The great Etta James is best-known for the incredible string of recordings that she made for the legendary Chess Records label throughout the 1960s. Songs like "At Last," "All I Could Do Is Cry," and "I'd Rather Go Blind," among many others, helped keep Chess afloat during those years when African-American audiences had begun turning away from blues music towards more pop-oriented R&B, soul and, later, funk music.
Before Chess, though, James had spent a number of years under the guiding hand of bandleader Johnny Otis, recording a number of songs for the Bihari Brothers' L.A. based label Modern Records. Discovered by Otis as a teenager, James was one-third of the Los Angeles doo-wop group the Peaches. Otis secured the singer a deal with Modern and, as they say, the rest is history. This period of James' career is recapped by The Essential Modern Records Collection, a 15-song compilation of James' 1950s singles.
Etta James' The Essential Modern Records Collection
Working with Otis, James' first single for Modern was "The Wallflower (A.K.A. Roll With Me Henry)," an "answer song" to the Hank Ballard & the Midnighters' hit "Work With Me Annie." It wasn't unusual in R&B, rock 'n' roll and, later, country music throughout the 1950s and '60s for an artist to "answer" another artist's song with a tune loosely-based (though sometimes not so much) on the original hit song. Originally titled "Roll With Me Henry" when released in 1955, the duet between James and singer/songwriter Richard Berry was renamed after radio programmers complained that the title was too racy.
By any name, "The Wallflower" is an auspicious debut, the 16-year-old James dominating on the vocals with an explosive and often teasing performance. The song sat near the top of the Billboard R&B chart for four weeks and would later become a pop hit for Georgia Gibbs the same year as "Dance With Me Henry." James' "Hey! Henry," also from 1955, is more of the same, another trip back to the dancefloor and a swinging little number recorded, perhaps, in answer to Ballard's response to "The Wallflower" titled "Henry's Got Flat Feet (Can't Dance No More)." Thankfully, the cycle ended here, James' "Hey! Henry!" an overlooked rocker featuring the era's pendulum rhythms, a cool horn section, and James' assured vocal delivery.
Good Rockin' Daddy
James' enjoyed her second top ten chart hit with "Good Rockin' Daddy," a Richard Berry composition that paired a slow groove with chirpy, foot-tappin' vocals. The power and electricity that James would imbue upon her later Chess sides can be heard here, as she hits the song out of the park. That single's B-Side, "Crazy Feeling," is an old-fashioned torch song with a smoldering vocal turn, a slow-walking beat, and production nicked straight from the Platters' chart-topping sound. The bold and brassy "W-O-M-A-N," an answer to Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man," is indicative of James' more raucous future recordings, the song a bluesy, boastful tune with James' blustery vocals and stuttering rhythms.
While it should have been a hit, "W-O-M-A-N" failed to chart, a tragedy that plagued the rest of James' tenure with Modern Records. James wouldn't hit the charts again until 1960 after signing with Chess Records, which is not to say that the abundance of material that James recorded for Modern between 1955 and '58 was undeserving of success. Richard Berry's "Number One" is an incredible mid-tempo blues-burner with sparse instrumentation that relies instead on James' gale-force vocals. Recorded in New Orleans, "Tough Lover" featured Lee Allen on sax for an unabashed rocker that reminds of Little Richard's later hits while "Come What May" is a jazzy Nat King Cole-styled pop gem with James' transcendent vocals and a lushly-orchestrated, shuffling rhythm to move the song along.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Although Etta James' Modern recordings are often overshadowed by the wealth of her later Chess Records hits, as shown by The Essential Modern Records Collection, James was already a confident and powerful rhythm and blues singer even as a young teenager. My complaint with the compilation, however, is that it drops several B-sides from James' Modern singles, including solid songs like "Hold Me, Squeeze Me" and "Be Mine." Since this disc runs less than 30 minutes, why not include all of James' Modern single releases? James appears to have released only 20 songs on the label, roughly an hour of music, so why not include it all and make this a truly "essential" collection?
As it is, if you have James' The Best of the Modern Years CD, released in 2005 and now out of print, or the excellent Ace Records import The Complete Modern & Kent Recordings (which includes alternate takes and studio outtakes), you won't need this one. However, if you're looking for an introduction to the great Etta James' early years, though, and don't have those other compilations, you'll find The Essential Modern Records Collection to be a revelation, James' performances bristling with youthful energy and enthusiasm, foreshadowing the greatness to come. (Virgin Records, released April 5, 2011)
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