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October 1, 2009 5:18 PM

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Soul Sister Marva Whitney

Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff Last weekend, Soul Sister No. 1, Marva Whitney, rolled onto the stage like a fire engine in a glittering red outfit and a will to be heard. It had been decades since the nearly forgotten...

Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
Last weekend, Soul Sister No. 1, Marva Whitney, rolled onto the stage like a fire engine in a glittering red outfit and a will to be heard.

It had been decades since the nearly forgotten performer had gigged in the New York area, but she showed the packed house at Southpaw in Brooklyn that some people never change. Whitney, once known as one of the loudest, hottest and rawest female voices of funk, still had all of her power. After singing alongside James Brown in the late Sixties, traveling as far as Vietnam and Africa with the notoriously difficult showman, Whitney was cast out of the limelight. For many years of her adult life, the vocalist worked as a secretary.

At the set on Saturday, Whitney wore a flame-colored sparkly lace and satin jacket with rhinestone buttons and a black satin-nylon catsuit. It was hard to imagine anyone in such fabulous attire, dripping in jewelry and coral red lipstick, in front of a typewriter.

Longtime friend Ron Taylor, who helped dress Brown for many years, assisted Whitney in selecting her outfit for the evening. As Whitney put it, Taylor knew the "craft of mixing and matching." (A stylist of the old school, Taylor said he considers what the performer owns and what would be comfortable to sing in, as well as sometimes both the crowd and the venue.) Dressed to the nines, Whitney opened with a gutsy rendition of her classic song, "Unwind Yourself."

"I've been blackballed for 40 years!" she proclaimed. "Sometimes you've got to take a stand." Throughout the night, Whitney offered a mixture of banter, self-reflection and preaching. She suggested she was punished early in her career for talking back to men. "Thank God for giving me more than one talent," she exclaimed. She talked about how she was taught "the fingers," playing piano, a talent that helped cover her family's expenses when she was young. And she flirted with the young guitarist standing behind her: "It's a good thing my mother raised me right." The real trick was her groovy singing rivaled the late Brown's at his finest, and she could still hit her old high notes and hold them.

"Ain't the ladies looking good?" said Whitney, gesturing to the backup girls in hip-grazing sequined dresses. "I wish I could wear sleeveless dresses, but those days are long gone." The crowd responded by yelling, "No!"

She delivered an electrifying take on "It's My Thing [You Can't Tell Me Who to Sock It To]," and the audience raised their hands above their heads in applause. Ending the show, Whitney offered up a newer song, also one of her personal mottoes, she said, called "I Am What I Am." Afterward, Whitney traded high heels for gold slippers backstage. She reminisced about her early years and her first job out of high school, sewing mink collars onto coats. "I wasn't very good at it," she said, laughing.

On Brown, she said: "He asked me to marry him, but at the time, he was between a rock and a hard place." They remained on cordial, albeit strained terms in the years after their personal fallout. Whitney occasionally appeared with him when he performed around Kansas City, Kan., where she lives.

More recently, she was surprised to learn Brown wanted her to sing at his memorial service in December 2006 in Augusta, Ga. She did.

But ever the outspoken woman, she said, just thinking out loud: "Everybody who dies wants to clean up his house. He didn't want to go to hell."
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