Lorraine Ellison is almost a perfect cult soul singer: she was blessed with a unique, powerful voice, she had two stone-cold classics to her name -- 1966's "Stay with Me" and "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," which was later popularized by Janis Joplin -- which is enough success to get her remembered by aficionados but not enough to make her a star. It's also enough to suggest that Ellison deserved to be a star, that she had the talent and the material that deserved a wider audience, but like a lot of artists with a cult following, she's a great talent that may be an acquired taste for most listeners. Rhino Handmade's exhaustive three-disc set Sister Love: The Warner Bros. Recordings -- released in a limited run of 5000 copies in 2006 -- certainly suggests as much. For Ellison devotees, this is pretty much the Holy Grail, since it represents the first time all of her prime material has been released on CD. It has her first three LPs -- the 1966 debut Introducing Miss Lorraine Ellison b/w Heart & Soul and 1969's Stay with Me, both produced by Jerry Ragovoy, and the Ted Templeton-produced 1974 album Lorraine Ellison -- plus various singles and sessions from the early '70s, a bunch of rarities and a whole disc of unreleased demos from 1972. Since the previous CD release of Ellison's work was a single-disc set from Ichiban/Soul Classics in 1995 -- at 23 tracks, it was generous, but it still left a lot of music behind -- this certainly fills the need that devoted Ellison fans have and in some ways exceeds their expectations, since it not only contains the original albums, it also has the outtakes -- the slow-burning "Haven't I Been Good to You," recorded in 1967; the loose, funky, gospel-inflected "Woman, Loose My Man" from 1970; the Al Kooper written and produced "Let Me Love You," a 1970 session which is paired with "Doin' Me Dirty," taken from the same sessions and originally released on the Ichiban disc; "Dear John," recorded at Muscle Shoals in 1970; a version of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" from 1971; and three outtakes from the Templeton album, "When You Count the Ones You Love," "Sister Love," "Sweet Years" -- plus the rarities that showed up on previous comps, plus the disc of stark piano-and-voice demos. Even though it's missing a few sides cut later in the '70s, for all intents and purposes Sister Love is a complete recorded works and it offers plenty for the hardcore to sink their teeth into, both in its sheer size -- three discs and 65 songs is a lot of music -- but also because it touches on plenty of different kinds of soul, such as the dramatic and passionate soul-pop of Ragovoy's 1969 productions, the jazzy readings of standards and pop tunes on her debut, the deep soul from Muscle Shoals, and the intimate originals that comprise the demos.
Given that range, it would seem that Ellison's work would not only satisfy her cult, but that its scope, as showcased on Sister Love, would also bring in new fans: the kind of listeners who are serious enough to dig through a three-disc set from a soul singer with only two charting hits. And certainly Sister Love will convert some of the curious, since it does illustrate that she was an artist with a broad range and specific gifts as a writer and a singer. But it also can reveal that Ellison's gifts are indeed quite specific, that her impressive, gospel-raised vocals can sometimes seem shrill, almost histrionic, that her songs are heartfelt and well-written yet not quite compelling, that no matter how passionate her singing -- and there is no question that she's committed on every cut here, throwing herself into her performances -- she sometimes doesn't seem to mesh with the deep grooves of the funk and soul of her '70s recordings. For all the soul she has, she doesn't have much grit, which is why her Ragovoy recordings work better; it's a better match of material, production and singer. But even there, the range can sometimes work against her -- when she does standards, it can seem like supper club, and she can't redeem "If I Had a Hammer" from pure schmaltz -- making her seem not adventurous, but inconsistent. Yet this is a matter of taste: for true believers, the sheer power of Ellison's performances, the intelligence in her writing and cover choices, and the uniqueness of her high, elegant voice blow away any possible inconsistencies in her songs or recordings. For them, Sister Love is undoubtedly essential since it truly showcases her range and accomplishments. But the completeness of the set cuts both ways: by offering everything Ellison did, it satisfies her cult, but all the music also articulates why Lorraine Ellison is a cult artist. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine