A number of years ago, I was working at a terrestrial radio station doing the overnight shift. I would come in early to prepare, and there was usually someone there wrapping up the previous shift or finishing commercials that were supposed to be on-air the next day. It wasn’t as hustling as it was in the late ’80’s or early ‘90s, but more people around than today.
In my preparation, I needed to log into a service to check out new material and headlines from around the country. So I headed down a long hall where I was met with a familiar sound. It was coming from production room #2. A familiar song was playing. I instantly began singing along as if it were 1977. “Woman to woman, if you’ve ever been in love.” A feeling of warmth washed over me like I was visiting an old friend that I hadn’t seen in years or was unpacking a box that had been stored away for decades. This unleashed a flood of memories from that time in life. Was Charlie’s Angels going to be on television tonight ? Did I remember to put my bike in the garage? Were we having pizza for dinner from the place on the corner?
Then, I noticed something strange. The words I was hearing and trying to sing weren’t exactly matching the song I knew and the flow was off. What was going on? The show prep had to wait. There was a music investigation to be launched. I popped my head in, asked my co-worker what she was playing and explained why I was asking. She laughed and said, “that’s because this is the original.” I was shocked, and in love with the song all over again. It not often that you get to rediscover the same song. This memory has stayed with me in detail since it was made
If you are confused or wondering what song that I am writing about, it’s “Woman To Woman” by Barbara Mandrell. It was released in the fall of 1977 on her album, “Love’s Ups and Downs.” It peaked at number four on the Billboard Country Chart and crossed over to become Mandrell’s first Hot 100 and Easy Listening chart appearances. That was at the song I knew.
However, it turns out that Barbara Mandrell’s was not the original, as I had believed. I had just been introduced to a much more sultry and raw version of the song. Mandrell’s version, had been run through the Nashville machine and was perfectly tailored for the mainstream, country audience. Mandrell’s feels much like the majority of country songs of the time, where a story was being told in a matter of fact way. While the original by Shirley Brown, recorded in 1974, three years earlier than Mandrell’s version, is a soulful rhythm and blues song, where the listener almost feels like an eavesdropper in a real conversation, as a very in control wife confronts the “other woman” about her husband’s infidelity.
Why had I never heard this original version? The music industry has changed so drastically. We are all more exposed to every type of music genre than we ever were in the past. I grew up in a small town. We had three local radio stations and one small record shop. One local station was country, one was top 40, and the other was rock. I would have never heard the original “Woman To Woman” by Shirley Brown on the radio like someone in a large city may have. But even in cities, music was more segregated in listenership than than it is now, and this made fertile ground for mainstream artists to re-record songs that weren’t as widely known. Such is the case with “Woman To Woman” and many others. Shirley Brown’s version did cross over and chart on the Top 40 chart at #22, selling over 1 million copies in its first few weeks, but it wasn’t played in my town.
This song just keeps on giving. While researching for this article, I discovered there was an “answer” song released just four weeks after Brown released “Woman To Woman.” Barbara Mason recorded the answer song, which reached number 3 on the the R&B chart, as the mistress’ side of the conversation. In “From His Woman To You,” the mistress wasn’t having any of Brown’s complaining about supporting the man. She makes the counterpoint that Brown does too much for him, and has missed the point. The mistress is younger and better in bed.
“Woman To Woman” was re-recorded for the third time by R&B artist, Jewell in 1994. This version samples Shirley Brown’s original, but updates it for the times with new technology references including *69.
I have gone from knowing Barbara Mandrell’s version only, to discovering that this song is an entire, little universe. Along the way, I also learned a lot about the music industry and how much it has evolved.
Have fun watching the videos. I am going to put Mandrell’s in first, because if you are here, it’s probably the one you know. Then prepare yourself for joy, because Shirley Brown’s is next, followed by Barbara Mason’s answer song and Jewell’s 1994 cover.
Written by: Nick Rainey