By Professor Groove, November 2006
Marva Whitney's music should be intimately familiar to anyone who loves funk. One of James Brown's several female protégées over the years, her vocal delivery is sweet when it needs to be, and utterly explosive when the funk gets moving. If you need any further convincing, check out "What Do I Have To Prove My Love To You", "Things Got to Get Better (Get Together)", or her post-James Brown track "Daddy Don't Know About Sugar Bear".
On October 31st, 2006 I had the pleasure of speaking with Marva over a somewhat glitchy phone connection. She was back home in Kansas City, relaxing after touring Europe and recording a new full-length album, "I Am What I Am", backed by the Japanese funk powerhouse Osaka Monaurail. She's also finishing work on a book, to be published in 2007, that promises more juicy details about life as Soul Sister #1 before, during and after her time with the James Brown Revue (including some details she wouldn't get into during our interview—cunning, that Marva!).
We aired some excerpts from this interview during WEFUNK Show 447, accompanied by a retrospective of Marva Whitney's funk recordings from the studio and onstage. For another summary of Whitney's history, check out her biography on soulpower.info, which I found very helpful in putting this article together.
We got right into the topic of funk as we began the interview. With no further ado...
Marva's musical life began very early. By the age of three, she was shaking her tambourine and singing in the local Pentecostal church. Music and religion were important elements that shaped both Marva's and her mother's formative years.
Marva went on to sing and tour with her family's group, The Manning Gospel Singers (she was born Marva Manning). At the age of 16 she joined the Alma Whitney Singers, and went on to marry Harry Whitney. During this period, she also tried singing R&B and the blues for the first time. Being raised in a "Holy Roller" family, this understandably brought some trouble with her parents.
Unsatisfied with 9-to-5 work at a local garment manufacturer, and driven by her dream of a career performing onstage, Marva Whitney sang in Kansas City nightclubs and took part in talent competitions as she entered her 20's. Local group Tommy & The Derbys took Marva on as lead singer. As Kansas City's most in-demand group they opened for virtually every big act that came through town—Ike & Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Guitar Watson, The Drifters, and more.
Marva's manager arranged a meeting with James Brown's booking agent in 1966 when the James Brown Revue was scheduled to perform in Kansas. A riot at the show scuttled that chance, but a year later JB was back and she had another opportunity. She had already chosen to leave Tommy & The Derbys as members of the group departed for LA seeking better fortune, and around the same time she also turned down offers from both Bobby Bland and Little Richard to join their touring shows. When James Brown came to town, Marva was mostly playing in the church and wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of joining his revue. JB arrived on Easter Sunday, and although she hadn't planned to go down to his show that afternoon, Marva heeded her manager's advice and headed out for the meeting. She was a little put off that she had to sit through two consecutive James Brown shows before they made time for her to audition with "Pee Wee" Ellis, Brown's bandleader. After hearing her audition, Pee Wee and Mr. Brown were impressed and immediately asked her to join the show and record with them.
James Brown flew her out to Cincinnati to complete the paperwork at King Records. Being dropped into a whole new level of the music business, she expected some training to prepare for the studio and performing for tens of thousands of people... but that was not the James Brown way. Preparation for recording was minimal and you were expected to learn on the spot and give it all you've got. For her first session, "Your Love Was Good To Me" in the summer of '67, the backing track was already recorded and sitting in the vault before she arrived. Despite the fact that it was in the wrong key for her vocal range, there was nothing Marva could do but record her vocal track while they rolled tape and cut the record.
On tour with the James Brown Revue in 1967 and '68, Marva Whitney performed in Europe, the Far East (including Vietnam in the turmoil of war) and North Africa. The conditions she found in Africa were striking and unsettling, and she was uncomfortable receiving such reverence from the native Africans in the midst of abject poverty.
For those who worked for James Brown, perfection in musicianship and choreography was expected during every moment onstage. Soul Sister #1 received no special treatment, and any mistakes led to fines "and sometimes worse." In the studio, Brown decided the lukewarm response to Marva Whitney's first singles—all soul tracks—called for a change in direction. "Unwind Yourself", released in January 1968, forged Whitney's now-familiar fiery funk sound. Several more raw funk singles ("I'm Tired, I'm Tired, I'm Tired", "What Do I Have To Do...") led the way to the song that broke her through to national recognition and a hit on the R&B charts: "It's My Thing". Although James Brown rehearsed his own tracks on the road until he felt they were ready for the studio, when it came to solo artists like Marva recording was a more spontaneous and last minute affair.
Although musically the band was under James Brown's firm and absolute direction, the songwriting process required a great deal of skilled "interpretation" on the band's part—especially for bandleader "Pee Wee" Ellis, who had the challenging task of discerning and translating Brown's grunting singsong into full arrangements for the band. Between the creative process and the musical arrangements themselves, it was demanding work for everyone involved. (One of my favorite anecdotes about Brown is his audition of a guitar player: "Can you play a G7 chord?" "Sure can." "Can you do it for twenty minutes?"). The repetitive, clock-like vamping of James Brown's "new new super heavy" mode of funk eventually drove Fred Wesley, jazz-trained trombone player, to leave the group in a fit of frustration.
Marva Whitney is grounded and modest about her work, and there were aspects of being in the full limelight of the James Brown Revue that weren't natural for her. She mentioned to me that even being called "Soul Sister #1" was something that took many years to get used to.
After touring for two and a half years with James Brown, recording two LPs and releasing at least 13 singles, Marva decided to leave the James Brown Revue and return to Kansas. Vickie Anderson (whom Marva replaced in '67) returned to the Revue for some time, then Lyn "The Female Preacher" Collins joined as Brown's featured female act. While speaking with me, Marva preferred to leave her reason for leaving JB as a detail to be discovered in her upcoming book—although she did provide a couple clues....
Back in Kansas, Marva Whitney didn't waste much time. She hit the studio to record a rough funk workout titled "Giving Up On Love" for T-Neck (the Isley's record label). As good as it was, the record didn't get much promotion or airplay. Divorced from Harry Whitney, in 1970 Marva married Forte label-head Ellis Taylor. Forte hosted several more Whitney singles including the exceptional "Daddy Don't Know About Sugar Bear". Again, promotion, airplay and sales were disappointingly limited despite national distribution of the singles.
At least six years of inactivity in the music business passed. In the early 80s Marva briefly got together with Coffee, Cream & Sugar (Marva was "Cream"), a group assembled by a gifted "musical nut" named Alfred "Pico" Payne who had previously sung with the Ink Spots. The group only performed a couple of times and didn't have any major gigs.
With the late 80s/early 90s came the ascendance of sampling in hip-hop, the British rare groove movement and, through both of those avenues, a big resurgence of interest in music related to James Brown. 45 King's track "900 Number" and the release of the "James Brown's Funky People" compilation series brought Marva Whitney to the ears of a new generation of fans. JB alumni Maceo Parker, Vickie Anderson and Lyn Collins started doing performances to eagerly receptive audiences in the UK and Western Europe, and this quickly lead to the formation of the JB Allstars. The Allstars reunited James Brown Revue veterans Anderson, Collins, Whitney, Bobby Byrd, Parker, Fred Wesley and "Pee Wee" Ellis.
Last year (2005/2006), Marva Whitney met up with the Japanese funk unit Osaka Monaurail, whose invocation of the JB sound is uncanny. Under the ear of German producer DJ Pari, Marva and Osaka Monaurail began recording and performing, and the first result is the chugging funk of the single "I Am What I Am". An album of the same name is coming very soon.
With all the ground we covered during our hour on the phone, there are a lot more stories to be told. Marva Whitney's book is nearly finished and will be published in 2007. Marva promises it will delve more deeply into the James Brown experience, the joys and frustrations of the music business, and the rest of the story of Soul Sister #1.
Thanks to Marva Whitney for blessing us with this interview and to DJ Pari for all his help in setting it up (and to Pari again for helping to bring Marva back to the limelight).