Shirley Brown reminisces about her enduring musical career

Photo provided by Rodgers, Redding and Associates -- Shirley Brown
Photo provided by Rodgers, Redding and Associates -- Shirley Brown

Soul survivor Shirley Brown has sustained a singing career for more years than she cares to mention. It’s a testament to her greatest hit, 1974’s “Woman to Woman,” a million-selling stone-soul classic.

Stax Records, the Memphis home of hits by Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, the Bar-Kays, Booker T. & the MG’s, Johnnie Taylor, Rufus and Carla Thomas and many more, released Brown’s “Woman to Woman” in 1974. It became the great label’s final hit.

Blues star Albert King, another Stax act, brought Brown, his protégé, to the label. She’d toured with King for years before that, after he made good on a promise to take her away from East St. Louis, Ill.

“Albert was the first one who took me where I could get a major deal,” Brown recalled fondly last week from Memphis. “He was like a father image to me. He was the first one who believed in Shirley Brown’s talent.”

Like many soul and R&B stars, Brown gave her early public performances in a Baptist church. During her teen years she worked with saxophonist Oliver Sain, a major regional act.

King heard Brown sing during her club gigs with Sain. He was impressed.

“Albert popped in every Wednesday night and said, ‘I’m gonna get you out of here, girl!’ Oliver hated it when Albert came in. He’d say, ‘Man, I know what y’all doing. I know what’s going on, Shirley.’

“And then Albert came in and said, ‘Shirley, this is your last night in this hole. I’m coming to get you!’ I said, ‘Really? So one day it happened. We left.”

In 1974, King brought Brown to Stax and its president, Jim Stewart. In the studio, the excited Stewart stopped Brown not even half-way through the demo she was recording.

“Jim said, ‘Shirley, come back to the control room!’ And Albert was like, ‘I told you this girl can sing!’ ”

Brown recorded a song written by Stax writers James Banks, Eddie Marion and Henderson Thigpen. A few of the label’s singers had passed on cutting “Woman to Woman.”

“I think the song was just waiting for me,” Brown said.

“Woman to Woman” went gold just weeks after she recorded it.

“And I’m straight out of the projects,” she remembered. “I didn’t know what was going on. I flew to California. I did ‘Soul Train,’ Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand.’ I got a Grammy nomination.”

Brown’s enduring talent, the perennial popularity of “Woman to Woman” and the fine recordings she later recorded for the Jackson, Miss.-based Malaco Records have kept her in demand for nearly 40 years.

“I’m touring and gigging to this day because of that record,” she said. “You can’t kill it. It won’t die. It’s just one of those things. It’s amazing how I’m still relevant to my fans. They still love Shirley Brown. And I am amazed that God has blessed me to still have my voice.”