Lyn Collins Biography
Leaped from Local Group to Legend's Stage
As the most commercially successful member of James Brown's Revue, Lyn Collins became a funk diva well before either word had much meaning. Her song "Think (About It)" topped the charts in 1972 and inspired a generation of sample-happy hip-hoppers in the 1990s. Yet, despite her talent and success, her name has barely registered on the country's musical conscious. Hidden behind the wall of fame that is James Brown, Collins and her thundering vocals remained mostly unheard. This did not stop the soulstress from singing her way around the world right until her untimely death. "She was a musical treasure that really didn't get the recognition," her son Bobby Jackson told the Mercury News. "But she rose above that anyway."
Leaped from Local Group to Legend's Stage
Gloria Lyn Collins was born on June 12, 1948, and raised in Abilene, Texas. By her early teens she was already flexing her powerful voice with a local group, the Charles Pike Singers. At 14 she recorded her first single, "Unlucky in Love." Around the same time, she married a local man who worked as a promoter for the James Brown Revue. After seeing Brown in concert in 1968 she worked up the nerve to send him a demo tape. The "Godfather of Soul" liked what he heard and gave Collins a call.
The James Brown Revue featured a roster of female singers known for their vocal dexterity, powerful range, and unmitigated funk. In 1969 principal singer Marva Whitney gave word that she would be leaving the group and Brown needed a replacement. Collins's timing was perfect. Before she could join the group, however, former Brown singer Vicki Anderson showed up and signed on for a two year stint. Collins was pushed back to the waiting list.
In February of 1971, while waiting for a place on the Revue roster, Collins went into a Macon, Georgia, studio with Brown and recorded a five-song sampler. Two of those songs, "Wheels of Life" and "Just Won't Do Right," were released as a two-sided single on Brown's label, People Records, an imprint of Polydor. A few months later, Anderson left the Revue and Collins was offered the principal singing spot. She jumped at it. "[Brown] kind of gave you the feeling that you better do it now while you got the chance," Collins later told Billboard. "He never said it, but you kind of got that feeling."
Baptized the "Female Preacher" of Funk
Brown was a strict boss who demanded that his singers wear a lot of hats—from background vocalist to songwriter to warm-up act. Though just 23 when she joined the tour, Collins was up to the challenge. Her howling, deep-throated vocals evoked old-school gospel and caused Brown to nickname her the 'Female Preacher.' Under his tutelage she corralled that voice around funk. Characterized by a heavy bass line, complex rhythms, and horn interludes laid over tight, infectious grooves and often screaming vocals, funk was pioneered by Brown and his crew. "We were funky when the word 'funk' couldn't even be discussed," Collins told Billboard.
Another characteristic of Brown's revue was the female empowerment expressed by the women in his entourage. "Singers like [Collins] are among the originators of the feisty, back-talking 'dish it and take like a man can' attitudes that exist in much music made by women today," a Billboard reviewer noted. At a time when women's lib and black empowerment were converging, female-sported afros were growing, and the music scene was embracing diversity, Brown's female singers became the music world's original divas.
In 1972 Collins released the single "Think (About It)," a feminist anthem disguised as deep funk. Official records say it was penned by Brown, though many give credit to Collins, especially in light of the song's hard-talking lyrics. In a backlash against men who take advantage of women, Collins sang, "those of you who go out and stay out all night // and expect us to be home when you get there // the sisters are not going for that no more // We got to use what we got to get what we want." The song rushed to number nine on the Billboard R&B charts and made Collins a household name. Its refrain—"It takes two to make a thing go right, // It takes two to make it out of sight"—was catchy and singable and destined to become a classic funk line.
Released Two Albums under Brown
Collins's debut album, also named Think (About It), was propelled up the charts as a result of the single's popularity. Released in 1972 on the People/Polydor label, the album was produced by Brown and five of its nine songs were written by him. However it was Collins's name on the cover and her vocals fueling its success. Her early recordings, "Wheels of Life" and "Just Won't Do Right," made appearances as did "Women's Lib," a slow-tempo feminist ballad. Collins also performed several cover songs including Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine" and an unusual rendering of the Frank Sinatra classic "Fly Me to the Moon."
Like most members of Brown's Revue, Collins was paid a salary in lieu of royalties. As a result she saw very little of the profits from Think (About It). Nonetheless, she continued to tour and record with Brown. In the early 1970s she recorded "Mamma Feelgood" for the soundtrack to Black Caesar and "How Long Can I Keep It Up" for the film Slaughter's Big Rip-Off. Collins also recorded a popular duet with Brown, "What My Baby Needs Now is a Little More Loving." These songs have made appearances on several compilations over the years.
In 1975 Collins released her second album, Come Check Me Out If You Don't Know Me By Now. It featured 18 tracks that spanned the range of Collins's vocals—from smooth, silky soul to impassioned wailing to classic Brown funk. Standouts included the melancholic moan of "Put It On the Line," the emotional sass of "Me and My Baby Got a Good Thing Going On," and a moving rendition of the R&B standard "If You Don't Know Me By Now." The repetitively titled "Rock Me Again & Again & Again & Again & Again & Again" is straight up funk featuring bare instrumentation and in-your-face sexuality.
Found Renewed Fame with New Fan Base
Collins left the James Brown Revue in 1976. She settled in Los Angeles and took a clerical job at Record Plant Recording Studios. However, her life-long love affair with singing could not be filed away and she soon found work as a back-up singer for musical powerhouses such as Dionne Warwick, Rod Stewart, and Al Green. In the 1980s she appeared on soundtracks for the film Dr. Detroit and the television show Fame. Meanwhile she raised two sons, Bobby and Anthony, and divided her time between California and her hometown of Abilene.
In the mid-1980s, all things funk became hip again and there was renewed interest in Brown's galaxy of stars. Obscure Belgium label ARS lured Collins back into the studio and she recorded a dance club single called "Shout." In 1988 British label Urban Records re-released her two Polydor albums, making her soul-searing voice accessible to a new generation of listeners. The following year, hip-hop duo Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock sampled her classic line from "Think (About It)" into their 1989 song "It Takes Two." It became an instant hit, climbing to number 3 on Billboard's dance charts. "She was surprised and elated by how it took off," son Bobby told The Mercury News. The song also set off a frenzied sampling of her work with artists from Janet Jackson to De La Soul to Public Enemy popping her vocals into their mixes. Soon Collins had earned the nickname, "the most sampled woman in hip-hop."
Collins found additional fame in 1998 when Polydor released James Brown's Original Funky Divas, featuring 11 of Collins's best songs. In 2005 Collins embarked on a European tour with Martha High, another Brown alum. Bassist Lars Lehmann recalled the Paris show on the Bass Players web site: "You could tell that [Collins] is a star in France…. Many people would hold up record covers of her albums ready to be signed by her." He continued, "[When she] spoke the introduction of 'If You Don't Know Me By Now,' she was so overwhelmed by the love that came from the audience towards her, she started crying on stage." Sadly it was one of her last performances. On March 13, 2005, Collins died as a result of complications from a seizure she suffered after choking on a piece of food. She was only 56.
Think (About It) (includes "Just Won't Do Right," "Wheels of Life," and "Women's Lib"), People/Polydor Records, 1972; reissued, Urban Records, 1988.
Check Me Out If You Don't Know Me By Now (includes "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "Me and My Baby Got a Good Thing Going On," "Put It On the Line," and "Rock Me Again & Again & Again & Again & Again & Again"), People/Polydor Records, 1975; reissued, Urban Records, 1988.
"Unlucky in Love," c. 1962.
"What My Baby Needs Now is a Little More Loving," 1972.
"Mamma Feelgood," 1973.
"How Long Can I Keep It Up," 1973.
"Do Your Thing," 1988.
"It Takes Two," with Patra, 1993.
Billboard, April 4, 1998; March 26, 2005.
Independent (London, England), March 18, 2005.
Jet, May 2, 2005.
New York Times, March 16, 2005.
"Lyn Collins, Singer and James Brown Revue Member, Dead at 56," The Mercury News, www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/breaking_news/11136520.htm (June 10, 2005).
"My Most Memorable Gig, La Maroquinerie 21/02/05, by Lars Lehmann," Bass Players, www.bassplayers.co.za/memgiglars-l.html (June 10, 2005).
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