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Pop: The heart and soul of somebody else's gal

Jocelyn Brown has the voice of a diva and the career of a backing singer. But now she is reclaiming her star role. By Geoff Brown
The name is not exactly household nor the face overly familiar outside music business circles, but the voice will thunder around your sub-conscious like the echo of a well-remembered song. Strong tone, expressive timbre, an R&B rasp, a soul scream, an exultant shout from church, a honeyed pop aside and a breathy jazz inflection. All in the space of a 12-inch dance groove. In a different era, Jocelyn Brown would have been recording soul hits in Muscle Shoals for Atlantic or in Memphis for Stax and giving Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight or her closest equivalent, Mavis Staples, a run for their Grammies. Instead, timing and the vagaries of her chosen profession have kept Brown on the back foot, not the good foot.

One of the most in-demand session singers for the best part of 25 years, Brown's voice as "featured" singer has lifted many a mundane dance record or bland pop cut and propelled it into the charts. But now the phenomenon is epidemic, with records "featuring" and "presents", or "with guests" as diverse as rappers Ol' Dirty Bastard and Missy Elliott, and hard rock guitarists Jimmy Page and Randy Bachman. The picture formed is of a swarm of largely uninteresting knob-twiddlers attempting to jolly- up their efforts with a genuinely talented voice or hip name. It is the new "remix".

Brown, however, is reclaiming some of the performances. The Hits, "a collage of things I've done", cherry-picks chart hits and dancefloor favourites she's cut with Incognito, Inner Life, Musique, the NU Yorican Project, Jamestown, Da Mob, and producers Todd Terry and Louie Vega, among others. Heard together, one can't help but wonder why a producer didn't take her aside and make her the project, rather than an artificial studio band. The Hits also rather neatly chimes with the surge of disco movies this autumn.

Of course, the suffix "featuring" after a band's name is not exclusive to current dance music. In an earlier heyday - the Thirties and Forties - records bearing the imprimaturs "featuring Ella Fitzgerald" (The Chick Webb Orchestra) and "featuring Billie Holiday" (the Count Basie and Artie Shaw bands) were among the best of their day, providing the orchestras with big sales and the singers with launch pads for solo careers. The difference is that Jocelyn Brown in the Eighties and Nineties did not exactly have lift-off.

The North Carolina-born and New York-raised singer came very close to her biggest solo hit, 1984's "Somebody Else's Guy", when her gospel-rooted vocal added a gritty soul urgency to the muscly dance moves of producers Fred McFarlane and Allen George. It helped too, that the song, co-written with her sister, Annette, had the steely ring of truth. "I went by this place called the Pink Teacup and this guy was sitting there that I was hanging out with and he put an engagement ring on the girl's finger. He wasn't my man, we was just seeing each other, but it was just very offensive. I came home and after I had bawled myself out on the pillow, I went to the piano. That day I really needed to go there and play it out 'cos I was in so much pain." Then her sister turned up, crying a river. She'd just found out her boyfriend was married. They convened at the piano to, as Frasier might say, "work through their pain".

The result was a dancefloor, turntable and chart hit that she never successfully got the chance to follow up, thanks to a flurry of litigation over the song's provenance. "There was a very ugly, controversial problem that also put my sister and I in a strange position with each other because of people manipulating and not being truthful. It came to the point that `Somebody Else's Guy' was so tied up in court and so many actions that it became a monster to me."

The solo work culminated in the aforesaid hit and a subsequent Warner Bros album, One From The Heart, with Bronx DJ-turned-producer, Jellybean Benitez. "It was terrible, even though there were great songs on the album. The heart and soul of the album was totally destroyed for me, by my relationship with Jellybean and my relationship with Warners. It was almost as if I was just something convenient, which was really unfair and downheartening to an artist going through a lot of struggles. So when that happens you close the doors. You don't sign no more. You don't get involved. And that's why I became a featured artist singing with other people."

So she turned her back on "the big mishap", started doing jingles and "stayed in the background world". Not that she had been a stranger to background work, having sung on many soul and rock records, including John Lennon's Imagine in 1971. "There were four girls. He did the first cut (of `Imagine') and used our background vocals but when they did the final cut, they took the background vocals out. But we have one 12-inch of us singing `Imagine' with him, and on that album there's four other songs where we're doing background work."

As a regular on the New York session scene, she was hauled in to do the disco records of the Seventies. She was in the studio act Change, with Luther Vandross, and on many Patrick Adams disco records, notably Musique's "Keep On Jumpin" - "at that particular time club titles were being put out like glasses of milk" (not much changed there then) - and Inner Life's remake of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", which she has re-cut again for The Hits.

The life of a featured artist is not at all bad, she says - not too much pressure and points on top of the fee. One which did pay back was Incognito's "Always There", which she recorded shortly after settling in England in 1991, leaving a daughter, Kasawna, now 27, and her two grandchildren in New Jersey. "I do miss them. I miss my grandchildren and my daughter and my whole family (seven brothers, two sisters). It's the first time my sisters have been here with me (11-year-old nephew and 13-year-old niece in tow) in all these years and I feel at peace. Like I'm not incomplete anymore."

Incognito wasn't her only "featured artist" hit that first year in the UK. A friend asked her to do a background as a favour for a demo. "I said `yeah, no hassle'. I walked in the studio and there they were, my gym trainers! I was going to a gym near Putney Bridge four times a week and they were wearing me out. They didn't do nothing but shape things up," she says, glancing down at her comfortable proportions. "I said, `What y'all doin' here?'. They said, `We're Right Said Fred'." So she sang on "Don't Talk, Just Kiss", a Top 5 UK hit in 1991/2. Not, perhaps, ranking alongside the George Benson, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen or Teddy Pendergrass sides on her CV, but a gig for all that.

And so the work rolled in. Jamestown's "She's Got Soul" - "That was an original beer commercial for Sol beer" - and "The Gospel Truth", one of two tracks she recorded for the soundtrack of Disney's Hercules. "I was the bonus after the show. For all the premieres, there was at least 20 of 'em all over Europe, I came out and gave a rendition of the song, `The Hero'. So that was my gig. It was brilliant."

`The Hits' is released on 21 September on INCredible Records