SHIRLEY BROWN: Last Stax hit.
Memphis-based Stax Records has many Arkansas connections. One occurred in the mid-1970s, when a Crittenden County-born singer was brought in, in hopes of saving the label from financial ruin.
Shirley Brown was born Jan. 6, 1947, in West Memphis. She moved to East St. Louis when she was 9. In her youth she had sung with the likes of Little Milton and Albert King. Later, guitarist King brought Brown to Stax. King, influence to Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, lived in Crittenden County and is buried in Edmondson.
After experiencing great expansion and success in the 1970s while headed by Brinkley-born and North Little Rock-raised Al Bell, Stax was in trouble. “What they owed me on paper, they sent back in records,” Bell says. “What they had been doing was taking the product in, warehousing it, bleeding the marketplace and bleeding me — and doing what they do to take over a corporation. They didn’t call it hostile takeover back then, but that’s what it was about.”
Jim Stewart, Stax’s original owner, had returned to the label he founded in the late 1950s. Stax had launched Otis Redding and Sam and Dave and had hits like Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions,” only to have the label’s catalog overtaken by distributor Atlantic. Stewart hadn’t been in the studio in years, but was sufficiently moved by Brown to produce her. Another West Memphis native, trumpeter Wayne Jackson, also played at the March 1974 Brown sessions, and had been part of both the Stewart and Bell eras.
The first song attempted had already been rejected by another Stax singer, Inez Foxx. “Woman to Woman” featured a woman confronting her man’s other woman by phone. “This is Shirley,” Brown speaks calmly over the opening bars. “... I was going through my old man’s pockets this morning, and I just happened to find your name and number.
“... I don’t know how you’re going to take this; whether you’ll be cool, or come out of the bag on me. See, it really doesn’t make any difference. But 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. You see, I make it possible. The clothes on his back? I buy them. The car he drives? I pay the note every month.”
“Woman to Woman” appeared on Stax’s Truth subsidiary in August 1974. It topped the R&B charts, hit No. 22 on the pop charts, and eventually sold more than 1 million copies. Brown’s song was nominated for a Grammy for best female vocal performance and spawned at least two answer songs: Lonnie Youngblood’s “Man to Woman,” and Barbara Mason’s “From His Woman To You” — which used new lyrics over the original melody and reached No. 3 on the R&B charts in December 1974.
“Woman to Woman” was one of faltering giant Stax’s mere four Top 10s that year. In late 1974, the label bought the small pressing plant of Rimrock Records in Concord (Cleburne County). Rimrock was owned by Wolf Bayou native Wayne Raney, a former country music star. When another Brown single, “It Ain’t No Fun,” gained steam and hit the Top 40, the Rimrock plant ran 24 hours a day to meet production demand in spring 1975.
Despite Brown’s success, it wasn’t enough — “Woman to Woman” was Stax’s last major hit.
• “Woman to Woman,” Shirley Brown
• “It Ain’t No Fun,” Shirley Brown
• “Man to Woman,” Lonnie Youngblood
“From His Woman to You,” Barbara Mason