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Feature Review: Stax Remasters of The Dramatics, Rufus Thomas, and Shirley Brown

The Dramatics
Whatcha See is What You Get

Rufus Thomas
Do the Funky Chicken

Shirley Brown
Woman to Woman

[Stax Re-Masters/Concord Music Group (2011)]

Originally known as the Dynamics, the Dramatics (Ron Banks, Larry “Squirrel” Demps, Willie Ford, Lenny Mayes, and L.J. Reynolds, William “Wee Gee” Howard, and Elbert Wilken) were brought to the attention of Stax (Volt) by Don Davis, a Detroit record producer. With the help of songwriter Tony Hestor, the group recorded “Whatcha See is What You Get,” a Latin-infused, fuzz-toned, early disco-soul groove which brought the single up to #3 on the R&B charts and #9 on the Pop charts in the summer of 1971. Their follow-up single, the dreamy, sexy soul ballad “In the Rain” also became a major hit, moving up to #5 on the Pop charts. Almost over night, it seems, the Dramatics became one of the most sought-after and popular early 1970s soul bands in America. The album Whatcha See is What You Get is one of their finest efforts, blending a mix of slow-burning funk (“Hot Pants in the Summertime”), fast-driving rock riffs (“Stand Up Clap Your Hands”), uptempo dance grooves (“Hum a Song (From Your Heart”), achy-breaky ballads (“Fall in Love, Lady Love”), and raw social commentary (“The Devil is Dope”).

Photo courtesy of the Stax Museum. (www.staxmuseum.com)

Rufus Thomas, veteran of the Memphis soul scene and legendary DJ, had his first chart success in 1953 with “Bear Cat,” a funny take-off on Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” He then scored a sizeable hit on fledging Satellite Records (which soon morphed into Stax Records) with a duet with his daughter Carla on “Cause I Love you” in 1960. Getting to the top of the charts in 1963 with “Walking the Dog,” a song which the Rolling Stones covered on their first album, Thomas was at his commercial peak. By the late 1960s, Rufus Thomas was in need of another hit to keep his career going, and he released “Do the Funky Chicken” in 1970, backed by his son Marvell Thomas on keyboards and members of the Bar-Kays. “Do the Funky Chicken” got to #5 on the R&B charts and #28 on the pop charts, and gave him a well-deserved boost in sales. This album is a collection of funny, raucous “get-down” dance tunes (“Old McDonald had a Farm,” “Funky Mississippi,” “Itch and Scratch,” and “Sixty Minute Man”) infused with soul and sexual innuendo.

Released in 1974, the single “Woman to Woman” sold a million copies in its first eight weeks and established Shirley Brown, a protégé of Albert King, as one of Memphis-based Stax’s up-and-coming soul stars who especially found a niche speaking (and singing) directly to women. With such a big hit on her hands (#1 on the R&B charts; #22 on the Pop charts), Brown released a follow-up single “It Ain’t No Fun,” which bounced around the charts, peaking at #94 on the Pop parade before slipping away into the shadows. Eager to capitalize on her success, Brown rounded up some of the legendary Mar-Keys (Duck Dunn, Al Jackson, Wayne Jackson) and hired the Memphis Horns and Memphis Symphony Orchestra to back her up as she recorded her first album. Woman to Woman is mostly filled with heartache and sorrowful ballads, the kind that slow-drip with solid, steamy, soul-popping grooves that make for unforgettable late-night listening. It’s to Brown’s credit that she sings the lyrics as if she’s living every line of the song, and you can feel her breathless anticipation as she pours out each emotional highlight and lowlight. This intensity and commitment make Woman to Woman a glorious achievement and may represent Brown at the pinnacle of her artistic success. In one of the earliest rap songs in popular music (“Woman to Woman”), Brown, after finding evidence of her husband’s affair, pleads on the telephone with the other woman to leave her man alone and not break up her happy home. Other notable soul-searching songs include “I Need You Tonight,” “Stay with Me Baby,” and “Between You and Me.” Five bonus tracks by writers Carolyn Franklin, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder round out this exceptional album.

—TJ McGrath, Woodbridge, CT


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