Sunday, 30 March 2014

Out Like a Lioness: Heroines of Soul Music, Part 1

March, Women's History Month, is almost over. Many lives and legends have been acknowledged, remembered and celebrated. This past week, both Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin celebrated birthdays. Somewhere over the past few months, I have noticed the Facebook group, The Brown Girl Collective, post the birthdays of some fairly obscure soul music artists from the 1960s. Based on that here is Unsung Heroines of Soul Music, Part One, featuring some of these artists. I featured them on my radio show at some point during its seven year run.

Mable John

Sister of 1950s rhythm and blues singer Little Willie John (who sang the original version of "Fever"), Mable John was employed by Motown at the very beginning and was the label's first female on record. Her debut on the Tamla imprint was in 1960 with "Who Wouldn't Love a Man Like That" followed by "No Love" and "Actions Speak Louder Than Words". Pegged as a blues artist, her material was not what Motown was aiming for, focusing instead on more youthful sounding artists. Mable John left Motown in 1964 and two years later was signed to Stax, having some success with songs like "You're Good Thing is About To End" and "Able Mable". She left Stax Records during its turbulent transition into an indie label in 1968. She also spent some years singing with Ray Charles' back-up vocalists the Raelettes before becoming a gospel artist.

Gloria Lynne

Gloria Lynne was a prolific jazz singer who did a few crossover songs at that point in the early 1960s when soul music began to spin off from its early rhythm and blues, doo-wop and gospel roots. Her 1961 release on Everest was called "You Don't Have To Be a Tower of Strength". Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the song was an answer to Gene McDaniels' "Tower of Strength" also written by Bacharach and David. Lynne's singing career returned to jazz for its duration into the last decade. Gloria Lynne passed away last October at the age of 83.

Ernestine Anderson

Also a jazz singer who continues to perform in her 80s, Ernestine Anderson had a couple of crossover songs in the mid-1960s, including "You're Not the Guy For Me" on the New York based Sue label. Her following was large in the UK. Her talents extended into the blues and gospel realms as well. Her most recent album was 2009's A Song For You.

Maxine Brown

Brown's 1961 rhythm and blues release on the indie label Nomar, called "All In My Mind" has all the sultriness of the best southern soul, back when Stax was still called Satelitte Records and Fame Studios had yet to open for business. She later recorded for major label ABC-Paramount (at that point, home to Ray Charles and The Impressions) before moving over to Scepter/Wand (Chuck Jackson, The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick) where she had a hit in 1964 with the original version of "Oh No, Not My Baby". Brown continued to record and continues to perform to this day.

Ann Cole

Born Cynthia Coleman, Cole began as a gospel artist and adopted her stage name in the 1950s when she switched over to secular music. Her career peaked in the late-1950s and early 1960s; particularly successful was her 1962 release on the Roulette label "Have Fun" the B-side to which was the answer song (to Etta James' "Stop the Wedding") "Don't Stop the Wedding". A serious car accident not long after this ended Cole's music career and confined her to a wheelchair. She died in 1986 at the age of 52.

Bertha Tillman

One of the hardest soul artists to find anything biographical on. Several on the Internet have tried only to turn up nothing; nothing on where she was from or if she is still alive. There are only her records. A deep, haunting voice, similar to Amy Winehouse's emanates from her 1962 and 1963 recordings on the Brent label out of Los Angeles: among them,"I Wish" and the best one, in my opinion, "Oh My Angel".

Jan Bradley

Born Addie Bradley, she recorded prolifically in the 1960s for many labels, but notably for Chess. Her biggest success in 1962-63 was "Mama Didn't Lie". She left music in the 1970s to raise her family and become a social worker. In the mid-2000s, Bradley was interviewed about her career by Bob Abrahamian on his University of Chicago soul music radio program Sitting in the Park. Her music has long been appreciated by Northern soulsters the world over.

Baby Washington

Known variously as Justine Washington and Jeannette (Baby) Washington, this Sue label artist also had/has a cult following in the UK. Singing with vocal groups The Hearts and The Jaynettes in the 1950s, she went solo in 1957. After a string of early 1960s releases, Washington hit her stride with 1963's "That's How Heartaches Are Made" (covered by the Marvelettes in 1969) and "I Can't Wait Until I See My Baby's Face" (covered by Dusty Springfield in 1967). Washington continued to record throughout the decade and still does as of this year.

Theola Kilgore

Soul music always had gospel at its core, but the early legendary classics were literally gospel songs made secular. In early 1963, Kilgore had a huge hit with "The Love of My Man", adapted from the Soul Stirrers' "The Love of God". This sombre yet ecstatic piece as what some of the best soul is made of. Kilgore continued to record in the years afterward on various labels including her own KT label (co-owned with singer/producer Ed Townsend). Kilgore passed away in 2005.

Bessie Banks

Two words: "Go Now". The song that later became the first hit for the Moody Blues was written by Bessie's husband Larry Banks especially for her; it was produced by Leiber-Stoller. Larry and Bessie had met in the 1950s while singing in a vocal group called Three Guys and a Doll. But, "Go Now" produced after the couple had separated, was her masterpiece. It was a matter of timing, though, and The Moody Blues version overtook Banks'. In the years afterwards, Banks recorded sporadically for Verve and Stax-Volt before turning to gospel music within which she still performs today.

Shirley Matthews

A Canadian soul singer from Harrow, Ontario, Matthews recorded for the Toronto label Tamarac, though her records were picked up by Atlantic in New York for US distribution. Such was the case for her Canadian-side hit "Big Town Boy" which had to compete with The Beatles' "She Loves You" on the RPM charts in 1963-64. Despite this, Matthews won the RPM Gold Leaf Award for Female Vocalist of 1964. Another song from 1964, "Wise Guys", captures the spirit of the British Invasion impacted pop landscape. Matthews later left music to enter business administration, at one point becoming the CEO of a chain of sports clubs. Matthews died in early 2013.

Nella Dodds

From Havre de Grace, Maryland, Dodds recorded an album's worth of material for the Sceptre label imprint Wand. Singles from the album were released in 1964-65, however the album, This Is a Girl's Life, was shelved. Ace/Kent in the UK released the album with bonus tracks in 2007.

Mitty Collier

A gospel singer who sang secular material part-time, Collier recorded soul music for Chess Records during most of the 1960s. Just like Kilgore, Collier adapted a gospel song, Reverend James Cleveland's "I Had a Talk With God Last Night" into a secular one, "I Had a Talk With My Man." She is best known for this song which become a huge R&B and modest pop hit in 1964. Collier later returned to gospel work and was eventually ordained as a minister.

Jackie Ross

Chess Records had many female stars in the 1960s: Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Minnie Riperton, Koko Taylor, Laura Lee and of course Mitty Collier and Fontella Bass (below). Jackie Ross, raised on gospel both her parents, both of whom were preachers, signed to the label in 1964 after a stint on Sam Cooke's SAR Records. She would release many recordings at Chess and at other labels later in her career, but only one stands out: the mid-tempo "Selfish One", sung with a coquettish charm with a slight undercurrent of melancholy (thanks to the french horns which also back up Collier on her classic). Like many soul tunes of this era, this one would enjoy many lives on the northern soul circuit years later.

Denita James

James, reportedly Kim Weston's cousin, recorded a scorcher in 1965 on the LA label Flip called "Wild Side". Images of rival mod and rocker gangs riding their scooters and motorcycles run vivid through it. Naturally it later became a northern soul classic. No biography exists for James, save for the fact that she performed with a group called Natura'elles (see above photo) and that she recently passed away.

Fontella Bass

Probably the least obscure in this list thanks to her 1965 smash "Rescue Me". However, Bass had many other releases for Chess Records, including a duet with blues singer Bobby McClure "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing" and covers such as "Our Day Will Come" and "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". One song towers above them all, arguably even the originals: her cover of Maxine Brown's 1964 song "Oh No, Not My Baby". Sung a key higher and backed up by the studio's spare, yet majestic guitar and horn section, Bass' 1966 cover elevates Brown's into the stratosphere. Definitely worth a listen!

Bass went on to record other records including two with the free jazz Art Ensemble of Chicago. She partially retired from music in the 1970s only to return to it later, often as a background vocalist. Fontella Bass died from complications from a stroke in December of 2012.

Barbara Lynn

A singer and guitarist, Barbara Lynn had a hit in 1962 with "You'll Lose a Good Thing" which she covered again a few years later. Lynn straddled soul and electric blues and her songs and presence carried a power and swagger rare in the 1960s. Many covered her songs. The above was covered by Aretha Franklin. Her "Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin' On)" was covered by the Rolling Stone and "You Left The Water Running" by Otis Redding. One mid-1960s highlight was Lynn's performance on the shortlived Nashville TV show The Beat!!! in 1966. On the show she performed the above material as well as (at the 1:12 mark in the video below) a rocking cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say". She continues to perform to this day.


  1. "Usung" perhaps to some, these fierce female soulsters are very much fully known and sung to me!

  2. ^ agreed. title modified :)