Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Etta James Sings - Etta James
Etta James Sings
United-Superior Records US 7712
Here's my belated tribute to Etta James who died earlier this year. I think most people feel that James recorded her best material for Chess Records, but I also like her early singles for Modern Records in the 1950s, which is the focus of this album. I presume it was issued to capitalize on the resurgence of interest in her following the success of her hit 1967 single "Tell Mama." This album is actually a re-issue of her 1963 album on Crown Records called "Etta James," you can still see the matrix number for that album on the trail-off vinyl of this record. I imagine many collectors would prefer the original issue, but I'm happy with this one. It has better cover art (the original has a cheesy looking painting) and it has sturdier cardboard construction. I hate those cheap, flimsy Crown sleeves. James' recordings for Modern were mostly straight forward 1950s-style rhythm and blues, with a steady propulsive beat and lots of honking sax. There are none of the big pop ballads or sensuous soul tunes she recorded for Chess that allowed her to show-off her vocal prowess. These songs are too tight and compact to allow her to stretch out as much as she did with Chess, but there is no denying that she delivers them with verve and power. The most famous song on here is "Dance With Me Henry" which is also known as "The Wallflower" and "Roll With Me Henry." It was a response to Hank Ballard's classic hit "Work With Me Annie" and the two tunes share the same melody. It was conceived by Johnny Otis who discovered James and who by a curious coincidence died just three days prior to her death back in January. This was her first hit in 1955. It is a fun song, pretty racy for the time. She sings it with Richard Berry and the Peaches, the girl group she was in when she signed with Modern. She followed it up with a sequel "Hey Henry" which is a jumping tune that she delivers with typical zest. Her only other big hit for Modern was "Good Rockin' Daddy" also from 1955. It is a classic sounding rock and roll number punctuated by some sassy sax work. It is easy to see why it was a hit and it is my favorite song on this album. This album also contains "Crazy Feeling" (listed as "Do Something Crazy") which was the flip side of "Good Rockin' Daddy." It is a doo-wop type song with a sultry sax solo. "W-O-M-A-N" is a bluesy torch song that she released as a single in 1955. It is similar enough to Leiber and Stoller's later song "I'm a Woman" that it makes me wonder if they might have been "inspired" by it. From 1956 comes the swinging "Number One" (listed as "My One and Only" on the album). "I Hope You're Satisfied" is a duet with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows. He was her boyfriend and you can tell there was some chemistry between them in this smouldering song. It was released on the Modern subsidiary Kent Records in 1959 under the name Betty & Dupree. "Strange Things Happening Every Day" was adapted from the classic recording by Sister Rosetta Tharpe from 1944 that is often cited as being one of the earliest rock and roll recordings. The lyrics have been changed from the original's spiritual theme to a song about a cheating lover, but the song retains its vibrant gospel feel and boasts a passionate vocal from James harkening back to her roots as a gospel singer in church. It is another one of my favorites on the album. "That's All" was the b-side of "W-O-M-A-N" but I prefer it to the a-side. It is another rocking number with a nice guitar solo and more smoking sax action. "I'm A Fool" (listed as "How Big A Fool") was the b-side to "Number One." It is a not particularly memorable generic rhythm and blues song but it does get me bopping. This album is pretty skimpy with just ten tracks, there would be plenty of room for some of the other Modern Records cuts she recorded if the owners of the record company weren't such cheapskates. There is a terrific CD compilation on Ace Records that has all of her tracks for Modern plus alternate takes, which is a lot better option for Etta James fans than this, but if all you want is a taste, this is pretty tasty. Recommended for people who prefer Ray Charles' music on Atlantic Records over his work for ABC-Paramount.