Lyn Collins, "The Female Preacher," is probably the most-heard unknown singer in America. If you've listened to any hip-hop in the last 10 years, you've heard her voice sampled over and over, most famously calling out the chorus of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two"--a sample from her 1971 R&B hit "Think (About It)." Others, notably Vicki Anderson and Marva Whitney, became famous the same way that Collins did, and they all made some of the greatest soul and funk records of the '60s and '70s; today, they're far too little known beyond the samplers and DJs to whom they're staples.
They all had the fortune--and the misfortune--to be the women who sang with James Brown.
In these women's day, Brown's show was a full-fledged revue: Spots by comedians, vocal groups, Brown's backing band playing on its own, and other singers occupied the time before Danny Ray came out to introduce Soul Brother No. 1--"Are you ready for Star Time?" There was usually one featured female vocalist who'd come on before Brown and sing a few numbers; she'd also serve as a background singer for him, maybe do a duet or two, maybe cover a then-current pop hit while Brown went backstage to change into another outlandish costume.
She'd make records too--mostly singles, mostly extraordinary, mostly overshadowed in sales and on the radio by the man who scored more than 100 chart singles. Her name would appear as the artist credit; the rest of the label would say "Produced by James Brown," "Arranged by James Brown," "A James Brown Production--The Sound of Success." You can guess whose name would appear as the writer's credit; the face pictured on the label would be his too.
With very few exceptions, the Brown women's songs--even their hits--have been out of print for 20 years or more. That's about to change, thanks to a spectacular new double-CD compilation of classic recordings by a dozen of them, James Brown's Original Funky Divas. It's about time the compilation showed up, not just for its musical value but in terms of soul fans' demand for it--Anderson, Collins, and Whitney have all had bootleg LPs of their recordings circulating in the last few years, and both of Collins' albums were re-released on vinyl last year.
But moments from all three singers' records have been showing up all over the radio. That "it takes two to make a thing go right" chorus aside, a break from "Think (About It)" (with Brown gasping, "Whoo! Yeah!") is just about the most-sampled beat ever; a riff from Whitney's "Unwind Yourself," looped by DJ Mark the 45 King as "The 900 Number," isn't far behind it (most recently, it's been the source of DJ Kool's "Let Me Clear My Throat"). And Anderson was startled to see her name listed among the most-sampled artists a few years ago--especially since she claims she's never seen a penny of royalties from her recordings.
"Even though I'm very happy that someone loves my music enough to do something with it," she says, "more than anything, I would also like to be recognized financially for the work I've done."
Anderson toured with Brown intermittently from 1965 to 1972 and recorded under multiple names, most curiously Momie-O. ("Actually, everybody calls me Momie-O," she explains.) Then there's "Myra Barnes," the name on two of Anderson's biggest hits--the slinky midtempo grooves "The Message from the Soul Sisters" (Lil' Kim samples its "yeah-ah" moan) and "Super Good." It's also the name by which people knew her in high school, where she started singing in gospel groups.
"When we recorded," she says, "[producer] Walter Whisenhunt said, 'If you can get that one right there to sing me a blues song, I'll cut this gospel for free.' I'd never sung any rhythm and blues, but I was so fond of Shirley Caesar, who had this gospel song--'I never knew joy/Till I met the Lord.' I just changed it to 'I never knew joy/Till I met my man,' and that was the one that started doing something! But I changed my name for that to Vicki Anderson, because I didn't want the church people to find out."
And so she remained on record for five years. "Myra Barnes" only appeared when she got her passport in 1970 and Brown found out her real identity. ("He said, 'Oh, you got a beautiful name! Why'd you change your name?'") Of course, Brown dished out punishments as often as compliments--everyone's got a story about some outrageous fine levied for a trivial offense or an accident of fate.
"You couldn't leave anything on the bus," Anderson recalls. "Absolutely nothing. One time, I left my wig on my seat. James went back there, and he told the driver to throw everything on that bus in the garbage. So the driver came to me--I think the crew had a special Momie-O thing for me--and he said, 'Momie-O, don't tell Mr. Brown, but he had me put your wig in the trash, but I wouldn't do it--here it is.' I said, 'He did what?'
"So, what I did, I put my wig on. James saw me on stage with it, and called me into the dressing room. He said, 'You look good.' I said, 'Thank you.' He said, 'Where did you get that wig from?' I said, 'I don't know where I bought it from.' But I think he knew, This is not the time, because I do not have another singer standing by to take this poor woman's place, and she is definitely going to walk. He never said another word."
Nonetheless, Anderson says she was spared the worst of Brown's hassling tendencies because she was married to his right-hand man Bobby Byrd: "When things got crazy, I could always go home, and we still had a salary that was coming in, so I could always afford to do that."
The relatively generous salary Brown paid his entourage was the big reason they were willing to go in the studio and not ask questions. Many of them have never gotten any royalties for records they made when they were with Brown, and writer's credits tended to mysteriously end up switched to Brown's name or the name of somebody to whom he owed a favor.
Lyn Collins is more than a little frustrated by not getting paid writer's royalties for songs she says she wrote on her own--particularly "Think (About It)," which went gold a few years ago in a cover by Patra. But Brown favored singers and musicians who could roll with his whims, and as with nearly everybody who toured with him, Collins was drafted in and tested to see how well she worked on the fly.
In 1970, Collins was a show promoter and singer, touring the chitlin circuit and military bases, when she got a call from Brown's production company--at 3 a.m.--telling her to be in Macon, Georgia, the next day to record. She cut two songs; the day after that, she was flown to the King Records offices in Cincinnati to sign a contract. A few months later, she was conscripted to go on the road with the band--just to observe, not to perform.
"One night, in Houston, out of the blue, [Brown] said, 'I want you to go on.' From then on, I toured with him, doing other people's songs; then 'Think' came out, went up to No. 9, stayed on the Billboard R&B charts for 17 weeks, and that was it."
Think (About It), the album, was put together in a hurry to capitalize on the hit--the back cover includes a shout-out to "Viki [sic] Anderson," as well as exhortations to "Use 18 Power to Vote" and "Fight Sickle Cell Anemia." It was followed by a slew of other singles, some hits ("Mama Feelgood," "Take Me Just As I Am," the wonderful disco oddity "Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again and Again"), some not. There were calls for feminist unity--"We got to use what we got to get what we want," she declares on "Think"--and then there were numbers like "How Long Can I Keep It Up," an ultra-codependent paean to sitting around until one's man comes home that includes the couplet, "I'm gonna have some fun/Even if it's at the point of a gun."
"All our sessions were impromptu," Collins says. "Nothing was ever planned."
Sometimes, that philosophy resulted in some very weird records--such as a cover of "Don't Make Me Over," repeatedly interrupted by a DJ intoning "burn, sister, burn!"--but even misery and dissension could turn into great music. She refers to a session with Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker of the legendary JB Horns during which they were recording "If You Don't Know Me by Now."
"This was one of the days that James Brown decided he was going to fire me again," Collins recalls. "Nobody ever knew. On that particular day, he said, 'I'm not going to produce you anymore.' Like, OK. Maceo and Fred were still in the studio, and he went and got in his limousine and left. I went in the studio, and I said: 'Is he gone?' Someone went to the window and looked for his limo, and said yes. I said 'OK, all the guys, get out of the studio--it's time for me to go to work.' And we did it. I'm proud of it, because it's really me."
That track ended up as the centerpiece of her second and final album, Check Me Out if You Don't Know Me by Now. Shortly after its release in 1975, Collins began negotiating with Ted Turner to host a 30-minute talk show, Woman Talk; Brown, though, wanted her to continue on with him, and something had to give. She ended up leaving Brown's entourage, the show never panned out, and for most of the next year, she avoided listening to music at all. By 1978, she had moved to Los Angeles to find out about the other side of the music industry.
"Everybody wants to go where the money goes; nobody knows," she says. "So I got a job at a big recording studio, the Record Plant, in the accounting department. In college my major was business, so I used that to my advantage: seeing how the whole thing was done, taking engineering classes, learning a little more about what I'd been doing the last seven years with James Brown. I worked there for a year before ever letting them know that I was a singer--I wanted to prove myself. I used my first name and a nickname that I had in high school. Lyn Collins was not an office person--she was a stage person. I'm a Gemini, so you can see, I can separate the two."
Eventually, "Cecil," as she called herself, let on that she sang a bit too, and did some background vocals for records (including the odd Rod Stewart album), TV shows, and movies--she sang on Brown's track for Dr. Detroit, though he didn't know about it. By the time she left the Record Plant in 1988, she was the studio's operations manager. That was also about when she started to hear her voice all over the radio again.
"Oh, I can remember the first time I heard 'It Takes Two,'" she says. "At first, I was angry. Maybe for a day, until I thought about it. And then I said: Wait a minute. I really did what I set out to do. I wanted to make a name for myself and learn as much as I could possibly learn."
On the other hand, Collins was still frustrated that she wasn't seeing any money from it. To capitalize on the buzz, she hooked up with Anderson, Byrd, and a few other Brown veterans, and the women started touring in Europe, where "Think" became a hit again. A few years ago, they recorded a live album, Finally Getting Paid (though Anderson claims they somehow didn't get paid), which also featured the first released recordings in more than 15 years by soul screamer Marva Whitney.
Nearly every track on Marva Whitney's sole Brown-produced studio album, It's My Thing, finds her revving up into full-on hysterics within a matter of seconds. It's a trick she picked up when she was growing up in Kansas City, singing gospel in the Church of God in Christ.
Whitney ended up in Brown's show at a particularly adventurous time. On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed, the revue played in Boston. The show was televised live and repeated several times that night, in the (successful) hope of preventing riots from breaking out in the city. And it was a magnificent performance. A videotape of it finds Whitney, during her solo spot, screaming so hard that a stagehand runs out to switch her microphone so she won't blow it out.
A few months later, Whitney was part of the small group Brown took on a tour of Vietnam. The bond between Whitney and Brown showed up on record too--check out "You Got to Have a Job," a duet on Original Funky Divas, where they go at each other like duelists--Whitney howling for saxophonist Maceo Parker to blow, and Brown goading her, "Call him! call him!" Brown also says in his autobiography that Whitney was his girlfriend for a while.
"Now, wait a minute," she says. "Let me say this. James, first and foremost, loved women. OK? Loved women. And as far as being a one and only? I don't know, OK? As far as me being with him a lot? Yes! He was saving me! Yes, we went to dinner, you know, but if I was that much of a girlfriend, I wouldn't have to have left. But he's a man, you know, and I don't think I was that ugly."
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In any event, she did leave in early 1970 to start a solo career. A handful of singles came out on the soul labels Excello and T-Neck, but none really took off. Eventually, Whitney returned to gospel singing; these days, she's minister of music at a Baptist church back in Kansas City. That's not all she's doing, though: Whitney, Anderson, and Collins have joined forces with Martha High, a mellow slow-burner with a multi-octave range who clocked nearly 32 years (on and off) with the Godfather before leaving his show for good earlier this year. (Strangely, she only recorded half a dozen or so Brown-produced songs in all this time; two, including a bizarre cover of "Summertime," are on Original Funky Divas.)
They've formed a group called the King's Queens, which has recorded an album, Pure Deep Pleasure, soon to be released in Europe. They'll be touring over there this summer, with a band including Bobby Byrd and his and Vicki's children, and they're thrilled about the prospect of singing together again--and maybe, perhaps, finally getting paid.
"We've always been very close," High says. "I did a tour with them during the time that Mr. Brown was incarcerated, and we kept in contact with each other. We got in touch with Bobby Byrd and Fred Wesley and Bootsy Collins, and they agreed that they'd work with us and help us to get some songs together. And talk about a family reunion, oh boy...When we all got to Cincinnati, if you would've seen us, you would've said, Look at them, they're like children! We were hollerin' and screamin' and cryin' and kissin' each other...we were just so excited."
"We're just as good or better singers than we were," Whitney says. "And that's a blessing. God has given us our health to keep our pipes, and that's four different funky sounds.