Marva Whitney, a fiery-voiced funk singer who toured and collaborated with James Brown — along the way earning the nickname “Soul Sister #1” — died Saturday at 68,
Whitney died from complications of pneumonia.
She is best known for her version of “It’s My Thing,” which cracked the Hot 100 in 1969, and for the widely sampled track “Unwind Yourself,” which can be heard on songs by The 45 Kings, DJ Kool and Mac Miller, among others.
Born Marva Ann Manning, the singer began her career singing gospel music in Kansas City, Mo., but found fame when she reluctantly joined the James Brown Revue in 1967 after turning down singing jobs with Bobby Bland and Little Richard.
“There was nothing here in Kansas City, so I had to make a decision at that age,” she said in a 2006 interview on We Funk Radio. “I knew this wasn’t what I wanted, because I was still playing for the church. But I made the decision and went to Cincinnati and signed with King Records.”
On tour with the Revue, Whitney performed in Vietnam, Europe and North Africa during the next couple of years. Along the way, Whitney cut several “raw funk” songs under Brown’s direction, including “Unwind Yourself” and “I’m Tired, I’m Tired, I’m Tired.” But none broke through with audiences until “It’s My Thing,” her take on the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.” The song was a hit on the R&B charts.
During her tenure in the Revue, Whitney was dubbed “Soul Sister #1” to Brown’s “Soul Brother #1” title. Other “Original Funky Divas” in Brown’s group over the years included Vicki Anderson, who Whitney replaced, and Lyn Collins, who died in 2005.
“I used to be embarrassed being called Soul Sister #1” she said, noting that it took many years to accept that the title “did not mean that I was stepping on Aretha Franklin’s toes … because I always counted her as Soul Sister # 1.”
She left Brown’s Revue in 1969 and headed back to Kansas City. Her recording career continued — though, as before, radio and sales of singles like “Daddy Don’t Know About Sugar Bear” and “Giving Up on Love” were disappointing.
A break from the music business followed and by the late 1980s Whitney returned to performing sporadically with fellow James Brown Revue alumni, in a group called the JB Allstars.
In 2009, Whitney suffered a stroke on stage during a show in Australia but recovered and performed again 2010.