THE LIFE of any musician is filled with moments that could have sent her career down a completely different path. For Shirley Nanette, it was the recording of Never Coming Back in 1973.
The 66-year-old singer is now a well-established icon of the Portland jazz community, performing regular club gigs throughout the city. But back in the late '60s and early '70s, the goal was to stake her claim as the next big thing in soul and R&B, with a collection of loose, funky tunes that spoke of the power of love and equality.
Alas, it was not to be. Attempts to get the sessions released by one of the major labels of the day came to naught, and the 500 privately pressed albums that Nanette and her husband Al made left her with boxes of vinyl in her basement.
While she isn't hurting for work or recognition these days, Nanette is reclaiming at least a small part of her previous musical life with the help of Truth & Soul Records. The Brooklyn-based label reissued Never Coming Back last month, with lovers of rare groove and historians of '70s soul singing its praises at long last.
"I worked really hard on that album," Nanette says. "It's amazing to me that after 40 years, all of a sudden, there's this huge interest in this LP."
The return of Never Coming Back actually involves the other part of the US hipster-city triumvirate, Austin, Texas, and one of its longtime residents, David Haffner. The owner of the Friends of Sound record store and licensing company Magnetic Recordings stumbled upon a copy of the album while crate digging in Fort Worth.
"I found it in the 'gospel' section," Haffner says. "I looked on the back and recognized a couple of the names on it, like Billy Larkin. I figured out quickly it wasn't really a gospel record, and after I gave it a listen, I was pretty blown away." Haffner found kindred spirits in the folks at Truth & Soul, who agreed to fund the reissue.
Even for its time, Never Coming Back feels rough around the edges—likely due to the fact that the recording session at Vancouver, Washington's Ripcord Studio was so short.
"We had one day," Nanette says. "One day! It didn't turn out too bad, though. But if we'd have had at least a week, it would have been so polished, it would have been incredible."
What the songs lack in sonic depth, they make up for in power. The Meters-style workout of "All of Your Life" and the smoothly horn-inflected "Sometimes" are spirited, joyous tunes, driven by guitarist Hank Swarn's supple playing and the occasional flash of the horn section (including future Grammy winner Thara Memory). Of course, the strength of the album is Nanette. She's not a showy vocalist, but uses the clean, placid tones of her instrument expertly, mixing the jazzy inflections of Dinah Washington with the soulfulness of Gladys Knight.
Emboldened by her work, Nanette and her husband took a trip to California in 1973 to shop the album around and hopefully get a nationwide release. But, as she remembers, "It wasn't what anyone wanted to hear at the time. Jazz was really, really popular, so more pop and middle-of-the-road stuff was harder to get out there."
As dismaying as it was, Nanette didn't let it slow her down. She kept singing in various soul bands through the '70s before drifting toward the jazz scene in Portland, where she has been a fixture ever since. It may not have made her a household name, but to talk with her, she never gives the impression that she has any regrets about twists or turns her life has taken. That even goes for the brain aneurysm that she suffered last year.
"I'm a walking, talking, singing miracle," Nanette says. "They found, they fixed, and so... here I am."