Marva Whitney (born Marva Ann Manning, May 1, 1944 – December 22, 2012), was an American funk singer.Whitney was considered by many funk enthusiasts to be one of the “rawest” and “brassiest” music divas.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, her performing career started as early as three years old while touring with her family’s gospel group, the Manning Gospel Singers. At the age of 16 she joined the Alma Whitney Singers, later marrying singer Harry Whitney, and began singing R&B music for the first time. She studied music at college in Kansas City. While working at a garment factory, she also began performing in nightclubs and local talent competitions, and in the mid 1960s joined local group Tommy & The Derbys as their lead singer. The group opened for many leading performers passing through Kansas City. In 1967, she left the group, and turned down offers to tour with Bobby Bland and Little Richard before joining the James Brown Revue as a featured vocalist.
Her first solo single, “Your Love Was Good To Me”, was recorded for King Records in mid-1967, but was unsuccessful as were two follow-up singles. She toured Europe, Asia and Africa with James Brown, and in early 1968 he produced her fourth solo single, “Unwind Yourself”, in a more funky style. Although the record was not a chart hit, it was later sampled numerous times, most recognisably by DJ Mark the 45 King on his 1987 track “The 900 Number”, which was then sampled by DJ Chad Jackson on his 1990 hit single “Hear the Drummer (Get Wicked)” (UK #3 in July 1990), by DJ Kool on his 1996 hit “Let Me Clear My Throat” (UK #6 in March 1997), Sway on his 2009 track “Mercedes Benz” and Mac Miller on his 2011 track “Party on Fifth Ave.”
Whitney’s first chart hit came with “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who to Sock It To),” a response to The Isley Brothers’ hit “It’s Your Thing”; her record reached #19 on the Billboard R&B chart and #82 on the Hot 100 in 1969. She followed up with two smaller hits, “Things Got To Get Better (Get Together)” (R&B #22) and “I Made A Mistake Because It’s Only You Pt. 1″ (R&B #32), and also made a name for herself with powerful songs like “I’m Tired, I’m Tired, I’m Tired (Things Better Change Before Its Too Late)”, and “If You Don’t Work (You Can’t Eat).” After recording three albums – Unwind Yourself (1968), Live and Lowdown at the Apollo (1969) and It’s My Thing (1969) – and about 13 singles with James Brown as producer and writer or co-writer, Whitney left the Brown stable in 1970 and returned to Kansas City.
Marva Whitney singing live at the Apollo in Harlem;
She recorded several singles for the Isley Brothers’ T-Neck label, with limited success. After divorcing Harry Whitney, she married Ellis Taylor of Forte Records, and recorded further singles for the label, including “Daddy Don’t Know About Sugar Bear”. However, they were unsuccessful and she retired from the music business for several years. In the early 1980s, she briefly joined a group, Coffee, Cream & Sugar, formed by singer Alfred “Pico” Payne. Later in the 1980s, she began performing again more regularly with former James Brown band members such as Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, and Lyn Collins, as the JB Allstars.
In 2006, Whitney collaborated with German born DJ/collector/manager DJ Pari and Japanese funk orchestra Osaka Monaurail to produce a new single, “I Am What I Am”. Osaka Monaurail style themselves on the James Brown sound and the single was produced in the fashion of an authentic release of the recordings she produced with Brown in 1969. Two successful tours of Japan and a full length album release followed, also entitled “I Am What I Am”. In 2007, 2008 and 2009, the tour was also brought to Europe.
In December 2009, Whitney collapsed on stage in front of thousands of fans in Lorne, Australia, while performing with The Transatlantics at Falls Festival. She was immediately rushed to Geelong Hospital, where doctors diagnosed a stroke. The remaining dates of her tour had to be canceled, but Whitney made a recovery and performed again in 2010. In December 2012, Whitney died from complications of pneumonia at her home. She was 68.