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Brown has always been singer enough

The Baltimore Sun

Honey, you sound like kinfolk."

That's Shirley Brown, her full, twangy voice so warm and familiar. I'm thinking the same thing about the soul-blues star. Both of us have roots in Arkansas: She was born in West Memphis; I made my grand debut in Hot Springs. Memories of her sassy, open-hearted music go way back for me. So - in a musical sense, I guess - she feels like family. But after more than 30 years of touring and making solid records, Shirley Brown remains an overlooked gem. Perhaps best known for her 1974 trend-setting No. 1 hit "Woman to Woman," she has long been a favorite on the Southern blues circuit. She's one of the headliners of the Second Annual Capitol Blues Festival, which stops at Washington's Constitution Hall tomorrow night.

"People are just getting back to that feel music," says Brown, 61. "I have youngsters that love my music. I never really sang the gutbucket blues - just soul or what we used to call R&B.; But it's real. Ain't nothing fake or phony about the music I do."

And that has made her a favorite of a celebrated artist who forever keeps it real: the former ghetto-fabulous Mary J. Blige.

"I almost fell off my chair when I saw her on The Rosie O'Donnell Show a few years back, and she mentioned my name with so many others that influenced her," Brown says. "My son is always telling me, 'Mama, people know who you are.'"

Those folks tend to be hard-core soul fans and discerning crate diggers like yours truly. But Brown's talent warrants more recognition than she has received over the years. Her sky-ripping vocals and engaging, down-home stage presence certainly put her in the same league with Gladys, Patti, Chaka and Aretha, to whom she's often compared. But Brown's luck in the industry hasn't been so great.

With the help of the late blues guitarist Albert King, Brown was signed to the legendary Stax label in early 1974. Her timing couldn't have been worse: The company was near bankruptcy. Brown's million-selling ballad "Woman to Woman" (a classic with a spoken, soap opera-like intro: Hello. May I speak to Barbara ... ) kept Stax afloat for a few months before the company shut down in 1975.

In the fall of the next year, pop impresario Clive Davis offered Brown a recording contract with Arista Records, a newly formed label at the time.

"It was only Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester, folks like that on the label," says Brown, who last week was at home in Memphis, Tenn. "I was the only soul artist there before Dionne Warwick, Aretha and Whitney Houston came along. Clive used to tell me, 'Your voice is a virtuoso.' I didn't know what that meant, but I took it as something good."

Arista released Shirley Brown in late 1977. Although the first single, the dreamy ballad "Blessed Is the Woman (With a Man Like Mine)," made the Top 20 on the R&B; charts, it didn't spark sales for the album. But beyond that, Arista hardly promoted the project.

"I think the label thought it was too Southern. They didn't know what to do with it," Brown says. "But that's my masterpiece. It should have done much better."

She's right. Largely sidestepping the disco madness of the day, Shirley Brown is a supreme set of intimate ballads and stomping soul numbers. Original LP copies have easily gone for three figures on eBay. But late last year, Soul Brother Records, a British label, reissued a pristinely remastered CD version of the album, which had been out of print for 30 years.

In that time, Brown's career mostly languished. After Arista dropped her in 1978, she recorded for a number of labels throughout the early and mid-'80s. By the end of the decade, though, she found a more sympathetic recording home at Malaco, the independent Mississippi-based blues label. She has released eight strong albums with the company, the most recent being 2004's Woman Enough.

Brown - the mother of two sons, one of whom died in 1996 - lives quietly in Memphis when she's not on the road about six months out of the year.

"I just want to play the shows I want to do," she says. "I don't want to go from the stage to the grave. There's a lot more to life. But as long as I'm singing - hey, it's all good to me. I'm gonna make it do what it do, baby."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Shirley Brown, Bobby Blue Bland, Latimore and others at the Second Annual Capitol Blues Festival at Constitution Hall, 18th and C streets Northwest in Washington, tomorrow night. Tickets are $65 and are available through Ticketmaster. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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