering a monologue to her girlfriends about her good-for-nothing man. “I’ve Got To Go On Without You” was originally intended as the A-side of the single, but radio chose “It Ain’t No Fun” instead. It is a shame too, because “I’ve Got To Go On Without You” is a terrific song. Shirley’s singing on many of the album’s tracks point to a gospel background, very much like her contemporaries the Staple Singers. I mention this because “I’ve Got To Go On Without You” sounds very much like the music the Staple Singers were making at the time.
Although never released as a single, “Passion” should have been. There is a sexiness to Miss Brown’s delivery here that is a long way from the church choir. She reminds me of a female Teddy Pendergrass on this one, ready to reach out through the speakers to make love to you. The original LP ended with “Between You And Me,” a funky statement of purpose from a woman who knows exactly what she wants. “Come on baby, lets get it on,” is not sung as a Marvin Gaye seduction, but rather as an urgent call to action. On this tune, our lady is anything but passive.
As part of the new Stax Remasters series, Woman To Woman has just been reissued in its entirety, along with some bonus tracks. When Albert King first brought her around to Stax, she recorded three Aretha Franklin tunes as demos. Her versions of “Ain’t No Way,” “Respect,” and “Rock Steady” have never been previously released, and each sounds great. The real wonder, though, is her seven-minute take on Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” This is a remarkable bit of interpretation, and available for the first time here as well.
When “Woman To Woman” topped the soul charts in late November 1974 it became the final hit single for Stax Records. The label closed the doors for good the following year. Shirley Brown has fared considerably better than her former employers, and continues to perform and record to this day. She will always be best known for “Woman To Woman,” though, and the album it came from remains a high point of mid-seventies soul.