I acquired my first Etta James album by winning one of the prizes at a church raffle when I was 15 years old. What can I say, it was a cool church. I also remember not being terribly thrilled at the time, however, as I was a fan of The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Four Seasons, and Bob Dylan, who were all about as musically different from Etta James as you can get. Then I played the album, and I was hooked. Four-plus decades later I remain a fan and have continued to buy her music.
Etta James began her career as a teenager during the 1950s when she formed the doo-wop group, The Peaches. In late 1954 at the age of 15 she recorded the lead vocal to what would become one of her most famous songs, “The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry),” which topped the Billboard Rhythm & Blues Chart for four weeks. She soon embarked upon a solo career which continues today.
Her newest album is titled The Essential Modern Records Collection. The title is a little misleading as the material has nothing to do with her present-day career or music. Rather, it refers to her time with Modern Records, which was a rhythm & blues label and the home of such stars as Joe Houston and John Lee Hooker.
The album gathers 15 of her songs released as singles, 1955-1957. As such, the album has resurrected the earliest material of her career. While the songs have been released a number of times, here they are presented in sequence and provide a nice look at the beginning of her career and development of her sound and style. My only complaint is a lack of notes. A little background to each of the tracks, musicians employed, and recording history would have been appreciated.
While she has gone on to explore blues and jazz, her first three releases, “Dance With Me Henry,” “Hey Henry,” and “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” find her as a gritty R&B singer. When you add in such tracks as “Shortnin’ Bread Rock,” “Tough Lover,” “The Pick-Up,” “Come What May,” and “I’m A Fool,” you not only have an excellent overview of her career, but a look into the development of American rhythm & blues.
Etta James is now one of America’s living musical treasures. She has been inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (1993) and The Blues Hall Of Fame (2001). The Essential Modern Records Collection is a fine introduction to her career, and does indeed remain an essential listen for her fans or for anyone interested in the early rhythm & blues scene.