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Marva Whitney Remembered In Kansas City

Iconic funk and soul singer Marva Whitney will be buried Saturday in Kansas City. She died two weeks ago at the age of 68, just six years after the passing of James Brown, who catapulted her to national stardom.

In recent years, Whitney had made a comeback, performing all over Europe and Japan, just not here in Kansas City.

KCK native Marva Whitney became known in the 1960s for her soaring vocals and diva style. Her friend and record collector Dawayne Gilley says she was one of the first women to embody the authority of funk.

"You knew there was a sense of urgency.  She was going to grab you by the throat – no prisoners." Gilley said.  "With a kick, and the drive of the base, with the fine little funk guitar lines, the horn section hitting you, and then Marva sailing over the entire bit of it.

Roots In Gospel

She may have made her name in funk, but Whitney got her start in the church.  She told the Fish Fry's Chuck Haddix in 2007 that her family, the Mannings, were extremely musical. (Listen to Haddix's full interview with Whitney here.)

"I had been singing in church since I was about three because that's what they do to keep the children busy," Whitney said.  "So, mother, she started practicing with us.  It took her about a year for us to understand harmony, and she almost gave up several times but she didn't."

The siblings became the Manning Gospel Singers. Marva Whitney later joined the acclaimed Whitney Singers and married into the family.  She jumped into popular music with the local band Tommy & the Derbies, which opened for many of the big names coming through Kansas City. 

Auditioning For James Brown

When James Brown played Memorial Hall in 1967, Whitney said she was asked to stay late and audition.  A member of the band told her to sing into a little recorder.

"He said stay right here," Whitney said. "He went into Mr. Brown's room and then he said, 'Mr. Brown would like to see you,' Oh, was I afraid! I walked in there and he says, 'Hello.'  He's nice but very stern when he's into his business … he says, 'You sound pretty good.'"

Marva Whitney's next two years with the James Brown Revue sounded like a dream come true, and a bit of a nightmare.  She said he was a musical genius, a shrewd businessman and a tyrant.  He had the idea behind her biggest solo hit, It's My Thing.

"The Isley Brothers was on James' back," Whitney said.  "Everywhere he turned he heard, 'It's your thing, do what you want to do.' It was so hot, it was upsetting Mr. Brown. And he said, 'Whit, we gotta do something about that.  You're going to sing it's your thing.'"

Whitney sang some legendary duets with James Brown – at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and in Boston, the night after the shooting of Martin Luther King.  Still, she and other band members said they never received their share of revenues from records and shows. 

The Forte Label

Whitney split with Brown in 1969, and went on to found the Forte label in Kansas City with her husband Ellis Taylor.

Daddy Don’t Know About Sugar Bear, with a seemingly endless opening wail, was one of her favorite songs of that era.  The Forte recordings have become high-dollar collector's items. They're about to be re-released by the Numero label this year.

Big In Japan

Whitney released her last album with Osaka Monaurail in 2006, and that led to tours in Japan and Europe.  But she told Chuck Haddix that she never felt appreciated here in Kansas City.

"I don't understand why I can't or they won't ask me to play the boats when all over the world … they're wanting me but I'm at home and they don't know me, and they don't want to respect what I expect from them," Whitney said.

A year ago, Whitney suffered a stroke onstage in Australia.  She died on December 22, 2012 of complications from pneumonia.  This was going to be a big year for Whitney - besides the re-release of her KC recordings, she had a book coming out, co-written by British music journalist Charles Waring, called God, the Devil and James Brown: Memoirs of a Funky Diva

Marva Whitney's wailing funk lives on in endless remixes by hip hop DJs. But she'll be remembered at tomorrow's memorial service in the genre that she never left behind: gospel. 

Marva Whitney's funeral is Saturday morning at Memorial Missionary Baptist Church: the visitation is at 9 a.m. and the service is at noon.  

* Marva Whitney was also interviewed on the Walt Bodine Show in 2009.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
In 1984, Chuck Haddix aka Chuck Haddock joined the staff of KCUR as a jazz producer. The next year, he began producing the Fish Fry. You can reach him at haddixc@umsystem.edu.
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