Ward Brown had an advantage over most music-loving kids living in Chicago. He grew up as a child living next to the legendary blues guitarist Muddy Waters, and the young Ward soaked up all he could. By his teen years he was playing drums professionally and as a young adult was backing artists such as Carl Carlton, Alexander O'Neal and Deniece Williams.
Ward teamed up with keyboardist/vocalist Sherrod Brown to form the band King Kat, which played around Chicago for several years before the two formed the auspiciously named duo Brown's Bag, Defenders of Soul. Their mission: to play authentic soul music with real instruments that captured the classic soul sounds of the 70s.
In late 2005, Brown's Bag released its debut album Labor of Love, relying on the Browns for all vocals as well as keyboards, guitar, bass synthesizer and drums, but with occasional help from friends Leroy Hurst, Richard Nott, Lou Thomas and Edward Smith on horns and guitar. Throughout the disc, Ward Brown's deep, muscular lead vocals are reminiscent of the Dramatics' L. J. Reynolds, and he adds a welcome grittiness to the album's best cuts. His vocals are countered by Sherrod's sweet falsetto, at times so fragile it sounds like it might break.
Oddly, Labor of Love opens with its two weakest cuts, the funky "Holla" and "Things You Say." After that it gets glorious pretty quickly, with a basketful of fantastic cuts, one after another. The ballads "Love Never Comes Around" and "Fall In Love" recall the sweet sound of Philly Soul and are superb compositions that would not have been out of place on "quiet storm" radio 30 years ago. And "Open Letter," "No More Love" and the jazzier "Heaven" are melodic, slightly grittier numbers that would fit well in the Dramatics catalog.
The intention of Labor of Love is to capture the spirit of early 70s soul and it does so marvelously. While the purveyors of modern R&B and hip-hop can sample all the 70s grooves they want, it is rare to find the real thing, and Labor of Love is all that. Recommended.