Born in Birmingham, Alabaman, Mitty Collier was an R&B crooner. She sang to screaming audiences at the Apollo and her song “I Had a Talk with My Man” was top 10 on Billboard’s R&B chart. She had a number of hit songs, but that all changed when she developed debilitating polyps on her vocal cord that temporarily halted her singing. When she recovered, Collier turned to gospel for good. Collier’s 1972 album, The Warning, is a gospel classic, and she is currently the Pastor at the More Like Christ Christian Fellowship Church in Chicago.
Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul Senior Producer, Alex Lewis, spoke with Mitty Collier on April 27, 2018. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Alex Lewis: What was your upbringing like in Birmingham, Alabama?
Mitty Collier: I am the seventh child of seven children. I had a wonderful father who worked in the steel mill there in Birmingham. My mom, she was just the stay-at-home mom. Sometimes she did labor, you know, for other people – the white people there. I think [my father] is the reason I love shoes so much because he used to buy me like two pairs of shoes practically every weekend.
In high school when I was singing, I had a teacher – my English teacher. Her husband had a band and they opened a nightclub there in Birmingham. So I began singing at the nightclub. I was singing R&B there in the club.
AL: Did singing start in the church for you?
MC: My mom said I was singing before I could talk and I didn’t understand that until I had my daughter and my daughter was singing before she could talk. Everybody said that it came from my grandfather – my mother’s father – because they say he could really sing. He worked on the train and he would sing and people would just be fascinated with him. But I never knew him because he died before I was born. I really started just in the house singing around my mother and father’s friends and stuff and people I knew in the community because that’s all who was there. And then I went to First Baptist Church where my people went.
AL: Was there a moment when you’re like, I’m pretty good at this?
MC: I never thought about it. I just just sang. I didn’t even think I was that good, but everybody else did, you know. I said, “Well, I’m just a child and they just think that just because I’m a child,” you know. They say all children sing well.
AL: You ended up in Chicago. How did you feel when you first came to Chicago?
MC: The only reason I came was because my brother and uncle lived [in Chicago] and I came to visit them for the summer, you know, just getting away.
[I]t was at Miles College that I met my French teacher. And so I came to Chicago to visit my brother and my French teacher came to Chicago all the time to visit his aunt. He came every year. So when he came the year that I was here. He started looking for talent shows in Chicago for me to be on. He found the largest one that we had in Chicago, which was the Al Benson talent show which took place at the Regal Theater. I did win first place in the talent show and there at the talent show, Chess [Records] had a talent scout who came in and that’s when they offered me a recording contract. I actually was too young to sign the recording contract, so my mom had to come to Chicago to sign the contract for me.
AL: You win the talent shows and you’re kind of in Chicago for the rest of your life?
MC: Well, I did go back home. The talent show was in the summer and I went back home to go back to school and then it was planned for October to open at the Regal. So I was just coming back at the Regal to just open that show and that’s when my mom came with me and that’s when I was offered the recording contract after the show. That’s when I stayed.
AL: Did you drop out of school?
MC: Yeah, I did.
AL: Did you know you wanted to become a recording artist?
MC: No, I never thought about it. I sang in that club and I made the club. [I]t was like I was a star then because everybody came to the club to hear me sing. Every weekend. I mean they came from all over Birmingham and there was really just packed in and so I knew then that I could sing and I could entertain because they enjoyed me, but it’s still never entered my mind about being a recording artist. I never even thought about it even when I came [to Chicago] and was on the talent show and won the talent show, they said one of their prizes was to be record. You know I didn’t even think about that too much.
AL: Did you tour?
MC: I actually didn’t start touring until I did “You Don’t Need No Part-time Love.” There were two tours usually a year. We [would] go away from home from 30 to 40 days, doing one night the whole time across the country. That was exciting. We’d be on this big bus and we’d have fun with everybody. My best friend out on the road at that time was Gladys Knight and her brother. And then Patti Labelle, we were together quite a bit when I first started. They weren’t all just from one [record] company. They were from different companies.
AL: I have to ask about this. Tell me the story behind “I Had a Talk with My Man.”
MC: There was a young man at the studio [and] he played beautifully. And he played for a church. He came and asked me to help him because he wanted to teach “I Had a Talk with God” to his choir. I didn’t know the song but when he started playing I just started singing. So the producer then and also manager was Billy Davis and he worked at Chess and so he came through the studio. We were in the small studio and he said, “What in the world is that?” And we didn’t know it but he went in the studio and he recorded us, you know, rehearsing that song. And so a couple days later, I got a call to get to the studio because we had a new song. They had changed the words to “I had a talk with my man,” but kept basically the same melody and everything.
AL: How did you feel about that at the time?
MC: It was okay, you know, I wasn’t in the church then at all. I was singing R&B so it didn’t bother me. After we got “I Had a Talk with My Man” – I think they bought every album that Reverend Cleveland ever made searching for other songs on there for me to sing. “No Faith, No Love” that I did came from Reverend Cleveland’s “No Cost, No Clown.”
AL: Reverend James Cleveland was an influence for these songs. So were you channeling gospel when you sang these songs?
MC: No, there is such a small measure between blues and gospel. I just have a gospel flavor to my voice because I was raised in the church. I know when we used to travel the “highways” all of us had had top ten records. But when we were on the bus, somebody would hear the gospel song and everybody on that bus knew it, you know.
AL: “I Had a Talk with My Man” comes out and it’s big hit. What was it like finding out your songs were really connecting with people?
MC: I remember when I first went to the Apollo in New York and I was doing “I Had Talk with My Man” and it was so – I mean it was just phenomenal. [M]y name was way down on the marquee – could barely see it when I went in there because it was like Jackie Wilson, you know, and all of these big people and my name was so little you can’t see it. Day two it had moved up. You could barely just hear yourself singing because they were just screaming and I could barely get off the stage. I’ve been places [where people say], “I got pregnant on your song,” you know, something like that.
AL: Was there a moment that you decided that you had enough in the secular world?
MC: I didn’t decide that I had enough. When I was on the last tour that I went on, my voice tones began to drop and it was a struggle for me to be able to sing those 30 days. During that time I stopped [partying] because it was hard for me to sing. And I would have to rest my voice and while everybody else was partying I would be in my hotel room waiting for the next show or I’d be on the bus. I wouldn’t be talking that much because I knew that my voice just wasn’t good. And it was very hard for me to keep up those 30 days, but I made it through. By the time I got home, I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t sing at all and I was in a whisper. So I immediately went to Chicago ENT hospital and let them look at my throat and I had a polyps. They said it was like big as an egg on my vocal cord and it wasn’t no big thing to them. They said that they could remove it with a laser and if I rest my voice, I would be able to sing again. They did laser surgery and I came home and I rested my voice like they said. I went back and [the doctor] had looked at my throat and it was good. But nothing came out. And they could not understand why nothing came out because there was nothing wrong down there. And so they were puzzled and said, “Go and rest another week.” Nothing changed.
So I’m just around the house and kind of moping around a bit and everything and wondering what is wrong. One day, I was just sitting [at home] and I could hear this voice saying, “Mitty, sing.” I can’t sing, you know. “Just sing. Mitty, sing.” And I started trying to sing and my voice came out. It came out kind of raspy at first and I just start singing, “Amazing grace shall always be my song of praise.” By the time I got to the end of the verse you could hear my voice three blocks away. It was just so phenomenal of how God had restored. I know he did, you know. I was so happy. I was just dancing around the house.
I went to the telephone and I called my manager. I say, “I got my voice back. Get on working everything ready. Get stuff lined up.” He said, “Alright.” I got off the phone and I could hear that same voice that says same said wait: “I gave you that voice to use for me.” I couldn’t actually hear this voice. Just in my spirit saying that to me. I didn’t know what was going on.
AL: Why do you think God wanted you to change your life?
MC: Because I believe he wanted to use me the way that he’s doing now. That’s the reason why he changes in anybody because he wants to work with them. Anytime you’re doing a ministry, it’s for people and that’s what I’ve been doing. Even with the preaching even though I don’t have a great big congregation. And I believe it mainly is because I really live what I preach and people don’t want to hear that, you know. They just want a come to church and be entertained or whatever it is.
One Sunday, I got to the church and usually when the preacher preaches I’m always behind the preacher. “All right preach,” you know, and stuff. That Sunday I was so quiet. So quiet until people started watching me thinking maybe something was wrong with me, but I was quiet because I knew something was getting ready to happen and I didn’t know what it was. [W]hen [the reverend] was praying I opened my eyes and looked and I actually saw the Lord and he was saying, “Go.” Just like that. “Go.” I could hear him saying, “Go and preach my word.” I knew then that it was time for me to preach, but I didn’t do it that particular day. I was just shaking.
I’m so nervous about what am I going to do. I needed to talk to somebody. I had a friend – he was pastor of church here in Chicago and like a brother to me – and I called him and asked him that I come see him. I went to his house and I was telling him what happened to me and I said, “I keep hearing the Lord say, ‘Go and preach’ and I don’t want to preach.” He looked at me and said, “God don’t need you. What’s wrong with you? If he told you to do that, that’s what you should do.”
After I left his house, I went to a motel by myself up the street and I stayed in that room by myself where I was away from everything. I got my Bible and I begin to read and I begin to just pray and read and pray and I stayed there for three days and when I came out I had peace because I knew what God wanted me to do. Then I was ordained in 1989. In 2003, that’s when the Lord – my mom passed – and that’s when the Lord gave me the church.
AL: How does it feel when you’re singing now to the congregation? Does it feel different than back in the day?
MC: It’s still the same thing, reaching people, you know. When I was singing the blues I was reaching people singing about what people are going through, seeing what I was going through. That’s why the songs could could affect you, you know, those kind of songs. So you’re trying to reach people, trying to get them to feel down in their soul. Now, you’re trying to reach the Spirit. So it’s the same thing. Different songs, different messages in the song that you’re trying to reach them, but same thing. I just do what I do because that’s what God has given me to do. I don’t like to just say, “Well I’m a singer.” I really tried to sing before I preach to get me where I need to be before I get to the people to preach to them. So I think that it’s the same thing – reaching people. Trying to help people to understand where they are in their lives and to change it.
Of course you weren’t trying to change with the blues because you were just really singing about what people are going through. Whereas you’re trying to reach people to bring them to the Lord to get them to change their way of life if they are doing things wrong.
This interview was produced for WXPN’S GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL. GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.