"Their songs are so different from the songs of their contemporaries that it’s nearly impossible to imagine that they were even recorded at the same time. They are light years ahead in subject matter, in their arrangements, and in their sheer funkiness, when compared with the songs of other soul sisters of the time."
I really hate it when I see Aretha Franklin referred to as the Queen of Soul. It’s not that I have anything against her, in fact I have several of her albums and CDs. It’s just that every time I hear that, I think of Lyn Collins, Vicki Anderson, and Marva Whitney. As far as I’m concerned, they are the real Queens of Soul.
To call these women diamonds in the rough is a laughable understatement. The influence of these Funky Divas, is unquestionable; they have been sampled on more hip-hop songs than they themselves probably know (Lyn Collins’ “Think” was most famously sampled on Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two"). Yet the ladies themselves, and their stunning body of work, remain virtually unknown.
To make a long story short, Lyn, Vicki, and Marva all three got their start in James Brown’s touring revue. To make an even longer, more sordid story short, they all recorded with (or for, depending who you ask) James Brown and his band, the JB’s, at various times in the 60s and 70s. It’s a hot debate as to who wrote the songs these Funky Divas recorded, and an interesting one at that; the songs are among the most liberated, dare I say feminist, funk or soul songs ever recorded, and ironically enough, James Brown claims to have written them. Aretha may have sang about “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” but these gals demanded it.
To listen to Marva Whitney’s reworking of “It’s Your Thing” by the Isley Brothers, retitled “It’s My Thang,” is a revelation. I can’t think of a single female singer, soul or otherwise, recording at the time (late 60s) who sang so uncompromisingly; she has a voice pitched somewhere between a foghorn and a screech owl, and I mean that in the best way possible. The structure of the song is basically Marva repeating over and over “it’s my thing/I can do what I want to do.” But the killer is when she says “I don’t need love/as bad as you/makes me no difference/who you sock it to.” It makes “Respect” sound like a nursery rhyme. It makes the Supremes sound like something you’d hear on Lawrence Welk. It’s a brazenly female song, and funky as hell.
“It’s My Thang” is the precursor to Lyn Collins’ “Think.” Recorded in the early 70s, “Think” throws down, letting you know she’s “laying my cards on the table/when it comes to taking care of me I know I’m able.” Why the feminist movement never adopted her is a mystery. But this song pales in comparison to “You Can’t Love Me (If You Don’t Respect Me).” It’s a bizarre, yet danceable song that features what sounds like a snake charmer on a horn and features the inscrutable line “you and your women are all in my face/telling me I ought to stay in my place.” Needless to say, she’s not going to have any of that.
Lyn Collins’ mien was dance-funk; most of her songs funk hard, and her booming voice is easily the match to James Brown or any other funk singer. “Rock Me Again and Again and Again” will make you dizzy; “Mama Feelgood” will make you a little scared – after all, she can “take a four dollar dress/and let out the funky hem.”
As much as I love Lyn and Marva, my Funky Diva of choice is Vicki Anderson. I don’t know if it’s her range – she can sing both hardcore funk and swooning ballads with equal agility – or just the fact that she has a voice unlike any I’ve ever heard. James Brown considered her the best female singer who’d ever been a part of his stable.
Hearing her sing “Wide Awake in a Dream,” a gorgeous, sexy ballad, you’d never dream that she could also shout the hell out of “What Do I Have to Do.” Her voice has a warmth that makes her sound like she’s right in the room with you, whether she’s cooing or screaming.
For some reason, she was saddled with a lot of “answer” songs – songs in response to songs James Brown or others had already recorded. She took even these songs and made them her own. One of the best of these is “Answer to Mother Popcorn.” It starts out with her flirting “I’m not fat/and I’m not tall/I’m not the girl with skinny legs at all/But if you like them boss and you like them proud/then I’m the girl who’s going to shout out loud.” In a similar answer song, she lets you know that she’s “too rough for Mr. Big Stuff.” In both songs, she manages to be both sexy and tough at the same time, without giving an inch on either side.
The song of Vicki Anderson’s that I find most fascinating is “Message to the Soul Sisters,” which she recorded under the name Myra Barnes. It’s a strange, almost menacing song that I have yet to figure out half the lyrics to or the meaning of. It’s got something to do with a woman whose man is bringing her down, hiding his face, and “driving me to wide brimmed hats.” But, she reminds him, “if you don’t give me what I want I’ve got to get it some other place.” When she moans “I’ll not suffer no more, I’ll not suffer no more,” you know she means it. I have never heard anything like it, even among the other Funky Divas.
I realize as I look back on what I have written that very little of the spirit of this music translates to print. It’s the alchemy of these women’s voices combined with the songs that makes them so amazing, and it’s something you have to hear, not hear about.
Any one of these women, Vicki Anderson in particular, could sing any of the other female singers of their time (or any other time for that matter) out of the building. All of them sang with an immediacy and a believability that made their words seem to jump from the speakers.
Their songs are so different from the songs of their contemporaries that it’s nearly impossible to imagine that they were even recorded at the same time. They are light years ahead in subject matter, in their arrangements, and in their sheer funkiness, when compared with the songs of other soul sisters of the time.
Quit reading already and go hunt up some of this shit, okay?
Diamond in the Rough is a weekly celebration of all those terrific entertainment possibilities being ignored by other media outlets.