Marva Whitney is baking a sweet-potato pie. Generous with the cinnamon and thrifty on the nutmeg, she’ll serve it up during Christmas dinner at the Kansas City retirement home she calls home. “We’re just gonna have a nice Christmas together,” she explains.
Her tone is sweet and gentle, like that of a favored grandmother—a far cry from how she sounded 40 years ago, when she forged a place in funk history thanks to a formidably fearsome voice capable of shrieking in tandem with abrasively syncopated horn blasts, a talent best showcased on an album, It’s My Thing, that exists both because and despite of her creatively fractious relationship with James Brown.
Just like Brown’s other in-house sirens, Lyn Collins and Vicki Anderson, Whitney’s project proved irresistibly tempting to hip-hop producers, most popularly via the opening grooves of “Unwind Yourself,” which were plundered and flipped into the party staple “The 900 Number” or “Let Me Clear My Throat” (by DJ Mark the 45 King or DJ Kool, depending on your vintage). Whitney has never been compensated for the sample; last year, she experienced a more mortal blow when she suffered a stroke onstage in Australia. Her New Year’s Eve show at the Bell House in Brooklyn is her first performance since then.
Whitney’s story starts in Kansas City, where she performed with her family’s gospel troop, but James Brown ignited her career. As she tells it, her manager mentioned Brown was searching for a new female singer when Anderson, then singing for Brown, “went off with Joe Tex.” Having already turned down the opportunity to join Tex himself and Little Richard on tour—”because I was chicken,” says the 66-year-old with an affable laugh—Whitney realized that “There wasn’t too much going through Kansas City. I figured I better do something if I want to do this.”
Brown’s brilliance and infamy overshadows everything and everyone. Whitney readily calls him “a genius,” but also testifies to his demanding reputation. Under his wing, she characterizes the recording of 1969’s It’s My Thing as “hell.” There was no prior peek at a song’s lyrics, no chance to rehearse, no opportunity “to get the crux of the song in your spirit.” They were singing without a script. Being privy to a song’s structure even a half-hour before recording it was a rare luxury. A second vocal take was a privilege. And performances for TV-show spots were worse. “Mr. Brown made it his point to come in there and take the hell out of you before you went on,” she recalls. And it wasn’t personal: “When Mr. Brown came around, everybody knew what the deal was. He didn’t just pick on me—he picked on everybody.”
It’s My Thing, though, shows that Whitney rose to Brown’s provocation. On “You Got to Have a Job,” a post-civil-rights blast of self-determination with Whitney and Brown trilling back and forth, she sounds like she’s trying to thoroughly out-sing her mentor, their vocal sparring threatening to spill over into a warbling catfight. “That night was awful, yes, sir!” she admits with a laugh. “I did not come there to sing that night. What happened was, that’s where we cut ‘Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ I was directing the youths, but all of a sudden, that song [‘Job’] came up, and you had to be ready for whatever he had going on.”
If Brown pushed Whitney to a breaking point, whether by design or personality flaw, his ceaseless quest for the musical ideal inspired her album’s most memorable moments. The songs most sampled by hip-hop artists, including “Unwind Yourself” and “It’s My Thing” (whose intro went on to prep N.W.A.’s fiery “Fuck tha Police”), are the ones that most resemble a studio jam session: Improvised fragments invented on a whim became full tracks. At its peak, the record sounds like a bunch of funk-era ad-libs and catchphrases hollered over tight, plucky grooves. And it worked. Whitney remembers the introductory bars of “Unwind Yourself” as something Brown simply hummed, and the band replayed. The impromptu frustration forged funk gold.
But hip-hop’s homage to It’s My Thing was less kind to Whitney. She first heard DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” in a store. Her reaction? “Oh, they’ve ripped me off again.” (Before that, Mark the 45 King, a Queen Latifah production associate, pitched it down and looped it up for “The 900 Number.”) “Here I am, pinching pennies, and they’re making millions,” she says of the cultural and commercial debt hip-hop owes her. “I can’t get any response from them. I just wish somebody would tell the truth.”
December 2009 made such issues seem trivial. On tour in Australia, Whitney noticed the venue had a smoke machine—something she’d never performed with before. She requested it be turned off. But three songs into a set sparked by “Unwind Yourself,” the gimmick returned, and prompted a stroke. “I felt the racing of my breathing,” she recalls. “I tried to hold on to the microphone and see if I could get some strength from the pole, but I went out.” Taken to a hospital in Geelong, she fully recovered within 24 hours.
Now, if Whitney’s New Year’s Eve show is a success, there are plans to form a touring ensemble of funk femmes with Vicki Anderson and Martha High. With a hardened aplomb that would please Mr. Brown, she explains her resilience: “It’s OK: You fell off the horse—now you gotta get back on. And that’s the way it is.”
Marva Whitney plays the Bell House December 31