In 1969, the experimental guitarist Sonny Sharrock released what might be his masterpiece, Black Woman, a progressive free jazz album about the nuances of Black womanhood in the Civil Rights era. The music was an audacious blend that felt out of whack yet still in control. Featuring Dave Burrell on piano; Milford Graves on drums; Norris Jones and Richard Pierce on bass; Teddy Daniel on trumpet; and Gary Sharrock on bells, it was a high-wire act teetering on the verge of being too much. Yet you couldn’t deny the virtuosity, even if it landed harshly on the ear. “That took a lot of nerve,” Sharrock once told music journalist Ben Ratliff of the album. “That was a hell of a band, that band, but I wasn't always in control of it. That's what you have to do as a bandleader.”
And while Sonny Sharrock’s name appeared first on the album jacket, the star of Black Woman was Linda Sharrock, Sonny’s wife at the time (they divorced in 1978). Without her voice, a shrill, haunting soprano of agony and outrage, Black Woman wouldn’t have its soul. Her yelps, screams and operatic runs, set against Sonny’s breakneck chords, properly conveyed the spirit of living while Black in America.
Take the title track, for instance: Linda simmers at first; her hums are warm and inviting, as if enticing the listener to kneel at the bandstand. Yet she and the group quickly ascend; by the 2:30 mark, she ramps up to a full-throated wail, as the music twists and turns to the point of near-collapse. The instrumental doesn’t quite resemble jazz. It feels like psych-rock, or hardcore punk before the genre was invented. Linda’s performance recalled Abbey Lincoln’s feature on “Triptych,” a fierce three-part suite on Max Roach’s We Insist! LP from 1960. But where Lincoln’s howl felt like an overall push for equal rights, Linda sounded exasperated, like she had been fighting for everyone but no one was fighting for her. She was expressing how Black women felt then and still feel today.
Born Linda Chambers in Philadelphia in 1947, she came up in New York City’s avant-garde scene in the 1960s, working with the likes of experimental vocalist Jeanne Lee, and saxophonists Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. Sharrock stood out because critics couldn’t typify her sound. It was jarring and ambitious, bold yet charming, driven by strong emotions that couldn’t be articulated. As a result, Sharrock’s music was deemed “other” and therefore not marketable. By the early ‘70s, listeners had moved on from experimental jazz. But she pressed on, releasing music that was still just as challenging as before. It all began on Black Woman, a daring 30-minute LP.
Elsewhere on the album, Linda’s tone shifted from rage and rebellion, to something more lithe and acrobatic. On “Peanut,” her voice hovers in the back above the mix; her wails feel ghostly and specter-like. Unlike the title track, where I hear Linda’s voice more prominently, she sounds more aligned with the band here. Her voice is more agile, dancing alongside the percussion and bass without overtaking it. In similar fashion, “Bialero” — a French arrangement composed by Sonny Sharrock himself — is a graceful duet between Linda and Sonny, where the music undulates to give Linda and Sonny equal billing. It leads to the equally grand finale, “Portrait of Linda In Three Colors, All Black,” a masterful collage of stampeding drums and trumpet wails that bolster Linda’s caterwaul. Perhaps on purpose, her voice is mixed louder without effects. You hear the splintering pain in her delivery.
In revisiting Black Woman, I’m reminded of something Donald Glover once said when asked about the creative approach of his 2016 album, Awaken, My Love. He remembered listening to his dad’s old records — albums by the Isley Brothers or Funkadelic — and “not understanding the feeling I was feeling.” He told Billboard: “I remember hearing a Funkadelic scream and being like, ‘Wow, that’s sexual and it’s scary.’ Not having a name for that, though; just having a feeling.” That’s how I feel listening to Black Woman. On the surface, it can be quite intimidating, with all the screaming and stomping drums and frenetic guitar riffs. But it’s not until you start researching history that you learn to appreciate it. You have to put yourself in Linda’s shoes as a young Black woman in the ‘60s. You have to understand what it must have been like for Sonny and the band as Black men. Black Woman offered a glimpse into the struggle, and Linda Sharrock was the centerpiece of an incredible record.