Barbara & the Browns
This Memphis family group started out as a gospel unit, the Brown Sisters, and comprised Barbara, and her sisters Roberta, Betty and Maurice according to Rob Bowman. Their fist disc was recorded by Chips Moman who persuaded them to try their hand at R & B in the studio rather than the church music they came to audition for him. “Big Party” is a plodding beat ballad that sold well enough locally to get into the Top 100 R & B charts in 1964 when it was leased to Stax from the one-off Wil-Mo label. “You belong to her” is a better song, and almost a Barbara solo effort, so low key are the harmony singers, and so showed even more clearly how good a vocalist Barbara Brown was, even at that early stage of her career. Possessing a deep, rich tone she was a first rate emotive stylist, full of gospel tricks and mannerisms.
The group’s two other Stax singles were cut using the famous studio band, and are all fine southern soul. The addition of the Stax horns also makes a big difference. Barbara comes across as rather attractively vulnerable on these cuts, not as sassy as some of her sisters at Soulsville USA. I like “My Lover” the best for its progressive chord changes and Steve Cropper’s bluesy guitar patterns, as well as the fact that it has Barbara’s most intense vocal to date.
After leaving Stax the group recorded several discs for Charles Chalmers, who was earning a living as a sax man, arranger and producer in those days, several years before he became better known as the male voice in Rhodes/Chalmers/Rhodes at the Hi studio. I Don’t Want To Have To Wait is a typically effective plaintive ballad, and the unissued To Know I Can’t Touch from the same session is a heart rending cry of pain – superb. By this stage the Browns were taking very much a back seat, a fact emphasised by the billing on the Atco 45 as plain Barbara Brown. Both sides of this disc are fantastic deep soul. The somewhat ambiguous “A Great Big Thing”, cut in Muscle Shoals, with her double tracked vocals is great, but her tortured screams on the Memphis recorded Can’t Find No Happiness are so realistic they never fail to raise the hairs at the back of my neck. Simply superb.
The Tower 45 is more countrified than the previous releases – weepy strings on Things Have Gone To Pieces for example – but thanks to Barbara’s emotive strength this is another excellent release. In some ways If I Can’t Run To You I’ll Crawl may be her very best of them all. Not only is the song by Don Culver absolutely right, with a memorable hookline, the arrangement is perfect as well, plonking piano, the guitar doubling up the bass line, rich horns, and especially the drummer (Gene Chrisman?) who sits in the groove throughout the song without even a single roll or flourish of any kind. I might put money on a suggestion that this cut was in the can when she joined Dan Greer, it's so similar in "feel" to her other Chalmers releases. The remainder of Barbara’s Sounds Of Memphis releases were bound to suffer against that kind of opposition but her roars of anguish on “Pity A Fool” are well worthy of note.
I can’t really praise highly enough the series of 45s that Barbara recorded – either on her own or with her sisters. They’re up there with the very best like Laura Lee’s Chess material, or Mable John’s Stax sets. Music to treasure.
You belong to her / Big party ~ WILMO 101 STAX 150 (1964)
In my heart / Please be honest with me ~ STAX 158 (1964)
I don't want trouble / My lover ~ STAX 164 (1965)
I don't want to have to wait / Plenty of room ~ CADET 5544 (1966)
Can't find no happiness / A great big thing ~ ATCO 6549 (1968)
There's a look on your face / Things have gone to pieces ~ TOWER 429 (1968)
You don't love me / If I can't run to you I'll crawl ~ XL / SOUNDS OF MEMPHIS 705 (1971)
Pity a fool / If it's good to you ~ SOUNDS OF MEMPHIS 709 (1972)
Big party / Watch dog ~ SOUNDS OF MEMPHIS 713 (1972)
1. The P-Vine LP “Southern Soul Stock Vol 2” (PLP 6058) included 2 unissued tracks from the Cadet sessions – To Know I Can’t Touch and “I’m Gonna Start A War”. These were then also issued on the Green Line UK LP GCH 8118.
2. Ace UK have issued a suprb collection of post-Stax Barbara & the Browns material "Can't Find Happiness" (Kent CDKEND 278). Buy it.