A former Chess Records hitmaker finds her voice as a S. Side preacher
The More Like Christ Christian Fellowship Church, housed in a former coin laundry, sits along a forgotten stretch of 82nd Street next to Metra railroad tracks. A western light seeps through five windows, accented by vases of artificial flowers. In this house of God, the church’s pastor, Mitty Collier, knows all about deliverance.
In the early ’60s at Chess Records, she belonged to a stable of hit-making female artists, including Etta James, Fontella Bass and Sugar Pie DeSanto. Collier’s biggest hit, “I Had a Talk With My Man” (1964), made an impact on British soul singer Dusty Springfield, who later popularized the song.
Despite her success, Collier stopped singing secular music and turned her life over to Christ in 1972. She recounts her spiritual journey in her play, “The Mitty Collier Story: From Man to God,” which will be performed Saturday at the JLM Abundant Life Center, 2622 W. Jackson.
Now 71, Collier still has the deep, raspy, soul-drenched voice that made her a star. She preaches and sings every Sunday at her non-demoninational church. But nowadays she sings only gospel. Her latest album, “I Owe It All to the Word” (Dialtone), features the Rev. James Cleveland’s “I Had a Talk With God Last Night,” which inspired Collier’s secular hit.
“I open my messages with a [gospel] song and sometimes end with a song,” she said during an interview last week at her church office. “When I gave up the other side, I gave it up completely. The only time I do R&B is in the play.”
After moving to Chicago in 1959 from her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., it didn’t take Collier long to make her mark. For seven weeks straight, she won a talent show hosted by WVON disc jockey Al Benson at the Regal Theatre. Benson quickly told Chess producer and talent scout Ralph Bass (who also signed James Brown) about Collier. She joined Chess in 1960 and remained with the label until 1968. (Check out the compilation “Shades of Mitty Collier: The Chess Singles, 1961-68, a 24-track Kent Records import available at Chicago’s Dusty Groove.)
“I knew what Chess could do with songs, but they concentrated on Etta [James],” Collier said. “When I recorded ‘Sharing You’ [in 1966] at Chess, by the time I got in my car, it was on the radio. But they threw me and Sugar Pie, and [soul singer] Jackie Ross into the back. We were close and would help each other with the songs. Etta never did that. She was like the Queen Bee.”
Though she didn’t get star treatment at Chess, others like Dusty Springfield revered Collier. Before she died in 1999, Springfield told Collier that she almost didn’t have the nerve to touch “I Had a Talk With My Man,” because she thought so much of Collier’s version.
After leaving Chess, Collier moved to on soul singer’s William Bell’s Peachtree label in 1969. Then two years later, she experienced a life-changing crisis. She was on tour in mid-1971 with Jackie Wilson and Ben E. King when her voice gave out.
“When I got home I was like this,” and Collier began to whisper. The room fell silent. A male’s recorded voice from a wall clock said, “praise God,” signifying another hour forward in Collier’s journey.
She continued, “I went to three doctors before I learned I had a polyp on my vocal cords.” After the polyp was removed, Collier did not talk for six weeks. She communicated by writing notes. When she returned to the doctor, Collier could still not sing. And she rested again.
“I would just pray all day long,” she said as her glittery, heart-shaped earrings moved back and forth. “People thought I was tripping off because I did smoke reefer. I never went to the hard stuff. But the transition was not overnight. I prayed from October  to February . It’s hard for me to talk about, because it drains me. But in the midst of praying, I started singing [the traditional gospel tune] ‘He Looked Beyond My Faults.’ It came out real raspy at first, but by the time I finished it, I could hear my voice from here down to that railroad track,” she said, nodding in the direction of the Metra tracks down the block. “I knew I had to give my voice to the Lord. And I did.”
But hers was a slow train coming.
In 1989, Collier was ordained by the Rev. Tellas Jackson of the Harvey Memorial Community Church in Chicago. “Pastor Mitty,” as she is now called, also holds an honorary doctor of divinity degreee from Gospel Ministry Outreach Theological Institute in Houston.
After working as an editorial assistant at the University of Chicago for 15 years, starting in 1978, Collier opened her fellowship church in 2003 in a community center at 1818 E. 71st St.
The church moved to its present location in 2004. The congregation, which began with eight members, now is close to 200.
“Most of the parishoners are from Calumet City and Harvey,” she explained. “They come here for me. Now we got so much crime in the streets, people are shying away from church. I hear that from my pastor friends. People should be in church right now praying for anything — especially for their children.”
Though people still recall Collier from her Chess heyday, that’s all in the past for Pastor Mitty. “Even when I was asked to go to Tokyo for five nights of concerts of gospel, jazz and blues, I did exclusively gospel,” she said. “The people there were lined up around the venue for me to autograph these stacks of ’45s. That fascinated me. Me? I don’t own any of my ’45s and albums.
“I gave them all away to my brother.”
For more on Mitty Collier’s recording career and community outreach , visit blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra/