“Nothing can stop me, ‘cos I’ve got my protection in my bag,” sings Mitty Collier in ‘Gotta Get Away From It All’, a remarkable song written for her by her college friend Lloyd Reese. The line – a reference not to contraception, but to a pistol, kept in her handbag to ward off an abusive spouse – surely must have precluded any radio play. And so a great record died on the vine.
The mighty Chess Records of Chicago was home to some of the greatest female soul singers of the 1960s – not only Etta James, but also Fontella Bass, Jackie Ross, Sugar Pie De Santo and a host of other lesser-known but equally talented ladies. Arguably the finest of them all was Birmingham, Alabama-born Mitty, whom the label signed up in 1960, when she was just 20 years old. She stayed with Chess for eight years, during which time the company recorded her sparingly, releasing 15 singles and one album, 1965’s “Shades Of A Genius”, a set comprising songs originated by or associated with Ray Charles.
Like many of her contemporaries, Mitty started out singing gospel, touring with the Hayes Ensemble and the Lloyd Reese Singers as a teenager. Later, to help subsidise her college education, she began performing R&B material in a local nightclub. Her life-changing moment came in 1959 when, while visiting her brother in Chicago during summer break, she won a talent show at the Regal Theater, an achievement she maintained for six weeks straight. Her prize was a spot on a bill headlined by B.B. King and Etta James. Fabled A&R man Ralph Bass witnessed the show and recommended to the Chess brothers that they give her a recording contract.
Mitty debuted in 1961 with ‘Gotta Get Away From It All’, arranged and produced, respectively, by Riley Hampton and Roquel “Billy” Davis, legends to aficionados of Chicago soul. Her Chess swansong, released in 1968, was a new version of the same number (but with the firearm reference excised), recorded at Fame Studios in Alabama with producer Rick Hall. She first figured on the charts in 1963 with ‘I’m Your Part-Time Love’, an answerback to Little Johnny Taylor’s ‘Part-Time Love’. The record with which Mitty Collier will always be associated, the classic ‘I Had A Talk With My Man’, charted in 1964. Like its follow-up, ‘No Faith, No Love’, it was an adaptation of a number from the pen of leading gospel songerwriter James Cleveland. ‘Sharing You’, released in 1966, was Mitty’s only other hit.
A decade ago, Chess themselves released a compilation of Mitty Collier recordings, but that (now long deleted and much sought after) CD concentrated on her album. Kent’s brand new “Shades Of Mitty Collier” collection, on the other hand, focuses on her singles. Each of her 15 A-sides is included, along with nine B-sides not previously released on CD. All but three of the tracks are in stereo.
BY MICK PATRICK