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PART 1 - THE CHESS YEARS (till 1968)

  Just before 11 PM, on Friday evening, July the 19th in 2013, Pastor Mitty Collier entered the stage at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy, and kicked off her over one-hour-long performance with a fast and lively version of For Once in My Life, followed by the mid-tempo vamp to the song - Oh how He loves you, oh how He loves me...  Mitty’s main accompanist on keys was her musical director, Minister Calvin Bridges, and Porretta’s house band this year, Paul Brown and his All-star band “Heart and Soul”, provided Mitty with a full-blasted sound together with background vocalists – Jackie, Lo and Sabrina – and a local amateur choir.

  James Cleveland’s slow gospel song, No Cross, No Crown, was followed by the quick-tempo He’ll Make It Happen.  After a ballad called The Rainbow, we were treated to a long and impassioned testimony, I Had a Talk with My God Last Night, Mitty’s signature song and easily the highlight of her hour.  A long intro with “alright” and “shout” chants led to the fervent If You Understood My Past, with “Praise Him” vamp in the song.  Amazing Grace closed Mitty’s performance on Friday night.

  On Sunday evening – and partly Monday morning – Mitty and Calvin hit the stage again to deliver If You Understood My Past and I Had a Talk with My God Last Night, and the very Praise Him vamp led to a rousing 15-minute finale with all the Porretta main acts joining in and letting loose.    

  Still on Monday night she held one more concert.  Mitty: “It was phenomenal!  The church was packed with over 1000 people and they enjoyed it.  A friend of mine, Dorothy Canady, who came with me to Porretta, opened the concert with a beautiful rendition of Ave Maria, followed by a familiar gospel song, We Shall Behold Him.  She was enjoyed thoroughly.  Minister Bridges got the place swinging with He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.  I then followed with four songs, and could not get off the stage.  The crowd kept screaming ‘Mitty! Mitty! More! More! Mitty!’  I went back for two encores and ended with Amazing Grace.  I walked the aisle shaking hands with the people and they reached for me with tears in their eyes.”


  Mitty Lene Collier was born on June 21 in 1941 in Birmingham, Alabama, as the youngest of the seven children in the family.  She had five brothers and one sister.  “Now I’m the only living one out of seven, except one brother, Franchot Collier, who’s living here in Chicago.”  Her parents, Gertrude and Rufus – also deceased now - were church-going people but not musically inclined.  “My mom said that I could sing before I could talk, so it was a gift.”

  “My early idols were gospel singers, like Dorothy Love Coates (1928-2002) and the Original Gospel Harmonettes in Birmingham, Alabama, Albertina Walker (1929-2010) and the Caravans from Chicago and the Davis Sisters from Philadelphia.  Those were the people that came through the city in doing their concerts at the time, when I was growing up.”

  After elementary school Mitty entered Western-Olin High School in Birmingham.  “The Hayes Ensemble was the group that I was in during the time, when I was in high school, and the person that played piano for us, Charles G Hayes, is actually a big pastor in Chicago now.  The music teacher there was the one that really gave me my first voice lessons, Mrs. Mary Alice Stollenwerck.”  One time the choir couldn’t go, and Mitty had to rehearse with Mrs. Stollenwerck to get songs together so that she could replace the choir and go alone.  That’s when she became a solo act for the first time.  “I actually won the second place at Alabama State College during that time with Mrs. Stollenwerck singing a medley of Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child, Go down Moses and Walk with Me Lord.”  Besides the Hayes Ensemble, Mitty sang also with another gospel group called the Junior Harmonettes.

  “When I got out of high school in 1958, I went straight to Alabama A & M (Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama), and I was there for a semester, didn’t like it, so I came back home to Birmingham and I went to Miles College.”  Miles was located in Fairfield, Alabama, about 10 km west of Birmingham.  By that time Mitty was already singing with Lloyd Reese Singers.  Lloyd Reese and the Solid Rock Chorus cut later, in the latter part of the 60s, albums on Verve and Savoy and as The Lloyd Reese Singers still in the 70s on Glori Records out of Jersey City, N.J.  “Lloyd left Birmingham, too, and got his own career.  He’s passed now, though.  We didn’t do any recordings back then.  We just were singing around in Birmingham, Atlanta and places like that.  While in Miles College, I also started singing R&B in a night-club.”

401 CLUB

  “My French teacher, Ardenia Rambeau, found out that they needed a singer for a band in a 401 Club in Powderly, outskirts of Birmingham.  At the same time my math teacher in high school, Lovie Jean Hayden, told her husband, who was the band leader at the 401 Nightclub, about me.  He came to audition me, and I started singing in that club.  I actually made that club, because it was jam-packed on the weekends, and I stayed there until I left Birmingham to come to Chicago in 1959.”

  Those days Mitty became friendly with a couple of future Temptations boys, too.  “We went to high school together with Eddie and Paul, and we were on talent shows competing against one another, and we ended up going on the road together.  As a matter of fact, they saved my life one time, because I couldn’t swim.  I went to the pool at one hotel and the young man, who picked me up, threw me in the pool and I went down...  I could hear him laughing, because he thought I was joking – because I used to joke around – but I wasn’t joking.  Then Paul and Eddie recognized that I wasn’t joking, jumped in, got me out and saved my life.”

  In the summer of 1959 Mitty travelled to Chicago.  “I went to visit my brother, Rufus Jr.  At the same time my French teacher, Monsieur Rambeau, was in Chicago visiting his aunt.  He just recently passed, over a month ago.  He went to all the different places trying to find talent shows for me.  I was in a few small ones around Chicago and ended up with the biggest one, with Al Benson.  I won the first place.”  Al was a WGES disc-jockey, who organized Al Benson’s Talent Show at the Regal Theater in Chicago, where Mitty sang Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You), a song that in the spring of 1960 was a middle-sized hit (# 56-Hot in Billboard) for Della Reese and originally derived from the Mills Brothers songbook eleven years earlier.  Mitty won Al’s talent show many weeks in a row.  “As a matter of fact, Al told everybody ‘y’all should settle for the second and third places, because we already know who’s going to win the first place’.  Then he took me off the talent shows and put me on to be the opener for Etta James, B.B. King and the Coasters.  Before that I went home to Birmingham, waited out and came back in October to be on that show.  That’s when I left the school and stayed in Chicago for good.”


  “Al Benson had called Chess Records’ Ralph Bass and told him about me.  Al made sure that Ralph was in the audience, and - after listening to me - the next night he came back with a contract with Chess Records.  I was too young to sign it – you had to be twenty-one – so my mom had to come and sign it.”

  Chess had a lot of talented ladies in its roster in the 60s – Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jackie Ross, Fontella Bass, Irma Thomas, Laura Lee...  “There was no competition.  Once, when they had a press conference, I was telling them that you had more love on that side than you had on the gospel side.  There was a little bit of intimidation, because of Etta James... because they pushed her.  All the rest of us, we just had to make it on what we made it on.  I only had one record that they actually pushed me on, and that was Sharing You, and that was only because it was a cover tune.”  We’ll have a closer look at that song further down below.

  “When I came to Chicago and got a recording contract, Lloyd Reese wrote my first song, I Got to Get away from It All.”  This highly emotional, gorgeous and gospel-infused ballad, which even had a monologue in the middle, was released in 1961 (Chess 1791).  It was produced by Roquel “Billy” Davis and arranged by Riley Hampton for his orchestra.  “Billy was the utmost producer, because he was so concerned for the artist and always wanted to bring the best out.  He was patient with us, and that’s why I think he got the best out of us.  He was superb.  Riley was just an excellent musician and arranger and was very tolerant with us, also.  We were just young kids, thinking that we were somebody.”

  The flip side, I’ve Got Love, was a joyous and poppy, quick-tempo song with strings, and it, too, was written by Lloyd... at least according to the label on the single, but Mitty claims that it was actually written by Billy Davis.  In that same session they cut two more songs – It Looks like Rain and That’s What a Man Is For – but they were shelved at the time.

  Mitty’s debut record didn’t chart, although later it’s hailed as one of her masterpieces.  Chart-wise the follow-up flopped, too.  Don’t Let Her Take My Baby (Chess 1814) is another melodic and light, poppy ditty, and vocally it’s a fine performance from Mitty.  Released in March 1962, the B-side, a big-voiced gem of a ballad called I Dedicate My Life for You, should actually have been the plug side.  Sonny Thompson and Ralph Bass wrote the song.  Five tracks from that session (One More Time, Don’t You Forget It, So Little Time, Say I Do, I Don’t Need Nobody) went unreleased, although some of them have appeared on later compilations.

  Also the third single in May 1963, Tony Clarke’s and Roquel Davis’ poppy, mid-tempo number called Miss Loneliness (1856), missed the charts.  It was arranged by Bert Keyes – “Bert was a great arranger” – and backed with Willie Dixon’s uptempo chestnut, My Babe, which was sweetened with horns and a girl choir.


  The fourth Chess single finally scored.  Mitty cut an answer song to Little Johnny Taylor’s # 1 R&B hit on Galaxy, Part Time Love, in the fall of 1963.  Titled I’m Your Part Time Love (1871), this slow and swaying bluesy number was credited to Al Smith and Clay Hammond and it hit # 20 r&b (Billboard) at the very end of 1963.  “I had been singing just around Chicago, but after that one they put me out there on the road to do it.  I worked with Little Johnny Taylor many times.  He’d be on stage singing his song and I’d go out answer him.”  Mitty never met the actual writer of the song, Clay Hammond.  The song was coupled with Paul Gayten’s mid-tempo r&b romp named Don’t You Forget It.  The one unreleased song from that session was titled True Love In The Morning.

  In early 1964 in her contralto Mitty delivered a deep and passionate version of the slow and touching Let Them Talk (1889), which had been a hit for Little Willie John in 1959 on King Records (# 11-r&b, # 100-hot).  “Sonny Thompson wrote it and Sonny played in the band there a lot at Chess.  He’s the one that wanted me to sing it.  With Little Willie John we used to joke about ‘you stole my song’... a lot of love there with Willie.”

  On the label of the single, the B-side, a mid-tempo toe-tapper called Pain went without a writer’s credit.  “I wrote that in terms of me and my husband going through some things.  I wanted the songs that I did to have a meaning.  Like we were very close friends with Billy Davis – he really, really knew me – and whenever he wrote for me it was something that I could feel.”


  Like Mitty stated above, her national tours were after I’m Your Part Time Love.  “There were three tours yearly of the continental United States.  We played the Chitlin’ Circuit as well as the Gulf Course.  Each tour lasted 40 days, with 30 of those days performing in nightclubs and stadiums.”

  “Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles and Barbara Lynn were my very good friends, in addition to Chuck Jackson, Otis Redding, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, William Bell and others.  Out of all them, Gladys was my greatest friend.  We had so much in common with our husbands and we could discuss and cry together.  I kept her encourages and she mentioned this in her biography” (“Between Each Line of Pain and Glory” in 1997, on pages 163-4).

  “I toured with all these people along with the Drifters, the Coasters, Stevie Wonder, Edwin Starr, Percy Sledge, Fontella Bass, Sugar Pie DeSanto and many more... practically everyone in my era.  We did tours each year together.  The tours didn’t affect my family life, because my husband Jimmy was with me and my son ElJess was in Birmingham with my mother and father.  We would pick him up on our way home.  Sometimes my brothers, Franchot and Gregory, would keep him in Chicago, while we were away.”

  “Jimmy is deceased now.  He was from Birmingham, Alabama.  We were sweethearts there first, but lost contact when he came to Chicago.  When I came to Chicago, we found our way back together and we were married in 1964.  My son ElJess was born before we married.  We were divorced in 1967 and remarried in 1970.  Enid is actually my goddaughter, but she has been around me and my family since she was nine years old, and she is now 52.  So, she merits being my daughter.  My baby Elisha, who is a fantastic singer, was born in 1971.  She sings with the gospel group, Ricky Dillard and New Generation, and does lead on all of their CDs.”


  The 6th release on Chess hit the jackpot and it evolved into Mitty’s signature song.  A dramatic and impressive downtempo song titled I Had a Talk with My Man (1907) was produced by Billy Davis, brilliantly arranged by Riley Hampton and released in the late summer of 1964, hitting # 41-Hot.  Those days Billboard didn’t publish R&B charts.  On the label of the single the song was credited to Leonard Caston and Roquel Davis, and that was the reason why they soon had to pull those records back.  “They had to change it, because Savoy was suing.  James Cleveland (1931-91) was on Savoy.  That was his song... although it really wasn’t.  The actual writer was Revered Lawrence Roberts, who is now deceased.  Reverend James Cleveland recorded the song with Lawrence’s choir from the First Baptist Church of Nutley, New Jersey, with Stephanie Mills as a little girl being the actual soloist.  On my single they tried to push that song through with Leonard and Billy, but they had to pull back all those records and change the label.” 

  One day on Chess’ premises Leonard Caston played James’ album with a track of I Had a Talk with My God on it, Billy Davis heard it there, got fascinated by the sound and turned it into a secular song by changing ‘God’ into ‘man’ and other lyrics in the song also. 

  Leonard Caston found later fame with the Radiants and Caston & Majors.  Reverend Lawrence C. Roberts was a record producer for Savoy Records those days and also the pastor for the First Baptist Church of Nutley, NJ. 

  James Cleveland first cut I Had a Talk with God with the Cleveland Singers in May 1963 and Savoy released it on the album The Sun Will Shine after a While (Savoy 14085).  But already prior to that the same song appeared on a hit album, which was released earlier and entitled Peace Be Still (Savoy 14076).  On the cover it read ‘James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir’, which actually was the choir from Lawrence Roberts’ church in New Jersey.  Those days a 16-year-old Billy Preston was working with James.  He played organ and also sang lead on I Had a Talk.  This live recording took place in September 1963.

  Mitty: “I worked with James Cleveland.  It was a little bit of friction there first, because of the change from ‘God’ to ‘man’ on my record.  I told him that this hasn’t anything to do with me.  Finally he did a workshop once in Chicago.  I went in and he called me up to sing, so we got kind of close after that.”   

  On the B-side of I Had a Talk with My Man there was a mid-tempo, swinging jazzy number called Free Girl (in the Morning), which Mitty co-wrote.  “Me and my husband had just broken up, so that’s where you get ‘free girl in the morning’.”


  For the follow-up they chose another James Cleveland song, No Cross, No Crown, which they renamed No Faith, No Love (1918) and which Chess again credited first to Billy Davis and Leonard Caston.  “Because I Had a Talk with My Man did so well, they were listening, I guess, to every album James ever made trying to find the next one, and No Faith, No Love and That’ll be good enough for me (in ’67) came up.”

  In terms of Riley Hampton’s arrangement and Mitty’s interpretation this song is quite close to the preceding hit.  In early 1965 the single reached # 29-r&b and # 91-hot.  The beat-ballad on the flip named Together melodically bears a remote resemblance to Sam Cooke’s Bring It on Home to Me. James Cleveland had recorded his No Cross, No Crown again with the Angelic Choir in May 1964 for the album, I Stood on the Banks of Jordan (Savoy 14096).


  Mitty’s sole album on Chess, Shades of a Genius, was released in 1965 and it took many months to complete.  “I don’t know why, because they did not have to do anything but put it together.  All the songs on there had been released already.  It was called Shades of a Genius, because Ray Charles was the genius.”

  Produced by Roquel Davis and engineered by Ron Malo, this 12-tracker concentrated on Ray Charles’ music.  “That was Leonard Chess’ idea.  He wanted to put some of that blues in there, like Ray sings.  I liked them, so it wasn’t hard for me to sing them.  We did six of them, but only four were released at the time.”  One of the unreleased ones was I Can’t Stop Loving You.

  The four that ended on the album were Hallelujah (I Love Him so), Drown in My Own Tears, Ain’t That Love and Come Back Baby.  The last two were tested as the next single (1934) in 1965, but they got lost in the shuffle.  “With Ray we were close together on big tours.  He was real funny.  He used to say ‘I see you, you look fine’ and ‘you’re my eyes’ and stuff like that.  He was a true genius.”

  Another completely new song on the album was an emotive and powerful soul ballad called Would You Have Listened, written by Teddy Powell.  “Teddy wrote that for me.”

  The album didn’t chart either, and - after the raycharlesian Ain’t That Love/Come Back Baby single - Chess released the follow-up in September 1965, Billy Davis’ song named For My Man (1942), which again was like a musical sequence to I Had a Talk with My Man – “back to that again” – and it was flipped with Carl Smith’s and Raynard Miner’s funky stomper, Help Me.


  Mitty’s fourth and last charted record was Sharing You, which in the spring of 1966 climbed up to # 10-r&b and # 97-hot.  Produced by Billy Davis, this Ronald Saunders’ mellow soul ballad – powerfully interpreted by Mitty – was actually a cover tune.  “Carl Henderson had done it down in Florida (on Renfro) and they heard it at Chess. Chess called them and said ‘put it on the plane’, because those days you had to fly it here.  The next day they called me to come.  The band actually already knew it, they had charts, but I had to sing it off the paper.  I didn’t even know the words.  They covered it so quickly that when I was on my way home, I heard it on the radio, because Chess owned WVON at the time and they had their own person playing there.  They got it right out, and Sharing you was the only one they ever pushed.  The rest of them, I just did it on my own.”

  Phil Wright came up with an enjoyable arrangement for the song.  “They just put music together so beautifully that you didn’t mind singing it.  Somebody here in Porretta mentioned how we lose the horns now because of synthesizers and everything and how we all wish that we could always have the horns, because they add so much.  That’s what I find missing in the music today, and it was so good here at Porretta to have the horns there.  When I began to sing Amazing Grace and they fell in there, I wanted to pass out.  It was so beautiful.”

  Oliver Sain’s slow and impassioned soul ballad, Walk Away, was on the flip side.  “I hated to leave Oliver.  He was just a genius.  Everybody that came through there was just geniuses.  With Walk Away he was trying to stay in that churchy vein, too.”  Ann Peebles covered the song three years later for Hi Records.


  Sharing You, especially with proper promotion, increased Mitty’s popularity and the song became another show-stopper in her shows.  But as Mitty herself portrays in her life-story DVD, From Man to God (more about that in the second part of our feature), in the 60s it was quite common to compensate the hard work by resorting to different substances.  “I smoked marijuana and drank, when I was on the road, but never before a performance.  I never wanted it to be said that I had to have substances to perform, because my mother always said that I could sing before I could talk and that was a gift given to me by God.  So I needed nothing to assist me in my performances.  I would do both at home whenever I came in from touring, but it was never a problem for me where I had to go for help.  I have never gone back to any of the substances since 1972.  My husband Jimmy never did marijuana as much as I did.  His thing was alcohol.  Finally he did stop drinking, but it was too late.  He didn’t survive lung cancer.”

  In the same Sharing You / Walk Away session in 1966 they also cut Mitty’s next single, My Party (1964).  Like Help Me, it was written by Carl Smith and Raynard Miner (plus Billy Davis) and it was a mid-tempo mover with a sad undertone and strong vocal delivery from Mitty.  It was a topical and catchy song, but again for some reason they chose to increase tempo right after a hit ballad.  “That had a cha-cha beat, and people were doing cha-cha those days, too.  That song also had to with the war that was going on.”

  They put on the B-side Cash McCall’s pounding, big-voiced mid-pacer called I’m Satisfied, and the one canned song from that session was called What About Tomorrow.


  Mitty co-wrote with Leonard Caston a laid-back, mid-tempo number, which just keeps on growing towards the end, and named it (Lookin’ out the Window) Watching and Waiting (1987).  The arrangers on this track were Charles Stepney and Gene Barge.  “Gene was a part of the horn section in the band at Chess.”  Like Only Yesterday on the flip starts like a slow blues song, but at the end Mitty takes it to church.  (Thank You Love and Maybe He’s the One were the rejected ones this time).

  A big-voiced, mid-tempo, bluesy swayer named You’re the Only One (2015) was composed by Lloyd Webber and Leonard Caston, and it was backed with an average stomper called Do It with Confidence.  (Heck of a Man went unissued).  Both singles flopped, as well as the two final ones for Chess in 1967 and ‘68, although quality-wise it’s difficult to understand their lack of success.

  Git Out (2035) was a funky and brassy stormer - written by Cash McCall and Milton Bland, produced by Milton and arranged by Monk Higgins.  For the flip side they found another slow and intense gospel song from James Cleveland - That Will Be Good enough for Me - which James had recorded with the Cleveland Singers on the Heaven Is Good enough album on Savoy 14103 in 1964.  “In certain sections Git Out was the A-side.  In certain places, like in the south, it was That’ll Be Good enough for Me.  Chess was trying to keep me in that vein after I Had a Talk... and No Faith, No Love were so successful.”  (The leftovers from this session were Fair Weather Friend and The Kind of Man He Is).


  As their next move Chess sent Mitty down south, to Muscle Shoals... where incidentally, among others, Etta James, Laura Lee and Irma Thomas also had visited.  “They sent us to Muscle Shoals to try to get that Memphis sound, the Stax sound, because at that time their artists were more popular than anybody.  Rick Hall reminded me a lot about Billy Davis in the way he put the songs together and the patience he had with the singers.  Billy was gone now, and that’s why they sent us down there with Monk Higgins.  Everybody went down there, but this was the beginning of my end, so to speak.”

  With Rick Hall, Mitty cut altogether six songs, but only one single was released in 1968.  Eddie Floyd’s and Al Bell’s pleading ballad Everybody Makes a Mistake Sometime deserved to be a hit for Mitty, but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be.  This horn-heavy version has a monologue in the middle, and the song was earlier cut by Roy Arlington on Safice in 1965 and Otis Redding on Volt a year later.  The B-side was a bit faster re-recording of Mitty’s very first single, Gotta Get away from It All.  (those four unissued ones were You’re Living a Lie, Take Me Just As I Am, I’m Missing You and Too Soon to Know).

  Between 1961 and ’68 Mitty had fifteen singles and one album released on Chess.  “They could have done more for the artists, and we could have made it bigger, even though all of us had a song or a couple of songs that really did do well.  It could have been better, if they had just put the money behind us that they put behind Etta.  I know I could have been a bigger artist... all of us could have been – Fontella, Sugar Pie, Laura, Jackie...”

  In the second part of the Mitty Collier Story we’ll cover her Peachtree recordings with William Bell, the big change in her life and her four albums and two DVDs that have been released since the late sixties.

(Interview conducted in Porretta Terme on July 21, 2013).

© Heikki Suosalo


SINGLES – all on Chess

(label # / titles / Billboard # r&b / hot / year)

1791) I Got To Get Away From It All / I’ve Got Love (1961)

1814) Don’t Let Her Take My Baby / I Dedicate My Life To You (1962)

1856) Miss Loneliness / My Babe (1963)

1871) I’m Your Part Time Love (# 20 / - ) / Don’t You Forget It

1889) Let Them Talk / Pain (1964)

1907) I Had A Talk With My Man ( - / # 41) / Free Girl (In The Morning)

1918) No Faith, No Love (# 29 / # 91) / Together

1934) Ain’t That Love / Come Back Baby (1965)

1942) For My Man / Help Me

1953) Sharing You (# 10 / # 97) / Walk Away (1966)

1964) My Party / I’m Satisfied

1987) (Lookin’ Out The Window) Watching And Waiting / Like Only Yesterday

2015) You’re The Only One / Do It With Confidence (1967)

2035) Git Out / That’ll Be Good Enough For Me

2050) Everybody Makes A Mistake Sometime / Gotta Get Away From It All (1968)


(title / label # / Billboard placing & chart run – r&b / hot / year)

SHADES OF A GENIUS (Chess 1492) 1965

Come Back Baby / I Had A Talk With My Man Last Night / Would You Have Listened / I Gotta Get Away From It All / My Babe / Hallelujah (I Love Him So) // Drown In My Own Tears / No Faith, No Love / Together / Let Them Talk / Little Miss Loneliness / Ain’t That Love



First and foremost Pastor Mitty Collier, also Graziano Uliani (the Porretta Soul Festival), David Cole, Juhani Ritvanen, Tony Rounce, Dave Hoekstra, Bob Marovich, Pete Hoppula, Bosko Asanovich;

Sources, books – Robert Pruter: Chicago Soul, Bob McCrath: The R&B Indies and Soul Discography and Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles and Top R&B Singles.

© Heikki Suosalo

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