By the time that Shirley Brown came along Stax Records was pretty much finished. The legendary label was collapsing like a house of cards under the weight of a sea of financial problems and government investigations. Brown’s success allowed the label to hold on a little longer, but the writing was on the wall.
Brown was born in West Memphis but raised in Illinois. She started singing gospel in church like so many greats did. Some said her voice was like Aretha Franklin’s. But it wasn’t in church that Albert King found her in 1961. At the age of 14 she was singing at the Harlem Club in Brooklyn, IL. Brown spent the next nine years on the road with King.
In 1972 Brown made her first record. “I Ain’t Gonna Tell” b/w
“Love on a Strong Foundation” was released by Abet Records. Meanwhile, King had been a star at Stax for a number of years. In 1974 he recommended Brown to the label, and her very first single for the label was a smash.
“Woman to Woman” was written by James Banks, Eddie Marion, and Henderson Thigpen. The team had originally written the song for Inez Foxx, but she turned it down. Foxx’s loss was Brown’s gain as she turned “Woman to Woman” into a #1 R&B single in late 1974. The single also crossed over to #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The single, which was released on the Stax subsidiary Truth Records, was the last major hit that Stax ever had.
An album, also called Woman to Woman, was released and found some success, but Stax was really near the end and the title of Brown’s follow up single, “It Ain’t No Fun,” told you everything you needed to know about the way things were going at the label. It wasn’t much later that Stax closed its doors.
Left without a label, Brown signed to Arista Records in 1977. There she was reunited with Stax co-founder Jim Stewart who, along with Bettye Crutcher, produced a self-titled album for Brown. Crutcher’s song “Blessed is the Woman” was released as a single and did some business, reaching #14 on the R&B chart.
Brown has recorded for several labels since then, including Stax when it was re-formed, and Fantasy Records. Since the late ’80s she has recorded for Mississippi-based Malaco Records. She’s never had the same level of success she did in the ’70s, but she continues to be a popular touring artist.
We’ll never know how far Shirley Brown could have gone if Stax Records had not folded beneath her. Given the talent in evidence on her recordings it’s clear that she was cursed with bad timing. Had Brown recorded at Stax during the label’s glory years hers might have been a very different story.